Mercy Place

For the week of February 29, 2020 / 4 Adar 5780

3D Illustration of the Ark of the Covenant

For illustration purposes only. Not intended to provide exact representation of the Ark.

Terumah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 5:26 – 6:13 (English: 5:12 – 6:13)
Originally posted the week of March 4, 2017 / 6 Adar 5777

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You shall put the mercy seat on the ark of the testimony in the Most Holy Place. (Shemot/Exodus 26:34)

As part of the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and its furnishings, God directed Moses to build a “kapporet,” an ornate cover to be placed on top of the “aron ha-b’rit” (English: the Ark of the Covenant). The aron ha-b’rit was an elegant box that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar with a portion of manna, and Aaron’s rod that had budded. It resided in the Mishkan’s inner sanctum called the “kodesh ha-k’dashim” (English: the Most Holy Place), and it represented the very presence of God within the community of Israel.

When the “Cohen Ha-Gadol” (English: the High Priest) entered the kodesh ha-k’dashim once a year at Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement), the kapporet was the focus of his attention, for he was to apply the blood of the festival’s special sacrifices before it and over it (see Vayikra/Leviticus 16:11-4). The purpose of this ritual was to provide purification for the inner sanctum from the people’s uncleanness, transgressions, and sins.

The kapporet was a lid made of pure gold overshadowed by the wings of golden “k’ruvim” (English: cherubim). The Scriptures tell us little about these creatures. We are introduced to them when Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden and God placed them to guard the tree of life. It is possible, therefore, that their being symbolically part of the kapporet was to remind Israel that the way to everlasting life remained blocked during the days of the Mishkan and its successor, the Temple.

Many English Bible versions translate kapporet as “mercy seat.” This goes back to one of the earliest English Bible translators, William Tyndale, whose 16th century translation became the core of the King James Bible and much of subsequent English translation tradition. It appears that Tyndale’s rendering of kapporet as mercy seat is based on Paul’s use of the Greek equivalent “hilastērion” in his letter to the Romans as he refers to the Messiah Yeshua, “whom God hath made a seat of mercy through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:26; Tyndale’s version). Hilastērion is the word for kapporet used by the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, that was common in Paul’s day. While hilastērion had a different usage in Greek outside the Bible, Paul must have had its biblical use in mind, a connection that Tyndale choose to make abundantly clear.

Regrettably, in my opinion, the translators of the King James Bible and many other later English translations chose not to preserve this connection. Instead most go with the pagan Greek meaning, “propitiation,” which is the idea of appeasing an angry god. Ironically, the King James and many other English translations that use “propitiation” in Romans retain Tyndale’s “mercy seat” in Exodus even though the reason for translating the kapporet as “mercy seat” is because Tyndale was drawing from Paul’s allusion in Romans to the place of God’s presence and mercy where cleansing occurs.

You may not be aware of the great controversy among scholars over the meaning of Paul’s use of hilastērion. This is part of a discussion about how Yeshua’s suffering and death provides forgiveness and acceptance to those who trust in him. But however it works, let us not miss the power of Paul’s allusion. Through Yeshua’s giving of his life, he has become our kapporet – the place of mercy. What was once hidden and inaccessible has become available to all. If we put our trust in him, God purifies us once and for all, making us fit to freely enter his presence.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Caricatures

For the week of February 22, 2020 / 27 Shevat 5780

Artistic-style image of Alan Gilman along with weekly message title, etc.

Mishpatim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1 – 24:18; 30:11-16
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/ 2 Kings 12:1-17 (English 1:21 – 2:16)

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You shall not spread a false report. (Shemot/Exodus 23:1)

Two years ago I commented on this same passage on what is still a relevant topic of “fake news” (http://torahbytes.org/78-18/). This week, I want to get personal. I don’t mean personal with you necessarily, but to look at how this directive affects people personally.

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) contains a substantial section that includes a great assortment of rules, covering various issues, including kidnapping, liability, loaning to the poor, and treatment of resident aliens and much more. There’s even a passage that speaks to abortion.

The short prohibition we are looking at is part of a passage that expands on one of the ten commandments, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Shemot/Exodus 20:16). This is often wrongly thought of as “Do not lie to anyone,” when actually it is directed towards more official legal-type situations as is this passage, which I now fully quote:

You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit (Shemot/Exodus 23:1-3).

