Something To Celebrate

For the week of January 2, 2016 / 21 Tevet 5776

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

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Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.” (Shemot/Exodus 3:7-8)

Every year around this time a misguided notion about God is reinforced. Don’t get me wrong. I am not “bah humbug” about Christmas. As Jewish believers my wife and I avoid filling our home with the trappings of this season (Hanukkah notwithstanding), but we like the lights and celebrations, festive food, and some of the songs and other associated cultural expressions. I am also aware that for many, if not most, in the Western world at least, Christmas is highly commercialized, and devoid of any spiritual or biblical significance. The hijacking of this holiday by business and entertainment is certainly an issue to address, as well as an opportunity for those who know better to remind the population at large of the day’s true meaning.

What is most concerning is how that “true meaning” is expressed. As the day to mark the Messiah’s birth, regardless of what the actual timing of that is, the biblical power of the event has been drained away and replaced by sentimentality as if throwing a birthday party for the Messiah is a legitimate way to celebrate God’s subversive rescue plan.

I don’t how silent a night it was, but the birth of the Messiah was nothing less than a death knell to mark the defeat of evil. Merry gentlemen may eventually rest, but not without a fight first. Immanuel had come and the powers of darkness were given notice, and they were not going to take this act of God lying down.

There was nothing sentimental about evil’s reaction to Yeshua’s birth. The power of the Roman Empire was forced upon the Jewish province of Judea in the first century by the diabolical Herod the Great. His response to the birth of the Messiah was to not only kill him, but to slaughter all the infants up to two years old living in that same vicinity just in case. Herod’s reaction demonstrates the threat of Messiah’s coming to all despots, those who usurp the rule of the God of Israel anywhere in the vast universe he created.

Joy to the world indeed! But not the tinsel joy of either “Ho, ho, ho!” or “Happy birthday!” It’s the joy of noble warriors depleted after innumerable years of desperate battle, hearing news that the true King has finally arrived. It’s the joy of renewed strength so that the battle can be reengaged with the certainty of victory filling their hearts.

Probably no statement in the Torah echoes the birth of the Messiah as much as what God told Moses at the burning bush: “I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.” The wait is over, Israel’s slavery is doomed, Egypt’s power is broken, because God has come down.

That’s what should be marked by Christmas or any legitimate acknowledgement of Messiah’s coming: God has come down. Nothing is the same. Everything is changed. Get with his program before it’s too late, because God has come down.

It’s no wonder that for many, following Yeshua is as passive as it is. Not only is his birth regarded in sentimental terms, so much else about him is as well. Many love the image of his being meek and mild, putting children on his knee and tussling their hair, and don’t realize he shook the world in which he lived, as did his followers. They didn’t use military means, but they confronted religious and political oppression, as they, through God’s word, set the oppressed free so they too would confront evil the world over until now.

Through Yeshua God has come down to establish his world-wide rescue operation. Now that’s something to celebrate!

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

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Master of Change

For the week of December 26, 2015 / 14 Tevet 5776

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

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So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you Israel will pronounce blessings, saying, ‘God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.'” Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh. (Bereshit/Genesis 48:20)

As Jacob neared the end of his life, he blessed his sons. Custom demanded that the firstborn receive a double inheritance. That even God honored this custom is seen later in the Torah whereby a man was not to divert the rights of the firstborn based on relational preferences (see Devarim/Deuteronomy 21:15-17). It’s possible that this is what might be happening in the case of Jacob and Joseph, though it is more probable that Jacob broke with convention due to other reasons. Reuben his firstborn had betrayed his father by having relations with one of his wives, while Joseph proved himself to be the true leader from among his brothers. Regardless, it was unconventional to give Joseph the double portion normally given to the firstborn.

Jacob himself was the beneficiary of this same unconventionality, being the younger brother to Esau. Unlike his own bestowal of double blessing upon Joseph, in Jacob’s case, it was clearly ordained by God. Perhaps this prompted him to place Joseph’s younger son Ephraim ahead of the older Manasseh. Also, one might reasonably assume that if the firstborn blessing was given to Joseph’s sons, Ephraim in particular, then the responsibility of carrying the legacy of the Abrahamic promise would be especially his and would result in preeminence in the nation, including the kingship. But apart from a larger land allotment, the kingship was first given to the tribe of Benjamin before it was permanently established in Judah.

