Escape to Reality

For the week of January 23, 2021 / 10 Shevat 5781

Child pretending to be a "Gruffalo."

Bo
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

And when in time to come your son asks you, “What does this mean?” you shall say to him, “By a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” (Shemot/Exodus 13:14)

The other day, I happened upon a local school board promotional ad on a bus shelter that read, “Helping your child find out what they want to be. Even if it’s a Gruffalo.” If you don’t know what a Gruffalo is, as I didn’t, it is a character in the very popular (over 13 million copies sold), award-winning illustrated children’s book, entitled, “The Gruffalo” from the UK. It has been made into plays performed on both Broadway and London’s West End as well as a short, animated film nominated for an Academy Award and a BAFTA.

The main character of the book is not the Gruffalo, but a mouse, who, as he walks in the woods, is confronted by several animals. When, in turn, each animal expresses their desire to eat the mouse, the mouse escapes by fabricating an imaginary horrific beast – a Gruffalo – whose food preference happens to be whatever animal is threatening the mouse at the time. Surprisingly (to me at least), they believe him and run away in terror. Then to the mouse’s own surprise, he comes upon an actual Gruffalo, who is exactly as he portrayed him. The Gruffalo’s favorite food is actually mouse. But the mouse says he can prove that he himself is the scariest creature in the woods, if the Gruffalo would walk behind him as they visit the other creatures. The Gruffalo is so affected by the creatures’ frightened reactions, he becomes afraid of the mouse and runs away.

I think it’s wonderful when parents and educators strive to help children discover their true potential. I also think that encouraging children’s imaginations is key to this. Imagination enables human beings to envision what could be when the state of our lives appears otherwise. Perhaps the philosophy behind this promotion is based on the belief that human potential is based on placing no limits whatsoever upon a child’s imagination.

We have been hearing a version of this for a long time. It’s usually through movies that make assertions such as “You can be whatever you want to be as long as you put your mind to it.” There is some truth in this. God has given human beings the ability to overcome great obstacles. Working hard at something and not giving up often results in great accomplishments. But we can’t be anything we want. Just about anyone can learn how to sing, for example, but not everyone can achieve a performance standard.

The school board promotion takes this already extreme idea even further, however. At first glance, it sounds as if they are simply committed to do whatever it takes to help your child achieve their goals no matter what they may be. This might create enough positive feelings in a parent to prod them to register their child for kindergarten. I doubt that there are many parents thinking, “Finally an education system that’s going to help my child become a Gruffalo!” Still, this kind of ad could not be tolerated without a certain sentiment taking hold in our society. That sentiment is the physical world we live in, including our very bodies, is irrelevant to who we are as people. The material world; with its laws, properties, and other people; stifles our potential. Our imaginations enable us to break free from the material world’s control. Escaping from reality is the new salvation. We are mice deluding ourselves and others to control our lives with no repercussions, or so it seems.

In contrast we have another tale. A true story this time of a people oppressed by a world power. They had potential they had lost touch with. God sent Moses and Aaron to rekindle their collective imagination. It wasn’t easy to dream of a better life. Things quickly went from bad to worse at first, but eventually their oppression was miraculously lifted, and they began their journey to a new life.

In the not-so-distant past, the Gruffalo would have eaten the mouse. His manipulative concoction would have been his demise. Not so today. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that our illusions of self and life will set us free from the overbearing burdens of reality. We don’t want to accept that our delusions will eventually swallow us.

This is not to say that we, like the mouse or like the people of Israel, aren’t in trouble. We are. The world oppresses us, preventing us from being what we are meant to be. Yet, it won’t be fantasy that saves us. We cannot escape reality by becoming Gruffalos. Instead, with God’s help, like the people of Israel, we can escape to the reality of God’s will for our lives.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version 

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Big Problems; Big Solutions

For the week of January 16, 2021 / 3 Shevat 5781

Women standing before a wall with an opening in the shape of a gigantic key

Va-era
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:21

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Say therefore to the people of Israel, “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.” (Shemot/Exodus 6:6)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) contains seven of the ten disasters (usually called “plagues”) with which God struck the Egyptians due to Pharaoh’s refusal to allow the people of Israel to leave Egypt. This is the first time we read of God’s intervening on behalf of his people in such a tangible and powerful way. This could have all been avoided had Pharaoh responded favorably to God’s demand delivered by Moses and Aaron.

