For Our Children’s Sake

For the week of July 2, 2016 / 26 Sivan 5776

Photo collage of children

Shela Lekha
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24

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And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. (Bemidbar/Numbers 14:33)

There are few values in many societies today greater than that of autonomy. In Western-style cultures, self has become the chief determinant of all things: What’s in it for me? What do I get out of it? How does it make me feel? are the biggest questions many of us ask. Self-expression and self-actualization are the highest goods. Community and the common good have become incidental amidst the priority of self. It is no wonder, therefore, that laws that seek to limit self’s supremacy are viewed as oppressive.

The problem with the obsession with self should be obvious. Human beings do not exist as independent agents. No one is absolutely self-sufficient. No one brought themselves into the world, no one sustains themselves through infancy or any other stage of development for that matter. We are communal beings. It should strike us as strange how we have so elevated self, while at the same time continuing to find ourselves so very much connected to others. We cannot escape the fact that we are relational beings. Yet that doesn’t stop people from relating to others on the basis of a selfishness never seen before.

No one suffers more from the pursuit of self than our children. This week’s Parsha tells us how the people of Israel’s lack of trust in God to enter the Promised Land two years after God’s miraculous rescue from Egypt didn’t only prevent them from obtaining it. Their self-focused fear resulted in their children having to wander in the wilderness for an additional thirty-eight years.

We don’t need the Bible to know the perils of selfishness. Experience tells us again and again that self-seeking people cause extensive damage to others, not to mention themselves. But this doesn’t seem to stop us from going deeper and deeper into the delusional rabbit hole of self.

When parents fail, the kids suffer. Don’t like that? Too bad. It’s the way life works. You can try to blame others as much as you like, but the fact is how you live affects others, especially your children. I am not saying that parents are the only factor with regard to the welfare of children, but it should be obvious that we play the biggest role with regard to their welfare.

There is another unhelpful extreme that puts so much focus on our children that they are exalted to the position of gods and goddesses. But this is actually another form of self-focus. Not only is this approach often the result of personal pride and doesn’t have the best interest of the child at all, it is teaching them to be the kind of selfish brats that will continue to perpetuate the problem.

At first glance, the story of Israel’s unbelief in this account doesn’t appear to be about self and selfishness. But think about it. God had called them to do something very difficult. The scouts who checked out the Land were all in agreement that they were going to have to face some pretty difficult situations. The difference between the ten who were freaked out and the two who remained confident was where their focus was. Those who were focused on self couldn’t grasp what was best for the community, resulting in even greater difficulty for their children. Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, were focused on God. While they, too, had to endure the additional hardship because of the majority’s misguided focus, they were the only ones who were able to enter the Land along with their children.

We can put an end to the ongoing fragmentation of our families and our culture by turning our sights away from self and onto God. If you are interested in how to do that, let me know. For our children’s sake.

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

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Timing Is Everything…Almost

For the week of June 25, 2016 / 19 Sivan 5776

Analog stopwatch with green check on white background

Be-Ha’alotkha
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)

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And whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the people of Israel camped. At the command of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the LORD they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. (Bemidbar/Numbers 9:17-18)

One of the most unhelpful pieces of advice that otherwise spiritually minded people regularly give is “Don’t pray for patience; God might give it to you!” This fear-based misguidance is based on two very wrong notions. First, prayer isn’t a magical incantation. It’s not as if saying particular words will result in the forces of the universe (whether God or anything else) responding accordingly. Second, prayer is a request to a sovereign free agent. And thankfully this sovereign also loves us and always has our best interest in mind. So if he so chooses to answer such a prayer, it’s only because it is both his will and for our good. Therefore, to caution someone against praying such a prayer is an attempt to keep us from acquiring one of life’s most essential qualities. How many things have gone wrong in the history of the world (including your life and mine) due to lack of patience? Good intentions, pure motives, and noble goals can never make up for a bad sense of timing.

There are two ways we tend to use the term “patience” in the English language. One has to do with enduring hardship. The older term for this is “long-suffering.” It’s having the fortitude to not give into discouragement when going through painful periods of life. The second is the way I am using the word here. It’s the quality of not reacting too quickly to life’s circumstances, whether it be a painful situation or not. This kind of patience is often required when we perceive there are great opportunities before us – and indeed, there may be – but instead of waiting for the right time to act, we undermine the opportunity by not being patient.

Learning to wait for God’s timing was a key component to the training God instituted for Israel in the wilderness years. He reserved the right to dictate to them when to break camp and move to the next location. It could take a day or years. In between there was no indication at all when that might be. If the cloud remained over the tent of meeting, they stayed put. If it moved, they moved. Pretty straightforward. Hard to do.

Timing is everything…almost. I say “almost,” because effective godly living is not only about timing. Learning to walk in God’s ways requires first and foremost trust in God, particularly as expressed as loyalty to his Son, the Messiah. We also need to grow in the knowledge of his will in every area of life. But unless we learn patience, we will continually find ourselves doing the right thing, but at the wrong time.

Learning God’s timing also frees us from a great deal of anxiety. We often find ourselves in situations that require change of some kind. Being aware of the need for change is important, but expecting immediate resolution can cause all sorts of unnecessary grief. God’s solutions may occur suddenly, but often his strategy for change requires a long process over time. Being aware of that synchs us to his timeclock and allows us to keep in step with him instead of fretting.

Learning God’s sense of timing can be challenging. Our tendency to react in the moment instead of patiently waiting for the right time to respond can be a very difficult lesson to learn. I don’t imagine it was easy for the Israelites to wait for the cloud to move, or to pick up and go when they hardly had time to settle. But once we understand how utterly crucial this kind of patience really is, how could we not earnestly ask him for it?