I trust that the seriousness of this is obvious. God directs his people to not misrepresent the truth against someone in legal matters. Note that includes showing partiality to the poor. While we should extend mercy to the oppressed of society, in matters of justice, there is to be no favoritism shown toward anyone including the underdog. While specific to a legal setting, “You shall not spread a false report,” it likely extends beyond the courtroom, since what is essential in the legal environment certainly reflects a general principle of life.

It’s not as obvious in English as it is in Hebrew that the wording of “You shall not spread a false report” is similar to another of the ten commandments, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Shemot/Exodus 20:7). This is not just about forbidding the use of God’s name as a curse word; it applies to the invoking of God’s name inappropriately. This would include taking a vow in God’s name that you don’t intend to keep or claiming to deliver a message from God when you know you are making it up. Taking his name in vain, therefore, is the lessening of who God is by misrepresenting him. This is what spreading false reports does to other people. Misrepresentation of others lessons who they really are.

Truth matters to God. In order for us and others to live effective godly lives it is necessary to relate to the world in which we live as it is. Skewed versions of reality cause us and others to unnecessarily hurt one another and undermine the plans and purposes of God. We need therefore to take great care in how we caricature other people.

Caricatures in the popular sense are humorous, most often light-hearted, drawings of people, purposely exaggerating physical or personality traits to create a particular impression about them. But when we caricature them out of frustration, disappointment, or outright malice, we skew who they really are in the eyes of others. People are far more complicated than the caricatures we paint of them. To present them, their actions, and opinions inaccurately is to undermine reality and therefore to misrepresent God.

Gossip is not an innocent pastime. It is a highly destructive activity that God deplores and should be avoided at all costs. Instead, let us endeavor to paint realistic portraits of others.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Eagles’ Wings

For the week of February 15, 2020 / 20 Shevat 5780

Eagle soaring over barren mountains toward a rainbow

Yitro
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 18:1 – 20:23 (English: 18:1 – 20:26)
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5

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You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. (Shemot/Exodus 19:4)

This has to be one of the more beautiful metaphors in the entire Bible. Israel, oppressed from generations under Egyptian taskmasters, helpless to alleviate their plight, cry out to the God of their ancestors for deliverance. The years go by and things go from bad to worse. Then the day comes; God to the rescue! Despite all odds, the Master of the Universe swoops down seemingly out of nowhere and miraculously carries the nation on his back to freedom.

Beautiful metaphor indeed, but that’s not what happened. Miraculous, yes. However it was much more of a process and a difficult one at that. From Moses’ first being given the exodus mandate to getting support from the Hebrew elders to Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to the ten plagues, culminating in the death of Egypt’s firstborn and their departure. Not completely free of their oppressors, they are then pursued by the Egyptian army that drowned in the parting of the Red Sea, while Israel made it safely to the other side. While this finally disconnected the liberated slaves from Egypt for good, the difficult process continued as they were learning to trust God for his miraculous provision and care in an uninhabitable wilderness on their way to Mt. Sinai and the Promised Land.

What is this about eagles’ wings then? I could imagine scholars musing over how such an image is nothing more than a mythic version of the exodus put into God’s mouth centuries after the fact. I am very aware how after a period of time the sting of hardship fades from memory and we just remember the good parts – and then the good parts are remembered so much better than they actually were. The problem with this train of thought is that the painful details weren’t forgotten. They have been well-documented and preserved from then until now.

How then could such an expression as “I bore you on eagles’ wings” be appropriate? Perhaps we picture riding on eagles differently from the Israelites of old. They wouldn’t share our Hollywood-influenced view of such an experience. In my mind I see the film version of “Lord of the Rings,” where near the end of this epic, Gandalf rescues Frodo and Sam with gigantic eagles that scoop them up with their talons, carrying them to safety as they blissfully soar through the sky. The Israelites, on the other hand, likely have related to “eagles’ wings” differently. Whether they pictured normal-sized eagles which would not be accustomed to carrying such loads or gigantic ones that are more the stuff of nightmares than what we see in Lord of the Rings, the image evoked may not have been a nice one. Instead, it might have included the precarious nature of the process they had to endure.