At the end of last week’s parsha, we find Moses praying to God following his first audience with Pharaoh. Before presenting to Pharaoh, Moses was well-received by the elders of Israel as he shared with them the details of his mission. Pharaoh, on the other hand, did not respond so favorably. Not only did he turn down Moses’ request, he instead made Israel’s already oppressive burden much more difficult. This resulted in Israel’s elders turning on Moses, blaming him for their increased suffering.

Think of how devastated Moses must have been. God allowed his expectations to rise astronomically. Having encountered God at the burning bush and equipped with signs to convince Israel’s leaders, it worked! His people were onboard. Everything was going according to plan, God’s plan, or so he thought. Then came his really big moment. It was time to confront the evil power. The result was disastrous.

It’s discouraging enough when we try something and it doesn’t work. It’s another thing when everything’s going well and then it falls apart. Perhaps it’s because by that time the personal investment is greater; much more to lose. The precipice is higher; a lot further to fall. Remember Moses didn’t want this job in the first place. So, the fact the initial stage was successful helped to alleviate his misgivings, until the situation he was called to resolve went from bad to worse.

Moses’ prayer is an expression of exasperation, if not outright despair: “O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all” (Shemot/Exodus 5:22-23). Some may be offended by such a prayer, telling God off for the worsening situation. But God isn’t offended. Far from it! It’s as if he was waiting for this moment as he tells Moses: “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.” (Shemot/Exodus 6:1). From God’s perspective Pharaoh has played into his hand. Not only will Israel be rescued from slavery, but the world will see a demonstration of God’s power on behalf of Israel like nothing anyone’s seen before.

I doubt Moses expected such an answer, but his prayer opened his heart to hear it. He was discouraged and upset like most people would have been. But unlike most people, he didn’t shut down or run away. He prayed. And God answered. Even though God got him into this mess, he didn’t give up on God. He may have given God a piece of his mind, but at least he kept communication open. This in turn allowed him to be where he needed to be, so he could receive instructions for the next step. The problem got bigger; God’s solution would be bigger still.

There are many challenging aspects to the current COVID crisis. But let’s remember, as far as God is concerned, the greater the problem, the greater the solution. I am convinced that there are great things in store for those who don’t give up and are willing to hear what God wants to say to us. This isn’t something some expert is going to figure out. It’s something that only God can give to hearts that are genuinely open to him.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Holy Curiosity

For the week of January 9, 2021 / 25 Tevet 5781

Man staring through magnifying glass looking shoked

Shemot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13; 29:22-23

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Shemot/Exodus 3:1-4)

Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush is one of the most crucial interchanges between God and human beings. It is here that God conscripts Moses for the mission of leading his people Israel out from oppressive bondage to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Under Moses’ leadership God would demonstrate his power to Israel, Egypt, and the world. Moses was also to be the channel through whom God’s Torah (his teaching, his direction) would be revealed.

There is one particular aspect to this encounter that is overlooked. In the Bible God engages people in a variety of ways. Most of the time, when we read that he speaks, there is no reference to the actual dynamics of the communication. Other times, we are told that it is through a dream or a vision. The burning bush is unique, not only in that it’s the only time God speaks through a plant, burning or otherwise, but also due to the part Moses played. Going about his normal daily activities as a shepherd, this unusual sight catches his eye. Moses decides to check it out. It is only when Moses gives his attention to it that God calls to him.

Moses’ curiosity drew him into this life-changing experience. He could have just as easily not noticed. How often are we so focused on ourselves and whatever we are going through at the time that extraordinary opportunities pass us by without our knowing it? Sometimes it’s not so much that we are distracted, it’s that we are oblivious. Life has ceased to arouse our interest. I say, “has ceased,” because curiosity is natural to most of us as children until for one reason or another, the wonder of the universe is lost to us. Perhaps curiosity got us into trouble. It may have resulted in injury or blame, leading us to conclude that it is better to live life with blinders on. Good thing Moses didn’t become like that.