Why is this important? Because through this we see that God is not a radical conservative. While he acknowledges cultural norms and even establishes directives based on them, demonstrating that he values convention, he is not stuck inside the status quo for its own sake. There is a time to keep convention – we don’t reject it due to personal preferences – but convention itself is not what should control us. So while some may reject the notion that change itself is not necessarily better – what is new and different is not always best – the way things are isn’t necessarily the way they should be.

The God of the Bible is the Master of Change. Initiating a creation from nothing is perhaps the greatest example of that. Not only is creation a demonstration of radical change – breaking with the convention of eternal nothingness – that which he created itself is a progressive entity. Adam and Eve weren’t to be conservationists, but change agents, taking the Planet Earth from its infant stage to maturity over time. Their failure had to do with from whom they took their orders.

Bringing about change became even more necessary after our first parents’ disobedience and the resulting curse upon the whole creation. From the earliest days God determined to rectify creation’s plight. That necessitated a confrontation with the way things were in order to transform them into the way they should be. In working that out God inspired countless individuals, from the Prophets to the Apostles, to confront the status quo both inside and outside communities of the faithful.

While conventionalists are correct to assert that God’s ancient revelation of Truth is fundamentally unchangeable and nonnegotiable, there is a tendency to confuse our conventions with God’s will. So while it is irresponsible to ignore convention, to insist upon it for its own sake is idolatry. It is idolatry because it replaces God’s Truth with our own version of it.

Non-conventionalists fall into this same trap as they find meaning, not in the way life should be, but in change for its own sake. Under the guise of being progressive their only goal is not the betterment of life, but their personal preferences, thus making themselves gods. This is exactly what got the human race in trouble in the first place.

Discerning when change is necessary is not straightforward; walking with God never is. While we should not be quick to embrace change for its own sake, if our dependency is on him rather than self, we have a much greater opportunity to keep in step with him.

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The Egyptian Phase

For the week of December 19, 2015 / 7 Tevet 5776

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Va-Yiggash
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 44:18-47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28

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And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” (Bereshit/Genesis 46:2-4)

The Egyptian phase was crucial in the history of the nation of Israel. Far from being simply an interesting happening in Bible history, there are so many essential aspects to it for Israel’s development and for God’s revelation to both them and the world of the true meaning and purpose of life.

If you have been following the Torah readings from the past few weeks, you know about the circumstances that led up to the migration of Jacob’s growing clan to Egypt. Joseph ends up in Egypt after his brothers sold him into slavery due to their extreme jealously of him. God is with Joseph throughout his years of difficulty there, culminating in his interpreting dreams for Pharaoh, which resulted in his being made second in command in Egypt. His main responsibility was the administration of produce, first to gather it during the years of bountiful harvests, and then to distribute it during the subsequent years of famine, the conditions of which he had predicted. It was his divinely arranged position in Egypt that made the preservation of his family possible.

As far as we can tell, however, it wasn’t necessary to move the family to Egypt. In their desperate need for famine relief, their hope was that the Egyptians would be willing to trade with them. When Joseph shockingly appeared as central to the resolution of their predicament, there was no reason to assume that he would arrange their moving there. In fact, Jacob was afraid to go, but God assured him that they should do this.

There may be a few reasons for Jacob’s hestitancy. He was aware that Canaan was the land of promise. The reasons he left years before were not good ones, as he ran away from his brother’s murderous wrath. His return to Canaan was a positive turning point in his relationship with God. He may have known the stories of his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham in their journeys to other nearby regions, and that doing so was never quite the right thing to do. In addition, going to Egypt may have been even more intimidating. While through Jacob and his many children the development of the nation significantly expanded, a seventy-person clan could be easily overrun or assimilated in a country like Egypt. We don’t know if Jacob was aware of the prophesy God gave Abraham years before that his descendants would live as strangers in a foreign land for four hundred years (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:3). Even if he did, he didn’t know which land that would be.