A more likely possibility is that the eagles’ wing picture of God’s rescue reflects the outcome and purpose of the exodus, not the process. This metaphor evokes an image of God’s intense and personal activity in bringing the people to Mt. Sinai where he would reveal his will to them, constitute them as a nation, and send them on a mission to establish themselves in the Promised Land. While the process was difficult, the outcome was never in question. He did whatever it took to accomplish his will. While the process was never forgotten, the impossibility and success of the exodus makes being carried through the sky an apt image after all.

No wonder many years later the prophet Isaiah would recall such a picture to encourage his generation of Israelites that their divine rescue was coming: “but they who wait (meaning “hope”) for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:1). In this case the people themselves become eagle-like as the power of God fills them with his powerful presence. But remember eagle-like doesn’t automatically mean easy or simple. Yet, however difficult the process may be, God will get you to where you need to go.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Testing God

Beshalalach

Four people holding full-size angry and upset emoticons in front of their faces
For the week of February 8, 2020 / 13 Shevat 5780
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17-17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4 – 5:31

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And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Shemot/Exodus 17:7)

The Torah includes two similar, but very different, stories that feature the people complaining against Moses about their desperate circumstances, particularly due to the lack of water. The similarities between this version and the one found in chapter twenty of B’midbar/Numbers prompt some scholars to claim that they are the same event. I believe we are better off taking them at face value. Apart from the locations being clearly different in spite of the similarity of place names, there are considerable differences in the details. Before continuing, whenever discussing the people of Israel’s bad attitude in such circumstances, note that I am not pointing my finger at them as if I would have done any better. It’s when we see ourselves in the Bible’s characters that we are in a place to learn its lessons.

When we read the Bible, we might assume that we are being given a play-by-play of the incidences it reports. But stories, be they non-fiction or fiction are rarely, if at all, communicated that way. Even what we call “play-by-play” – a term often used for the describing of sporting events is selective. Announcers choose what to say based on their assessment of how best to communicate the main substance of what is occurring before them. If they are good at what they do, they create a meaningful and accurate, but not exhaustive, picture in the mind of their audience. In the reporting of any story there are more details omitted than provided. But that doesn’t undermine the truth of the story. In fact the more carefully chosen are its pieces and how intelligently crafted is the order in which they are presented, the greater the possibility of accurate representation and impact on the audience.

I explain all this because of the incident’s closing statement: “And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested God by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Shemot/Exodus 17:7). The name of the place was called in Hebrew “Masa u-M’rivah,” meaning “testing and quarrelling” for the obvious reason given in this statement. But notice how the testing of God is represented as: “Is the LORD among us or not?” This is in spite of the people not saying this. In fact, they don’t mention God at all. What we see them saying is first, demanding water from Moses, and then accusing him of bringing them out of Egypt to kill them and their children.

There is no direct mention of God by the people, but if we think this is simply a story of Moses having a hard day at work, we miss what’s really going on. On one hand I get the people’s perspective. It’s a lot easier to blame the leader you can see than the God behind it all that you can’t see. Yet, it didn’t matter how they couched their complaint; it was God who brought them there; so it was God they were testing.

I don’t think the Creator of the Universe has an issue with people being troubled over great hardship. Having no access to water is a most horrible situation. But they should have known better due to all the great wonders they had experienced up to this point.

And we should know better than to think that much of our grumbling isn’t also testing God. We cloud the issue when we focus on others. Is God sovereign over our lives or not? If God is God, then does he not retain the upper hand in whatever circumstances we find ourselves? To demand from people what only God can provide is to test the reality and love of God.

We often go to people for what we should be getting from God, because we have lost faith in him. God can handle our fears and doubts. Taking them out on others, not only does us and others no good, it will make things worse not better. But we can make things better by offering our desperate pleas to our Heavenly Father instead of taking out our frustration out on others.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Tefillin

For the week of February 1, 2020 / 6 Shevat 5780

Pair of tefillin (phylacteries)

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

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And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand the LORD has brought you out of Egypt. (Shemot/Exodus 13:9)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) contains two of the four references in the Torah to what has been taken to be the basis of tefillin. Tefillin are the pair of black boxes attached to leather straps that are worn during certain prayers. The verses are the one quoted above, Shemot/Exodus 13:9, as well as 16, D’varim/Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18. The boxes contain hand-written parchment scrolls of the passages within which these verses appear (Shemot/Exodus 13:1-10, 13:11-16; D’varim/Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:12-21).