Many years ago, I read the classic, “Confessions” by Augustine of Hippo, written about sixteen hundred years ago. At the time I was troubled by his depicting curiosity in negative terms as one of life’s great temptations. To him, curiosity was a craving after knowledge and experience for its own sake, but this presupposes a warped understanding of the world in which we live. Curiosity may kill the cat as the proverb says, but the craving that leads to trouble is not the curiosity itself, but sinful desires hijacking an essential God-given quality.

How many burning bushes are we missing because we are no longer curious? There is far more going on around us than we think. God is working to fulfill his purposes in the world. He longs for us to be part of that. But are we paying attention? Or are we so wrapped up in our current life situation, that we can’t even smell that’s something’s burning nearby?

As the current COVID crisis drags on into another calendar year, I am especially concerned. How many are hunkering down waiting for the oppression to pass? How many have put more faith into a vaccine than in God? And if we soon find ourselves in a post-COVID world, what then? Business as usual? Tending our sheep, so to speak, still not noticing that God is trying to get our attention?

The Messiah tasked us to pray, “May your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” a transformative process that God wants me and you to be part of. Exactly how, I can’t say. But aren’t you curious?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Unrestricted

For the week of January 2, 2021 / 18 Tevet 5781

Concept art depicted freedom via a broken chain and flying birds

Vayechi
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 47:28-50:26
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 2:1-12

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Bereshit/Genesis 50:19-21)

This week’s Torah portion couldn’t have come at a better time. This year the eighteenth of Tevet on the Jewish calendar coincides with the second of January. 2020 has been a difficult year. When COVID-19 restrictions became the norm in much of the world in early spring, we thought that we would see the light at the end of the tunnel by now, if not be on the other side of it. While many place their hope on the various vaccines, we still have a long way to go. Where I live, in the Canadian province of Ontario, we are currently in yet another four-week lockdown.

Many people have suffered as a result of COVID-19, whether due to the illness directly or due to the restrictions. Through it all, I have taken comfort in the Scriptures’ perspective that no matter how difficult life may be, God is with us. A practical element of that is how God’s freedom from all constraint is available to those who are in right relationship with him through Yeshua the Messiah.

In the New Covenant Writings (aka the New Testament), this is exemplified by Paul when near the end of his life, he writes, “Remember Yeshua the Messiah, who was raised from the dead, who was a descendant of David. This is the Good News I proclaim, and for which I am suffering to the point of being bound in chains — but the Word of God is not bound in chains!” (2 Timothy 2:8-9; Complete Jewish Bible). He understood that despite his being bound in chains in a dungeon, the message of the Messiah was nonetheless unrestricted. Little did he know that this and several others of his letters, written in similar highly restricted circumstances, would bless the nations for the next two thousand years!

His awareness of the unrestricted nature of God’s word due to the overcoming of death by the Messiah, empowered him to fulfill his calling even while the superpower of his day had complete control over his life.

I have no doubt that Paul must have been spurred on by Joseph’s own restrictive experience. Sold into slavery by his own brothers, and later framed by his master’s wife, he spent about ten years in prison. I never cease to be amazed by how Joseph was able to emerge from that horrible place and not harbor bitterness against his brothers. They themselves believed that he was only being nice to them for the sake of their father, fearing after his death, Joseph would finally get back at them. But that was not to be, as Joseph accepted that God used their evil intentions for a greater good. His grasp of this was more than intellectual or theological. His understanding of God’s being at work in the midst of the most difficult of circumstances liberated him from the control of his circumstances.