So not only did God alleviate his fears, he made it clear that Egypt would be the place where the clan would become a great nation. We tend to remember the Egyptian stage as only negative. It eventually became so, but not at first. Far from it. We read, “Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. And they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly.” (Bereshit/Genesis 47:27). “Fruitful and multiplied greatly” echoes the creation mandate of Eden, possibly suggesting that for an unspecified period Egypt was akin to Paradise. Alas, Paradise was not to last. The harsh reality of being strangers in a strange land would bear down upon them until their cries reached heaven and God began the process of rescuing them from slavery. However, whether in prosperous comfort or the pain of oppression, a people was being forged into a nation ready to emerge to take possession of its God-ordained destiny. Jacob knew that Canaan was the goal, the inheritance of his people, but it could not be acquired by staying there. They had to venture out and away for a long time, until his descendants would be ready.

I don’t know if every God-given goal has an Egyptian phase, one where the objective seems to be in our possession, yet requires being let go for a time, even a long time. I don’t know if it is always necessary to journey far away from our dreams for reasons we know nothing about, doing things that don’t make sense before we (or our descendants!) are ready to acquire them. What I do know is that it was essential for them, as it was for many others, such as Moses and David, both of whom were within the immediate sphere of their calling. For different reasons they found themselves away from that place until they were ready and the time was right.

I don’t know if you will have to go through an Egyptian phase yourself or perhaps you’re going through one now. It’s just that I wanted to tell you that if you do or if you are, it’s okay. You’re not the first to do so.

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Wisdom People

For the week of December 12, 2015 / 30 Kislev 5776

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Mi-Kez, Rosh Hodesh, & Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1-44:17; Bemidbar/Numbers 28:9-15; & Bemidbar/Numbers 7:1-17
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14-4:7; Isaiah 66:1-24; & 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (Bereshit/Genesis 41:15-16)

As the news has been filled recently with reports about the international climate-change summit in Paris, I was thinking about this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion). The reason is both have to do with predicting catastrophes and what should be done as result. We are being told that if the countries of the world don’t make significant changes as to how we affect the environment, we will see global devastating disasters. While not global in nature but no less catastrophic for a considerable geographical location, Joseph not only told Pharaoh that a long-term famine was coming, he also provided specific instructions on what to do.

As you may be aware, there are a lot of opinions out there about climate change. It appears that there is sufficient agreement among enough world leaders today on this subject or else the Paris meetings wouldn’t be happening. Others believe climate-change science is bogus. Some are in between, acknowledging that something serious is occurring regarding climate, but believe that the predictions of dire consequences are overblown.

How are we to know the truth about climate change or any other global or regional issue of this magnitude? And once the truth is determined, how do we decide on the best course of action? We learn to address normal everyday problems because they occur regularly. We hopefully learn from the past to prevent or resolve such things the next time they arise. On the other hand, we don’t have experience as a resource with issues such as climate change and where it will supposedly lead us. Therefore our leaders are putting their faith in scientists, economists, and other experts to advise them in order to do whatever it takes to mitigate the supposed coming disaster.

That’s exactly what Joseph did for Pharaoh. For all we know there were other signs that famine was coming. Maybe it was common in those days in that part of the world to have cycles of plenty followed by want. That Joseph proposed a storage and administration plan for Egyptian grain and later engaged the surrounding nations in trade was probably not out of the ordinary. It was knowing the timing, the duration of the good and bad harvests, and knowing exactly how to prepare, that made Joseph’s advice as effective (and unusual) as it was.

It’s this kind of wisdom that we need today and not just to address climate change, but all the other major issues we are facing. We also need keen insight and practical wisdom to effectively deal with terrorism, the refugee crisis, the Israel/Palestinian issue – feel free to add to the list. Whatever it is, we don’t need guessing, educated or otherwise. I know there are a lot of smart people out there, but Joseph wasn’t just smart. His natural intelligence is evident in much of what he did, including the administering of grain during the famine. His determining of the problem and the proposed plan, however, was not the result of his intellectual abilities but due to the revelation of God.

That same wisdom is available today for the asking. We read in the New Covenant Writings, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). Joseph was confident that in the situation in which he found himself God would do exactly what James wrote so many centuries later. God is generous with the dispensing of wisdom when we need it. Now I know that most of us will likely never be called upon to advise a leader like Pharaoh or speak into an issue on the scale of climate change. But I am convinced that there are a lot more Josephs out there than we might think. If you are not one, you probably know someone who is.