Using tefillin has become a mark of strong adherence to Judaism. Its use is ancient. How ancient, we don’t know. You might be surprised to learn that the oldest recorded mention of tefillin is in the New Covenant Writings (the New Testament), Matthew chapter twenty-three, verse five, where Yeshua is quoted as saying, “they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” Not very complimentary, as the Messiah is critiquing the general showiness of the religious leadership of his day. The casual reader may miss, however, the full impact of Yeshua’s critique here. For the most part, his comments focus on how these people made their religious objects in such a way to draw attention to one’s self. The fringes (Hebrew: “tzitzit”; plural: “tsitsiyot”) are the tassels that God directed to be added to the hem of one’s garment; so designed as a reminder to keep his commandments (see Numbers 15:37-40; D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:12). The Greek word that Matthew uses for tzitsiyot is “kraspedon,” meaning “tassle” – pretty straightforward. The Greek word for tefillin here is far more loaded. Matthew uses “phylakteirion.” Most English translations don’t actually translate the word, but rather transliterate it instead by using “phylacteries.” Other translations use “prayer boxes” or “scripture boxes” to more clearly describe tefillin. But the problem with that is it may miss Yeshua’s point. The Greek phylakteirion means “amulet,” an object worn or used to provide protection from evil forces.

Yeshua may have been adding an extra layer of criticism to his tefillin reference by considering them and those using them as superstitious. Not only were they attempting to show off their piety, they were dabbling in the magic arts at the same time. The other possibility is that tefillin was already commonly regarded as an amulet and that Matthew used the best Greek word to represent tefillin as they knew it. This is discussed in the article: “The Origins of Tefillin.”

Either way, morphing God’s word into a magical object is what happens when we allow it (or should I say “force it”) to take on properties God never intended. One needn’t be a Bible scholar to see that the references used as a basis for tefillin are metaphorical. If the “sign on your hand” and a “memorial between your eyes” were meant to be taken literally, then we should also be stuffing our mouths with Bible verses in order to fulfill “that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth.”

The purpose of the metaphor “sign on your hand… and memorial between your eyes” was to encourage God’s people to always be ready to obey him and to keep his word in focus. The result would be that it would flow from our mouths. As God used his word to create the universe, so our mouths should be filled with his word in order to bring blessing into the world.

It’s a lot easier to create objects to attempt to manipulate the forces of life than to fill ourselves with God’s word as it was intended. I wonder how many amulets we utilize, thus deceiving ourselves into thinking we are godly when all we are doing is showing off or worse. We adopt all sorts of techniques and formulas thinking they’ll provide us with shortcuts to God and his power. Instead, let us embrace his word as he intended, allowing him to fill our lives to overflowing, always ready to hear and obey.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Sometimes It’s a Process

For the week of January 25, 2020 / 28 Tevet 5780

Businessman drawing flowcharts on chalkboard

Va-Era
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21
Originally posted the week of January 11, 2003 / 8 Shevat 5763 (revised)

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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)

Israel had been serving the Egyptians as slaves for many, many years. They suffered terribly under cruel taskmasters. Over one particular period (the time in which Moses was born), Pharaoh, king of Egypt, sought to decimate them through the murder of all male babies.

The people cried out to God. God heard them. He decided that the time to deliver them had come. And so he sent Moses to them, who, in spite of opposition from Pharaoh and lack of support from the elders of Israel, persevered in his calling. But it wasn’t Moses’ persistence that wrested the people from Egypt’s grasp; it was the hand of God. God pummeled Egypt with destructive plagues until Pharaoh begrudgingly let Israel go.

Every time I think on these things, I find myself wondering if God wanted to free his people, then why didn’t he simply miraculously transport them from Egypt to the Promised Land. After all, isn’t he the all-powerful God of the universe? If he could send plagues (and stop them at will), not to mention the other miracles Israel would experience later on, couldn’t he have utilized a quicker method?

I don’t know how you deal with difficult situations, but one of the things I do is wish they didn’t exist. I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, when I discussed the need to not be distracted by difficult and painful circumstances (see Don’t Get Distracted). Some problems to me are like nightmares that I wish I could wake up from. But I know that life doesn’t work that way.

The reality is that most problems don’t disappear through wishing or the snap of a finger. Most problems resolve over time through a process. This was so even when God was involved as he was in the deliverance of Israel from Egypt.