The examples of Paul and Joseph should provoke us to view the current crisis with the eyes of faith. Faith doesn’t blind us to reality, but rather illumines reality so that we can see what is actually going on. We need to allow God to show us how he wants to fulfill his will in and through us. To do so requires our being open to however he wants to use us. It may be very different from anything we have ever experienced before. We may discover that the only thing that is truly restricting us is ourselves.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The God Perspective

For the week of December 26, 2020 / 11 Tevet 5781

The Montreal skyline from atop Mount Royal

One of my favorite views: The Montreal skyline from atop Mount Royal

Vayigash
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence. (Bereshit/Genesis 45:3)

When I read the stories in the Bible, I try to put myself in the shoes, or should I say, “sandals,” of the various characters. I want to get the impact of the story from their perspective as much as possible. That’s a challenge for many reasons. There is a great deal of linguistic, cultural, historical, and religious layers to dig through. And then, many Bible readers already know the outcome of these stories. So, it is difficult to imagine what the characters were thinking and feeling in the moment. The characters don’t know how things are going to turn out. Moreover, even without knowing the end of the story, the reader may know more of what’s going on than the characters due to what in literature is called, “the God perspective.” It is thus named, because the reader is given information about the situation that the characters don’t have. We encounter this in suspense thrillers, for example, when a detective is investigating a murder, and we are taken (in the story, of course) to the murderer’s hideout to learn of his or her plans.

Much of the Bible is written from the God perspective. That shouldn’t surprise us as, unlike most other stories, God is the main character. Still, we get a sense of the suspense when we are given information that other key characters don’t have, as is the case of Joseph and his brothers.

Because we have the God perspective, we experience tension, knowing that they have no idea that the Egyptian leader they are standing before is their very own brother, whom they had sold into slavery. They didn’t know that the reality of their situation was very different from appearances. And learning the truth that the second most powerful man in Egypt – the man who held their lives in his hands – was their very own brother – was just the beginning. Once Joseph revealed himself to them, they would have a difficult journey of reconciliation ahead.

The God perspective in the Bible is not simply a literary device within its stories. The Bible equips us to have the God perspective on all of life. Scripture rightfully understood, provides all sorts of insights into how the world works whether it is the current pandemic, political intrigue, media bias, sex scandals, poverty, racism, and so on.

Due to the God perspective, we don’t need to live life blind. The worst kind of blindness is not knowing that we are blind. This is what Yeshua said to some arrogant religious leaders of his day: “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains” (John 9:41). The God perspective in the story of Joseph and his brothers, shows us how badly we can misjudge the situations in which we find ourselves. Actually, Joseph’s brothers’ blindness goes back about twenty years before, when their jealousy blinded them to the favor that was upon Joseph. God chose him to save them one day. They couldn’t see it then and they couldn’t see it later, until it was revealed to them.

I can relate to Joseph’s brothers. Growing up, hearing about the person called “Jesus,” I thought he was a Gentile god. He certainly didn’t look like a, not to mention the, Jewish Messiah to me. I had no idea that not only did he, like Joseph, hold my life in his hands and was prepared to rescue me from the oppressive darkness that controlled my life, but also, like Joseph, he was my brother, the true Messiah, whom my people had longed for for so long.

What a shock it was for me to learn that the New Testament is one of the most Jewish books ever written. Contrary to my people’s common perspective, it was not an anti-Semitic manual, but rather a Jewish love story through and through. The New Testament confirms God’s promises to our people as it documents the outworking of God’s commitment to Abraham that his descendants would be a blessing to the whole world (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:3; compare Galatians 3:8).

Like Joseph’s brothers the God perspective enabled me to see the truth of what life is really all about. It’s not that my accepting the God perspective means that I always see things perfectly now. Rather it enables me to be willing to allow God to change my perspective as needed again and again.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Waiting

For the week of December 19, 2020 / 4 Tevet 5781

Young boy sadly looking out a window on a very rainy day

Miketz
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 3:15 – 4:1
Originally posted the week of December 4, 2010 / 27 Kislev 5771
The following revised version taken from the book  “Torah Light: Insights from the Books of Moses” by Alan Gilman (more info here)

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile. (Bereshit/Genesis 41:1)

The Torah—like the whole Bible, in fact—is not wordy. Perhaps that is due to the scarcity and cost of writing materials in the days it was written. In any case, the lack of lengthy description in no way diminishes its literary depth. So much is communicated in surprisingly few words. An example of this is found in the short phrase at the beginning of our verse: “After two whole years.” The Hebrew reads: “Va-yehi miketz shenatayim yamim,” more literally translated as, “And it was at the end of two years of days.” This expression underscores for us how long a time it really was. Our translation tries to get this across with “two whole years,” but since readers of English tend to take statements of time simply as calendar references, this may come across as nothing more than “two years later, Pharaoh had a dream.” By contrast, “two years of days” draws us into the experience of Joseph, who after correctly interpreting the dreams of his influential fellow inmates had to endure over seven hundred more individual days in a horrible dungeon.