I know that there are more than enough people who think they are smarter than everyone else and have no hesitation spouting their knowledge to any and all. That wasn’t Joseph. He was aware that his understanding came from God and didn’t hesitate to tell Pharaoh that. Perhaps God has given you insight that is not your own. It’s about time you acted with confident humility and share what God has shown you.

As to when, how, and to whom, may God guide. But the Josephs among us have been silent for too long. It’s time to hear the wisdom of God from those upon whom he has bestowed it.

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If God Be With Us

For the week of December 5, 2015 / 23 Kislev 5776

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Va-Yeshev
Torah: Bereshit/ Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6-3:8

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But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. (Bereshit/Genesis 39:21)

One of the extraordinary things about the Bible is that it asserts that God is truly knowable. More than simply giving us accurate information about the Master of the Universe (which is amazing in itself!), we can actually know him, as in having a personal relationship with him. Those used to hearing such a concept may forget how astounding such an idea is to most people, whether they acknowledge the existence of the divine or not.

Scripture provides us with numerous examples of people – men, women, boys, and girls – whose lives testify to this reality. Every story while unique in its own way shares a profound commonality in reflecting the consistent character and nature of the one true God, the God of Israel. Whatever part they play within God’s plans and purposes, he is always found to be good, reliable, and loving. If we were able to get every true follower of God in one room, we would hear great variety in terms of the dynamics of how each one encountered God, the things he called them to do, and how it affected their lives. But there would be no doubt that they were talking about the same God.

For those for whom the concept of knowing God is familiar, I wonder if we may have some misconceptions of what the lives of people who truly know God look like. When we read the experiences of such people in Scripture, do we stop and notice what life was really like for them?

Take Joseph for example. Four times in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), we are told “the Lord was with him.” God gave him dreams and the ability to correctly interpret the dreams of others. He was a man of moral fortitude, and was called into leadership almost everywhere he went. Sounds good, right? Know God and be in charge, have supernatural abilities, and impact the world. Perhaps I should write a book on how you too can know God and be famous and successful. But probably that book has already been written. Maybe you have a copy of such a book. If so, I have news for you: it’s wrong. Not that everything about it is necessarily wrong. Joseph and many other Bible characters are famous. We wouldn’t be talking about them otherwise. Many were successful. They accomplished great things that continue to impact the world today. But to tell their stories accurately, to understand what it means to truly know God, we need take into account the fullness of their experiences, and not just the good parts.

Joseph’s life, like so many others who have truly known God, both in Bible days and since, cannot be reduced to a simple formula as if by following certain steps, we are guaranteed a particular outcome. The fact that God was with him didn’t ensure a smooth ride. It was anything but. As an object of his brothers’ murderous jealousy, they sold him to slave traders. Better than being killed, he ends up a slave in Egypt. God’s favor is upon him as his master trusts him to the point of putting him in charge of his household, but he is still a slave. Then Joseph’s relationship with God enables him to withstand the adulterous advances of his master’s wife, but that results in his unjust imprisonment. He actually should have been executed for the charge of attempted rape. Thank God for protecting his life again, but he is living in a dungeon nonetheless. That God is with him there too results in his being in charge again, but he is still in that dungeon, and he is there a long time. When he is finally released and promoted to something akin to Prime Minister, life is finally pretty good for him, but he is not free as he continues to be subject to Egypt’s control and remains alienated from his family. This continues until God brings about their reconciliation and uses Joseph to rescue them from the great famine.

When Yeshua, centuries later, told his disciples that they would have trouble in this world (see John 16:33), this wasn’t a new development for God followers. Perhaps they were (as we may be now) under the illusion that with the Messiah’s coming all trouble was to cease. They needed to realize (as do we) that since God would be with them they would experience the same sort of lives of all who have gone before them, perhaps more so.

The difficulties we face take nothing away from the benefits of knowing God. God used Joseph in remarkable ways, and took care of him every step along the way. But it wasn’t easy. Far from it. It was at times very painful and confusing, but Joseph didn’t think that the challenges he faced meant that God wasn’t with him. Rather his knowledge of God enabled him to thrive in the midst of every difficulty, much of which he faced not because he didn’t know God, but because he did.

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