Accepting this will help us have the kind of faith needed in order to deal with life’s difficulties. If we think that God will always provide instant solutions to all our problems, then when things don’t happen as quickly as we expect, we might think that either God doesn’t care or is unable to help us.

This is not to say that God won’t or can’t fix our problems in an instant. Sometimes he does. But when he doesn’t, we need to keep looking to him to guide us through the process as he works things out step by step in his time.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Who Am I?

For the week of January 18, 2020 / 21 Tevet 5780

Man holding large paper with question marks on it in front of his faceShemot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13; 29:22-23

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“Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Shemot/Exodus 3:10-11)

For many people, coming to grips with our identity is life’s greatest challenge. It doesn’t help that we live in what is perhaps the most meaningless time in history. If the world is made of nothing more than energy and matter plus chance, then we are the products of mindless randomization. Any semblance of meaning must therefore be a fantasy concocted by our imaginations. Without meaning, the concept of identity has no basis.

In spite of this, we long for a sense of purpose. We yearn to connect with others and with the world. But without being grounded in meaning, we remain confused. This confusion is one of the causes of relational difficulties and family breakdown. We dump our closest relationships because they don’t satisfy us. They don’t satisfy us because we don’t know why we are on this earth. The more fragmented our communities become, the more our identity crisis grows.

Moses had an identity crisis. God appears to him and gives him a mission, a mission that he sought to pursue forty years before. It didn’t go well back then. Now it was time. But not as far as Moses was concerned: he tries to get out of it. Note the first words out of his mouth as he responds to God’s directive: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Shemot/Exodus 3:11). His issue was not with God – at least not on the surface – but with himself. Thinking he knew himself; this job was not for him.

Can you blame him? What a life he had up to this point! He lived in a day when the government sought to exterminate all the males of his people group. It’s nice that his parents tried to hang on to him as long as they could, but in the end, they put him in a basket in a river. Whether or not they hoped he’d be rescued is beside the point. But wasn’t he too young to be affected by this? Perhaps, yet he knew the story. But what choice did his parents have? Doesn’t matter, the people who were to protect him abandoned him. But wasn’t he miraculously saved by Pharaoh’s daughter? Moses’ mom even got paid to nurse him. Yes, both true, but adopted by the daughter of the evil emperor, who is out to destroy your entire people, while you retain a relationship with your birth mom who is functioning as a hireling? This would mess anyone up. The same with being raised among Egyptian royalty. Nice, but who wouldn’t feel guilty in palace luxury looking through their bedroom window at their people being abused as slaves?

There is every indication that Moses never forgot his Hebrew roots. He even sought to make a difference on their behalf but makes matters worse by killing an Egyptian in the process. Now Pharaoh, the head of his adopted family, wants him executed. So he becomes a fugitive, spending the next forty years among another foreign people, marrying one of them and raising a family in their midst.

No wonder Moses responds with “Who am I?” He is a nobody at best – an outcast and a criminal at worst. A person like this is chosen by the Master of the Universe to confront the planet’s superpower, demanding he release his vast workforce? In spite of God being God, he certainly has got the wrong guy – at least that’s what Moses thought.

And yet, in spite of Moses’ identity crisis and his attempt to resist God’s call, Moses gives in. We are not told what changed in his psyche to make him willing to confront Pharaoh. All we know is that he goes. Perhaps God’s responses to his objections were sufficient to bring about a change of heart and will. Or he surmised he didn’t have a choice in the matter. Something must have happened inside him, because not only does he accept the mission, he perseveres in it against overwhelming obstacles. Whatever changed his perspective, his life going forward proved God’s response to his “Who am I?” question to be true.  For the most part, whatever the circumstances, Moses believed God when he said, “I will be with you” (Shemot/Exodus 3:12).

Once God clarified his relationship to Moses, he was able to emerge from being an outcast in the wilderness to a place of leadership among his people.  Moses’ identity crisis, however, was not resolved simply by his hearing God’s clarification, but by believing God’s word to be true and living accordingly.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Don’t Get Distracted

For the week of January 11, 2020 / 14 Tevet 5780

Cable wire bridge in a green forest

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

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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. (Bereshit/Genesis 50:20)

Joseph’s consolation of his brothers after their father, Jacob, died is one of my favorite stories in the entire Bible. What Joseph says to his brothers here, is the kind of thing that Canadian professor and psychologist Jordan B. Peterson likes to say when he encounters the deep things of Scripture: we could think about this for a very long time! Somehow Joseph, in this brief statement, captures the complex interplay between human activity and the work of God. While, in no way turning a blind eye toward his brothers’ wrong, he acknowledges God’s upper hand.