Throughout the Bible we have stories of people who had to endure great hardship for long periods of time. When we read these accounts, the waiting periods fly by in an instant unless we stop to think about it. In Joseph’s case in particular, the wording, at least in the original Hebrew, draws our attention to what the passing of time must have been like for Joseph after all he had gone through. First, he was hated by his own brothers, who sold him into slavery, and then he was unjustly incarcerated in an Egyptian dungeon. While God was with him and gave him favor in these difficult circumstances, we cannot underestimate how difficult it must all have been.

God doesn’t work according to our expectation of time. If we had our druthers, we would get everything instantly. We think that getting something faster is almost always better. But that is not God’s way. Living things develop over time. Good food takes time to grow. Good food takes time to prepare. It takes time to manufacture quality products. Good character takes a lifetime.

It is likely that before Joseph experienced his hardships he wasn’t ready for the kind of leadership to which God destined him. I don’t think a person like Joseph, who had no issue telling on his brothers and broadcasting dreams that foretold his place of prominence among them, would necessarily treat his family (or anyone else) with the type of kindness he ended up extending to them. It is possible that the time delay was designed to allow for deep work in Joseph’s heart to take place. I am aware that the Torah gives no comment as to the work of God in Joseph’s life, but we do know he endured abusive and oppressive circumstances for a long time and that something about those last two years in particular was especially long.

Whatever God was doing in Joseph’s heart and life, is this not what many of us go through? There is a proverb that reads, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Mishlei/Proverbs 13:12). Waiting for God-given expectations to be fulfilled can be sickening. Those of us who have experienced this may sometimes think we would be better off without the hopes than having to wait and be given glimpses of our hope’s fulfillment only to have to wait again. But God knows what he is doing. His timing is perfect. We will never know all that he is accomplishing during our periods of waiting, but we can be assured that if we truly love God, then he is doing everything necessary to accomplish his purposes in us and through us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Separated Land

For the week of December 12, 2020 / 26 Kislev 5781

A flag of Israel superimposed upon a map of Israel

Vayeshev & Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 37:1 – 40:23 & B’midbar/Numbers 7:18-29
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English 2:10 – 4:7)

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

And the LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem. (Zechariah 2:16 [English: 2:12])

This verse is part of this week’s special Haftarah reading (supplemental reading recited on Shabbat and other holy days). It was most likely chosen due to its inclusion of the prophet’s vision of the temple menorah (English: lampstand), which is a feature of the commemoration of the eight-day festival of Hanukkah, which begins this year, Thursday evening, December 10.

What caught my attention is the reference to “holy land,” a term I have never been very keen on. To me, holy land conjures up images of religious pilgrims visiting religious sites having religious experiences. It’s not that “religious” or “religion” are bad terms in themselves. It’s that for some, religion becomes an end in itself, a compartment of one’s life detached from the other aspects of life. As a result, it takes on a sense of being unreal.

The teachings of Scripture, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Covenant Writings (the New Testament), are anything but unreal. They are so down to earth, whether in their narrative context of real people in real-life situations or their reflections on those events. When it comes to their exposition of life principles, besides the fact that the vast majority of these emerge out of real life, they themselves are practical, down-to-earth directions on how to live a good and fruitful life.

It seems to me that when some people think of the “holy land,” it’s a version of Israel separated from reality. Despite awareness of historical events that have occurred there, the actual Israel morphs into a fabricated backdrop, framing pre-determined spiritual sentiments. When such people visit the “holy land,” the real sights and sounds of what is perhaps the most vibrant and dramatic region on earth, becomes nothing more than fodder to fuel preconceived notions of disconnected faith.