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

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Connections

For the week of June 18, 2016 / 12 Sivan 5776

Network connections

Naso
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25 

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So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them. (Bemidbar/Numbers 6:27)

It’s been relatively recently that I have noticed how much I value connection. Few things move me more than to discover that something really good happened due to the outcome of complex relationships over time. When one of our daughters was in ballet training in Mississippi (far away from where we live in Ottawa, Canada) she was rooming with another young lady who was the daughter of one our daughter’s first dance teachers in the Vancouver area more than ten years earlier. Now that same daughter is co-owner of a dance studio here along with a person whom we know because she worked with another daughter of ours in a dancewear store in Calgary (also far from here). Every time I tell stories like these I get choked up, all the while invisibly scratching my head, wondering what it is that affects me so. My conclusion: meaningful connections.

God designed us for connection. Every human being shares the same parentage, beginning with Adam and Eve and then again through Noah and his wife. That means we are all related, though distantly. But that distance doesn’t undermine the sense of connection when it surfaces as illustrated through this video about the effects of a DNA study upon its participants.

Moreover, the having of children is not simply the product of sex, but the purposeful outcome of the institution of marriage as established by God in the Garden of Eden. From the very beginning, children were to be nurtured within a household led by one man and one woman bound together permanently under God. Later we learn that holistic education of children was to be under the direction of parents (see Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:7; 11:19). This deepens the natural connection between parent and child.

The interconnection within and between families is by design. Lack of connection is a result of human rebellion against God beginning with our first parents and demonstrates itself through envy, bitterness, and violence. The alienation we experience from one another at so many levels is counter to God’s original plan for the global family and is only truly restored through faith in the Messiah Yeshua. To see God’s hand of blessing through unusual connections is a taste of what should have always been and will one day be again. Perhaps that’s why it makes me cry.

Last week, I attempted to explain how the census under Moses was an exercise in connection. God appointed certain people to reach out to the community in preparation for the next stage of its development. Knowing God is not only about individuals connecting directly to him. Rather he prefers to make himself known through one person to another.

This is also what the special blessing in our parsha (weekly Torah portion) is all about. What God commanded Aaron and his sons to speak over the people of Israel wasn’t magic. The words of blessing on their own didn’t cause good things to materialize out of nowhere, they were connecting people with the goodness of God which he desired for them. The intermediating function of the cohanim (English: priests) illustrates God’s design for all humankind in that the potential for life (which is what blessing is) originates in God, but is to be manifested through fellow human beings to each other.

To live in isolation from others is to cut ourselves off from the blessings of God. This is not to say that all human connection is beneficial. Some connections we are better off without. But let us not allow the effects of sin to unnecessarily cut us off from those connections we so desperately need (or those who need us!).

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

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You Count!

For the week of June 11, 2016 / 5 Sivan 5776

Illustration of globe superimposed on generic, colorful, human forms

Bemidbar
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22 (English: 1:10 – 20) 

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Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. (Bemidbar/Numbers 1:2)

The fourth book of Moses starts with a lot of counting. The English title, Numbers, reflects this, while the Hebrew title, “Bemidbar” (In the Wilderness), emphasizes Israel’s experiences from the time they left Mount Sinai through just before their entry into the Promised Land.

Sections of the Bible such as the early part of Bemidbar tend to bog readers down with what appears to be endless lists of names. But perhaps you feel like one of those names. As one of the seven billion people on the planet, do you ever wonder if you really count? There might be something here in our Torah reading that says you do.

God told Moses to take a census (or more literally a head count) of all the males twenty years and over of all the tribes of Israel except for the tribe of Levi. They are counted later on. But Moses was not to do this job alone. God appointed several men by name from each tribe to assist him. Get that? God appointed these men by name. God communicated the exact identity of each assistant to Moses. There is nothing in the text to signify that this is a metaphor. It was not as if each tribe voted on their census leaders and then submitted the list to Moses who validated them by using highfalutin spiritual language. It was not as if God called them out by name. He really did. Could you imagine being called out like that? By name?

It gets more interesting. Once the census team was appointed, they set out counting heads. But that’s not as straightforward as it first might seem. “One, two,… How old are you? You don’t look twenty years old. Really, you are? OK…three, four” and so on. It might have even been more complicated than that, since in addition to the age qualification they had to be “able to go to war” (e.g. Bemidbar/Numbers 1:3). It’s possible that simply being of age wasn’t sufficient, thus creating the need for a more thorough interview. The numbers of the qualified men were then submitted to Moses and recorded.

What makes this interesting is that if God was able to specifically name the assistants, wouldn’t he also be able to provide detailed census information? Assuming he could, obviously he didn’t. That had to be done manually, so to speak. But why? The most basic reason, of course, is because God said so. On one level that should be good enough. But that shouldn’t stop us from giving it some thought.

The Bible clearly teaches that God knows everyone. Yeshua said that he even knows the hairs of our heads (See Matthew 10:30). That statement is supposed to assure us of our Heavenly Father’s intimate love and care. For some of you, that’s not enough. Being told God loves everyone is too general, too unspecific. When we think in terms of everyone, we don’t think of being personally included but rather that we are nothing more than part of a big blur of unnamed humanity. God loves everybody, but does he really love me?

There’s something about the administration of the census that bridges this gap. Instead of God announcing the exact population figures himself, which he could have done, he sent out people to take note of everyone. You might say that not everyone was counted because they weren’t qualified for military service, but the only way to know that is to take notice of each and every person.

The counting of heads, initiated by God, but performed by people, brought God’s knowledge of the people to the individuals themselves. But isn’t this how the intimacy of God usually works? While God does from time to time interact with us directly, he most often reaches out to us through others. It’s possible that our sense of being distant from God comes from not allowing ourselves to get close enough to those through whom he wishes to make himself known to us.

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

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