Joseph’s brothers’ murderous jealousy could not undermine the good plan of God. It would be wrong to say that God made the brothers do it, however, as if he manipulates human affairs. Instead, God is able to accomplish his purposes through the free agency of human beings. We often like to ask the question, could he not have done it some other way? But as C.S. Lewis asserts through the lion Aslan in the Narnia Chronicles: you never know what would have happened. In other words, there’s no such thing as the hypothetical past; we always only know what actually happened. Joseph experienced what he experienced because of his brothers’ jealousy, their misguided choices. At the same time, God was at work to fulfill his purposes in the world.

I have always wondered at Joseph’s ability to cope with the tension between his brother’s actions and God’s grand plan. Clearly, he must have regarded God’s goodness as being a more dominant force in his life in spite of the hardship. But on the morning of the day I was preparing this message, I realized that there must be something about how Joseph viewed hardship itself that enabled him to endure what he did without bitterness. The situation he had been in was terrible. He was sold into slavery by his own brothers. His master’s wife framed him when he wouldn’t give in to her seduction. He spent many years after that in a dungeon from which he longed to be released. Even though that day finally came, and he was exalted to second-in-command under Pharaoh, most people would resent such a long period of unjust suffering.

I had previously thought that which made Joseph so great was his ability to keep his focus on God in spite of his circumstances – and I still think that. But, to keep focus on God necessitates not focusing on his suffering. I don’t know about you, but I tend to find that suffering or even less-intense discomfort distracts me from other things, God included. In fact, my discomfort can easily become an obsession. And if you are at all like me, you are aware that we cannot function well while obsessing over our problems.

I don’t like suffering. I prefer it didn’t exist. When I face hardship, I try to wish it away hoping it would vanish as if I were  waking up from a bad dream. But, as you know , life doesn’t work that way. You probably also know that the Bible has a very different take on suffering. The New Covenant letter of Ya’acov (Jacob) or more commonly known as James states:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (1:2-4).

It sounds very spiritual to think of Joseph as simply focusing on God in spite of difficulty. But what’s really difficult is “simply focusing on God” without changing our perspective on hardship itself. Until we believe that God is more powerful than hardship’s evil, suffering will control us, and we will become resentful. But once we grasp that God’s goodness is with us no matter how bad things get –more than that!– that God uses the terrible things in our lives to accomplish great good, both for us personally and for his grand purposes, then hardship will lose its power to distract us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Roots of Relational Difficulties

For the week of January 4, 2020 / 7 Tevet 5780

Father and son turned away from one another

Va-Yiggash
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28
Originally posted the week of January 3, 2009 / 7 Tevet 5769

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Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father. (Bereshit/Genesis 44:33-34)

The story of Joseph is one of the longer and more involved narratives in the Bible. It is a wonderful story of God’s providential hand at work in the midst of human jealousy and hatred. Every time I read it, one of the things I wonder about is what was Joseph really up to in how he dealt with his brothers during their two excursions to Egypt to buy food?

I don’t think that he was just giving them a hard time in order to get back at them for what they had done to him. If that was his motive, he could have done so much more to hurt them and would not have been so generous to them. Yet he did seem to be up to something or else he would have revealed himself to them on their first visit instead of putting them through all he did. It is reasonable to assume that he could have been struggling with his own feelings, but it looks as if he was waiting for something particular to happen before he revealed himself to them. That something may be the very thing that did happen.

Some background: Joseph and his eleven brothers were the offspring of Jacob and four women: Jacob’s wives Rachel and Leah and their respective servants Bilah and Zilpah. Joseph and Benjamin were Rachel’s two sons and had a special place in Jacob’s heart. We don’t need to get into why that was right now. Suffice it to say that Joseph and Benjamin were uniquely precious to Jacob – something of which the whole family was well aware.