But the term “holy land” is found in the Bible, appearing in the verse I quoted at the beginning as well as in Tehillim/Psalms 78:54: “And [the LORD) brought them to his holy land, to the mountain which his right hand had won.”). It’s not that I have a problem with the term itself. It’s that, as I just mentioned, it has been used to separate the Israel of the Bible from the Israel of real life. Ironically, the Hebrew word for “holy,” kodesh, means “separate.” This separateness of the land is not a separation from reality unto a disconnected spirituality. Rather, it is a statement of claim on the part of the God of Israel that he has separated this geographical region unto his particular purposes.

These purposes are anything but disconnected from real life, no less the real-life Israel of today. Core to the biblical record is God’s commitment to Abraham and his natural descendants that our destiny would be deeply entwined with the holy land (I write “our,” since I am one of those descendants). To separate the land from the people to whom God gave it is to separate it from God and his Word. In order to appreciate the holy land as the separated land it really is, we must reconnect it to its holy purposes.

This is what Hanukkah is about as it commemorates a time when evil sought to redefine the purpose of the holy land. Assimilation forces almost succeeded in absorbing Israel into the pervading culture. Unity and sameness almost overcame the God-ordained uniqueness of Israel. It took the bravery and determination of the Maccabees to restore both land and people to their holy purpose, a purpose to illumine the world with God’s love and goodness.

The separate nature of the land reminds us what true holiness is all about. Those who belong to the God of Israel by faith in Israel’s Messiah have been separated unto him and his purposes within the context of all of life. We need to guard against a false separation unto an unreality of superficial spirituality. Instead, we need to discover (or re-discover) our real-life calling unto what God has separated us unto in these interesting times.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Life Is a Struggle

For the week of December 5, 2020 / 19 Kislev 5781

Turtle walking up stairs

Vayishlach
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43 (English: 32:3 – 36:43)
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Bereshit / Genesis 32:24-28)

The profound nature of the biblical stories is found not only in how remarkably they reflect common human experiences, but how they call us to become the kind of humans God designed us to be. It is this that prompts people like the controversial Canadian psychologist and professor Jordan B. Peterson to be passionate about the Bible even though he denies its historicity. The introduction to his biblical lecture series reads:

[The Bible] contains the most influential stories of mankind. Knowledge of those stories is essential to a deep understanding of Western culture, which is in turn vital to proper psychological health (as human beings are cultural animals) and societal stability. These stories are neither history, as we commonly conceive it, nor empirical science. Instead, they are investigations into the structure of Being itself and calls to action within that Being (https://www.jordanbpeterson.com/bible-series/).

Having listened to this series and other things he has said about the Bible, I don’t think Peterson has fully faced that the reason these stories are so profoundly relevant is because they really happened. These are not the projections of some highly developed human mind, creating archetypical stories for us to emulate. They are real-life encounters informed by the mind of God, designed to equip us for living effective godly lives (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Despite Peterson’s denial of the Bible’s historicity, he well captures how its stories portray the intricacies and challenges of life. Many Bible readers, while honoring its divine inspiration and being adamant that it reports actual events, tend to treat it superficially (for more on this, see my blog/podcast, “In Celebration of Biblical Narrative: A Biblical Critique of Jordan B. Peterson”).

The story of Jacob’s wrestling with God is a case in point. Its significance begins with informing the reader of how Jacob became the patriarch he was called to be. Up until this point he had striven for success, but now he strives with God and discovers true blessing. The God whom he considered as only that of his father and grandfather finally becomes his God.

Jacob’s experience is not for Jacob alone. While few, if any, have literally wrestled with God, untold numbers have been through the process of agonizing prayer. This story presents Jacob as our model, metaphorically of course: hold on until God blesses us even if it hurts.

There’s more. Jacob’s wrestling with God is a picture of life in general. From the moment of conception, we face all sorts of challenges which must be overcome in order to live, not to mention, live well. Some struggles are easier than others. Some are impossible. But each and every struggle is designed to craft us into what we are meant to be. It’s in this sense we can say that life itself is wrestling with God.