Joseph’s brothers hated him because of their father’s preferential treatment of him. Joseph’s dreams which predicted his special position over his family further infuriated them. They hated Joseph so much that they sold him into slavery and deceived their father, telling him Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Their father was devastated by this news, which shouldn’t have been a surprise given his well-known feelings toward Joseph. But note that the brothers couldn’t care less about their father’s feelings. So much had their hatred blinded them.

We pick up the story many years later as Joseph is overseeing Egypt’s supplying food for the surrounding region during a severe and extended famine. His brothers are on their second excursion to Egypt in the hope of buying food. Joseph pretends to treat them with great suspicion, which results in Benjamin being taken to be Joseph’s servant. When their brother Judah offers himself in Benjamin’s place, Joseph breaks down and reveals himself to his brothers. But what was it about Judah’s offer that touched Joseph’s heart? It could have been Judah’s willingness to selflessly give himself for Benjamin’s sake, but his words indicate something else. What Judah said just before Joseph broke down was, “For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father.” (Bereshit / Genesis 44:34; ESV). In other words, Judah couldn’t bear what the news of Benjamin’s plight would do to his father. Could it be that what Joseph was looking for from his brothers was a change of heart – not so much toward himself – but toward their father? Could it be that the wrongs done to Joseph were actually a result of the more serious wrong of their lack of honor toward and care of their father?

Whatever issues the brothers had with Joseph, if they had loved their father the way they should, they would have controlled their feelings toward Joseph. Don’t get hung up on the fact that God used their evil actions toward Joseph for good. That God makes good come out of evil is no excuse for human misbehavior.

I don’t know if the brothers ever consciously understood that the abuse of Joseph was rooted in their disregard for their father. In the same way I wonder how much of our relational difficulties actually have to do with issues relating to our own fathers, but we don’t know it. God may want to use those difficulties to get us to deal with our relationships with our fathers. And in some cases getting our hearts right with our earthly fathers will also make a huge difference in our relationship to God.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Something Worth Fighting For

For the week of December 28, 2019 / 30 Kislev 5780

Photo background: Lake Tekapo and the Mount John's Observatory in New-Zealand

Mi-Kez / Rosh Hodesh / Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17; B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15; 7:42-53
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English 2:10 – 4:7); Isaiah 66:1-24; 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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My favorite movie clip for Hanukkah is from Lord of the Rings. Frodo, the unlikely hero of this popular epic is becoming more and more overwhelmed by the evil power of the ring he is seeking to destroy. At this point he is about to be captured or killed by one of the Dark Lord’s emissaries, thus bringing his quest to a most disastrous end. At the last moment Frodo’s loyal companion, Sam, rescues him. But Frodo, having temporarily lost his senses, is ready to stab his friend. Here is the ensuing dialogue (I highly suggest listening to the audio version, which includes the clip from the film):

Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.

Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo; the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was, when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding on to, Sam?

Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

“There is some good in the world…and it’s worth fighting for.” What a noble statement. But as I was getting ready to repost this for Hanukkah, I realized that there is an assumption behind Sam’s words. In order for there to be a good worth fighting for, there needs to be such a thing as good.

Good, as Sam understands it, is not about our side versus their side. Sam’s statement isn’t one of staying true to their team or their cause. The undergirding worldview of this humble character (in the mind of the author, of course) is there is such a thing as objective good and objective evil.

What is obvious in Lord of the Rings is quite fuzzy in our day. Many doubt that such objectivity exists while others who may suspect it does resist making any conclusive determinations about it. Good has become a matter of personal preference.

This version of good is actually an expression of the lure of the misguided influence that Tolkien exposes in his popular trilogy. Self, self-seeking, tribal loyalty for its own sake, blind commitment to ideology, groupthink, are all forms of the Shadow, the evil influence overtaking the world of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings and overtaking our world today.

Thankfully, there is objective good, because the good and only God created the universe. Good isn’t good simply because God says so, but rather because he designed it that way.

The Maccabees were not fighting for a personal cause. They, as many were doing in their day, could have easily gone along with the crowd, keeping with the times in which they lived, one of progress and tolerance. But the Maccabees knew what was at stake—God’s plan for Israel—that would eventually culminate with the restoration of the entire creation—was in jeopardy and they were not going to just let it happen. Instead they knew that, in spite of the increasing shadow overtaking Israel, they would resist; they would fight. With God’s help, they won the miraculous victory we commemorate this week.

What was true for the Maccabees is no less true for us today: there is good in the world and it’s worth fighting for!

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