Life is a struggle. As we grow up, we learn, one way or another, how to navigate that struggle. We may confront it, roll with it, run away from it, or deny it. We may blame it on others or numb ourselves against it. Not every tactic is the wisest or most beneficial. So while Jacob’s wrestling match on one hand reflects the general struggles of life, on the other, the key to truly overcoming them isn’t found in human effort alone. We should also note that unlike Jacob’s brother Esau, who threw his birthright away to satisfy a need, dire as it seemed in the moment, Jacob held on to the God of Israel until he prevailed. Only then did he become the man he was called to be.

I don’t know what you are going through right now. Whatever it is, remember, life is a struggle. Don’t give up. But don’t simply endure either. Hold on to the God of Israel until he blesses you.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Anybody Home?

For the week of November 28, 2020 / 12 Kislev 5781

A man unlocking his front door, and entering his house

Vayetzei
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10-32:3 (English 28:10 – 32:2)
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13-14:10 (English 12:12 – 14:9)

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:16)

Have you ever entered your house and called, “Is anybody home?” If no one answered, what did you do next? Did you immediately conclude that you were alone, or did you call out again in the same manner? If you called again and still no answer, what then? What did it take before you were satisfied that no one else was there? I imagine most of us would call out a couple of times and that would be enough. But have you really thought this through? Maybe someone is home, but they have their earbuds in and cannot hear. Maybe they are in the shower. Or they are sleeping. They may even be hiding.

Of course, depending on the situation and the people involved, we are most often capable of accurately sizing up situations like these. On the other hand, I suspect that some of you have funny, embarrassing, or frightening stories of when you thought you were alone but were not. This goes to show that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to prove the non-existence of something. Even if you scoured your entire house, you could never be completely certain that there was no one else there. All you can do is make a tentative conclusion based on reasonable evidence.

In Jacob’s case, he had been in the presence of God and wasn’t aware of it. Only upon awakening from his inspired dream did he realize that God had been there. You might think that since his experience was within a dream, it didn’t indicate anything about God’s actual presence in that place. Didn’t Jacob know the difference between a dream and reality? Perhaps Jacob overstated the significance of the dream. Yet, his statement reflects his general lack of God-awareness.

Until this point, we have no record of prior interaction between Jacob and God. In fact, the only mention of God from Jacob’s lips before this, was when he took the Lord’s name in vain while attempting (and succeeding) to steal his brother’s blessing (see Bereshit/Genesis 27:20). So, whether or not Jacob was correct in his understanding of how God’s presence manifested in the place he named “Beit-el,” he had been generally unaware of God altogether. Despite this experience, it would be many years before he would fully reckon with God’s reality in the world. Until his dramatic and painful encounter with God upon his return to the Promised Land (see Bereshit/Genesis 32:22-32), Jacob would continue to live his life as if God didn’t exist.

Many people have dismissed God’s reality because they concluded the evidence speaks against his existence. It doesn’t seem like anyone’s home, so we must be alone. I understand that God’s invisibility lends itself to such a conclusion. But if there are personal invisible forces at work in the universe, then we wouldn’t be able to see them. Evidence for their existence would need to be of a non-material sort. The problem is we process information via our physical senses. Thankfully, God is aware of that. After all, he made us this way. And that’s why he has made himself known through means which we can perceive.

Dreams are not the only way that God makes himself known. He is reflected in the grandeur, variety, and precision of nature; he demonstrates his power through unusual events; he reaches out to us through human kindness and love; and he is most clear through his written Word, especially with regard to the coming of the Messiah. For those who are openhearted and are willing to seek him out, the evidence for God’s existence is readily available. There really is someone home. God is not hiding. It is we who are too quick to conclude otherwise.

This is not simply a message for the unbeliever, the atheist, the God denier. We may confidently claim to believe in the existence of God, yet still live our lives as if no one is home. Just because he doesn’t impress himself upon us in the ways we might prefer, he expects us to be far more aware of his presence than we are normally. God is with us as he was with Jacob. We shouldn’t have to wait until things get drastic before we take him seriously. On the contrary, the times we are in currently are far more drastic than we know. It’s time we accepted that the Lord is in this place and act accordingly.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

What’s Your Birthright Worth?

For the week of November 21, 2020 / 5 Kislev 5781

Marble relief of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob. From the facade of the Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy.

Marble relief of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob. From the facade of the Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy.

Toldot
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 25:19-28:9
Haftarah: Malachi 1:1 – 2:7

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Bereshit/Genesis 25:29-34)

For much of history it was common that the first-born male inherited the entire or main share of his father’s estate. To us today this seems completely unjust, but it appears that part of the reason for the custom was not a matter of unfair material advantage, but responsibility. It fell upon the first-born male to oversee the future of the family line. Do note, however, that despite the general practice of this custom in ancient Israelite society, in the Torah it was often the younger or youngest who carried on God’s mission in the world, be it Seth not Cain, Isaac not Ishmael, and—from this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion)—Jacob not Esau.

This custom, which has come to be known as “primogeniture,” provides the background for the powerful lesson we may learn from this story. However distasteful we may find primogeniture, Esau, as the older of the two twins, was set to inherit their father’s estate. This would have included the promises that God had given to their grandfather Abraham via their father Isaac. These promises were divine guaranties of national greatness, the land of Canaan, and being a powerful positive influence (blessing) among the nations of the world.

Before I continue, I can hear the more theologically minded saying, hold on. Esau would have never inherited these promises because God had determined otherwise. The issue of predeterminism is way bigger than what I can cover in a message like this. Regardless, let me be clear that thinking along those lines completely misses the point. We don’t have this story to fill us in on how God manipulates human affairs, which I don’t believe he does, by the way. What we do have here is a serious warning against giving in to a common human tendency that lurks inside each one of us.

By virtue of the customs of their day, both Esau and Jacob expected Esau to inherit his father’s estate. Yet, this story tells us that in a moment of great exhaustion, Esau was willing to give up his future inheritance for a bowl of stew. For the reader who understands what’s at stake, this may seem ridiculous. Perhaps Esau didn’t understand the value of what was rightfully his. In his mind, he may have been trading something of little to no value for a single meal. That’s doubtful, unless somehow Jacob was aware of God’s promises, while his brother was not. If that’s the case, then Esau’s devaluing of his birthright started well before this incident. He either knew what it meant and didn’t care, or he didn’t take the time to know. By the reader not knowing the contributing factors, the story covers all sorts of possibilities that may lead a person to make such a rash and foolish decision. Whatever Esau’s understanding was, this still is a tragic story. His nearsighted decision to satisfy a momentary physical desire cut himself off from God’s blessing.

One may think that Jacob was not much better, having used his brother’s weakness against him for personal gain. Moreover, there’s every reason to believe that Jacob didn’t fully understand the implications of the birthright. He would have some difficult lessons to learn moving forward. Yet, unlike his brother, he knew that his father’s estate was worth contending for.

God will deal with Jacob’s issues later, but for now, let’s not miss the opportunity to learn from Esau’s mistake. Esau represents the age we live in. Never before are we able to satisfy our desires in an instant as Esau did that day. And like Esau, we don’t know for what we are selling ourselves out in return. We get we want when we want it and that’s without the level of desperation Esau felt. Note that it’s not easy access to goods and services that’s our problem. It’s that we have been taught for some time now that satisfying self is a virtue. We love instant gratification so much, not only because it feels good in the moment, but because to deny our desires is one of today’s greatest sins. We are taught that to resist our desires is to diminish the very essence of who we are. If it’s stew we want, it’s stew we must have, whatever the cost. Replace “stew” for your desires.

Every human being has a birthright. Made in God’s image, we are to be conduits of his blessing to the world. Called to be royalty under the Heavenly King, we too cheaply sell off our divine inheritance in order to satisfy our desires in the moment. If we are going to live effective genuine lives in the way God designed us to, we need to grasp the value of our birthright and resist the temptation to sell it off.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail