Necessary Adjustments

For the week of December 2, 2017 / 14 Kislev 5778

Hands adjusting professional studio mixing console

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

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For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:21; English 32:20)

Jacob was on the brink of a life-changing event, though he didn’t know it. After a life of self-reliance, manipulation, finagling, and deception; he would have an encounter with God that would finally get through to him. It would leave him with a limp and a new name – Israel – the official and enduring brand of God’s specially chosen nation.

Jacob’s change was not a transformation of every aspect of his personality. I am not referring to the way true followers of the God of Israel remain a mixed bag until the Messiah returns, the continuing battle of spirit and flesh, so to speak. God affirmed a key aspect of what we might call the old Jacob, when he said, “you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:29; English 32:28). A couple of years ago, I commented on the positive nature of Jacob’s tenacity. His “go-get-it” attitude to life is something we should emulate.

Like so many human attributes, tenacity in and of itself is neutral. It can be used or abused. When something is a part of our personality, it can be difficult to recognize that. Let me explain. In the case of Jacob, it would be easier for us to divide his life into before and after his encounter with God. Prior to this, he was Jacob, the deceiver. Afterwards, he is Israel, the Prince of God. By the way, I know that he was sometimes still called Jacob, which may indicate his own ongoing internal struggle, but that is beside the point for now. What I am trying to point out is that it isn’t correct to categorize his tenacity as negative, since God himself affirms it as I quoted. However, we shouldn’t regard every way he expressed that tenacity in the past as acceptable.

Not to compare myself with Jacob, but when I came into a personal relationship with his God through the Messiah, my life radically changed. Still today, over forty years later, I refer to my first nineteen years on this planet as “the bad old days” as I was so misguided. It would take too long to list the changes: philosophical, theological, economical, psychological, and relational. But there is another sense in which I haven’t changed at all. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s that I am still me. However it works, like everyone, I am a unique personality with strengths and weaknesses, many of which are morally and practically neutral.

It would be easy for me to reject every aspect of my pre-messianic life due to how miserable and dysfunctional I was. But to do that would be to reject myself altogether. God didn’t want that for Jacob; neither does he want that for me (or you). The other extreme would be to think that because God made me a certain way, then I (and everyone around me) needs to accept my personality as is. But that too is not what God wanted for Jacob or anyone else. While he affirmed Jacob’s tenacity, he transformed his focus. Until his encounter, Jacob was self-driven. Once God got hold of him (quite literally in fact), God displaced self on the throne of Jacob’s life.

With a new ruler in charge change would be inevitable. Some things would have to go altogether, such as lies and deception; other things would need tweaking, such as the motivations and objects of his tenacity; while other things would stay intact. But that would now be under God’s direction, not Jacob’s.

It’s taken me a long time to accept some of what I was as gifts of God wrongly used, but now with his help can be instruments of blessing. If God is on the throne of our lives, then we need to get off. That entails releasing ourselves from our own judgments and allowing God to dictate what needs to go, what should be tweaked, and what might be fine just the way it is.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The House of God

For the week of November 25, 2017 / 7 Kislev 5778

Celestial portalVa-Yeze
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (English 12:12 – 14:9)
Originally posted December 9, 2000 / 12 Kislev 5761
Revised version from the book Torah Light: Insights from the Books of Moses

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Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:16–17)

Jacob had a vision of God in a dream. He’d never had an experience like this before. When he awoke, he surmised that there was something special about the place he was in, referring to it as the house of God, the gate of heaven. We don’t know if his conclusion about the place was accurate or if it was nothing more than his own interpretation of the experience.

Jacob assumed that this was a special place. He gave a new name to the town, calling it Bet-el (English, Bethel)—meaning “House of God”—and set up a pillar there. He then made a pledge that if God would keep his promise to bring him back there, this same god would be his God.

Whatever the significance of the place, Jacob thought God was more in Bet-el than he would be in the land of his ancestors where he was going. It would take many years before he realized how real and how present God was. Jacob’s dream was meant to reveal to him that God was going to take care of him. But Jacob focused more on the experience than on the message.

Like Jacob, we sometimes have difficulty knowing God beyond our experiences of him. I know many of us have not experienced anything like Jacob did, but still God is often confined to our specific events, activities, and experiences. We like to focus more on the wonderful things that God does than to learn the lessons those things were designed to teach us.

The essence of idolatry is the substituting of something in place of the reality of God. It may or may not be a physical object that we can touch. It might be a memory or a concept through which we relate to God. These things may function in our lives as helps in knowing God, but the fact is they get in the way.

It sounds so spiritual to be like Jacob and get excited over an experience. But God remained someone who seemed far from him for a very long time. It would not be until later difficult circumstances that God would finally become personal to him.

Could it have been any different for Jacob? We don’t know. But it can be different for us. Instead of getting hyped over what God is doing (or not doing) in our lives, maybe we should listen to what God is saying to us. Let’s stop making monuments of our experiences (or lack thereof) and let God into our hearts right now.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Shrinking World

For the week of November 18, 2017 / 29 Heshvan 5778

A miniature globe held by a hand

Toledot
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” (Bereshit/Genesis 25:22-23)

We have no idea what we are. Our view of life seems to get more and more narrow. For most people it is nothing more than the avoidance of suffering and pursuit of pleasure. Sure, we may have family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, but life is wrapped up in self, and not much more. Let’s be honest, why do we pursue what we pursue? Who is it for? The other guy or yourself? I don’t assume this is everyone, but the self-driven life is certainly driving the traffic of much human endeavor today. I am not surprised by this. After being told for so long that life has no meaning, the universe shrinks and shrinks until it is no bigger than me.

But it’s not true. We are not meaningless blobs of tissue, the happenstance of random, mindless processes, existing only for a few short years simply to decompose to recyclable waste. But perhaps you knew that already. You may even be a person of faith – a believer in the one true God, the God of Israel, the God of the Bible. Maybe you pray and read that Bible of yours. You try to live a good life, keeping out of trouble as much as you can. You’ve got your ticket to heaven, or so you think, which gives you something to look forward to beyond your feeble current existence. But as for your feeble existence, is your life, your world, any bigger than that of your atheistic or agnostic friends? You have “Jesus in your heart,” and you know that’s supposed to make a difference, but this eternal life you claim to have has a tendency to shrivel up into the same self-focus of most everybody else.

It’s because we don’t get it. We don’t get that there is something really big going on. The world has its issues, of course. The Bible doesn’t pretend otherwise. Rebellion against God is at the core of all human dysfunction as well as the broken nature of the planet in which we live. But the purpose of life isn’t found in biding our time as we medicate our suffering through all sorts of distractions as we wait for heaven. We are here on a mission – God’s mission. All humans have been mandated by God, whether we know him or not, to be his representatives on earth (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:26-28). Through Yeshua the Messiah we are more than adequately equipped to not only fulfill that mandate, but to rescue others from sin and its effects (see Matthew 28:18-20).

Because people are made in God’s image, every one of us has potential for great positive impact. Yet we squander what we are due to ignorance. If we would only know what we are, we would get our eyes off ourselves and onto the grand mission God has for us.

When Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, was pregnant, she was concerned about the turmoil she felt inside. Asking God what was going on, he told her that she was carrying two nations. Get that? Not two blobs of tissue. Two nations. Not two products of pregnancy that may develop into something more one day. Two nations.

I understand that not every human being will necessarily generate offspring like Jacob and Esau did. But the potential for life that exists within every human being at the point of conception should encourage us to see that we are part of something way bigger than ourselves. God’s initiation of the universe and his intent on rescuing it from our mismanagement includes, not precludes, the ongoing generation of more human beings.

The Scripture is clear that everything that is wrong with the world is because of humans. But it is equally clear that the solution to everything that is wrong with the world is also human beings. That’s why God became human to save the creation. And that’s why he is calling us to be part of his rescue mission today. The more we embrace that mission, the bigger our world will become.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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When It’s Not You

For the week of November 11, 2017 / 22 Heshvan 5778

A business man pointing his finger in blame toward a businesswoman

Hayyei Sarah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 23:1-25:18
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/2 Kings 1:1-31

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Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. Jokshan fathered Sheba and Dedan. (Bereshit/Genesis 25:1-3)

Abraham is depicted in the Bible as the model of faith. It was him of whom we read, “He believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Bereshit/Genesis 15:6). It was his trust in God (faith is trust) that established his right relationship with God. What did he trust God for? The seemingly impossible prospect of innumerable offspring (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:5). Why was this a seemingly impossible prospect? He and his wife, Sarah, were childless and already advanced in years. They astonishingly have the child of promise when Abraham is one hundred years old and Sarah is ninety.

In this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), Sarah dies, and sometime later Abraham remarries. Obviously, he is way over a hundred by now, but ends up having a whack of kids through his second wife, Keturah. Not bad for an old man, eh? But wait a second! I thought Abraham couldn’t conceive. Perhaps God healed whatever his condition was, so that he could have Isaac, the promised one. But that’s not right. Years before, after waiting and waiting and still no child, Sarah suggested going the surrogate mother route through her servant Hagar (see Genesis 16). Can’t say for sure, but looks like Hagar conceived pretty quickly. You know what that means, don’t you? The problem wasn’t with Abraham. It was Sarah who couldn’t conceive, at least not until God intervened.

If I am right, then Abraham’s faith challenge was not his own inability, but his wife’s. Did he understand that? He must have. They knew how conception worked. The Bible tells us many times something to the effect of so-and-so lay with her, and she conceived. Abraham knew he could produce kids. And he knew Sarah couldn’t. And yet he stuck with her until the end. He was open to the surrogacy solution, and appeared to believe that that was part of God’s plan until told differently. He thought it was funny when it became clear that his wife would finally conceive. Isaac, meaning laughter, would be identified with this act of heavenly humor forever. It was funny, but he went for it, lying with his long-time committed spouse at least one more time.

While many of the challenges to our fulfilling God’s will are due to our own weaknesses, struggles, and so on, we often find ourselves, like Abraham, frustrated by issues arising from others. Being confronted by actual enemies is one thing, but being constrained by those closest to us is another. How many people have started off on some Great Adventure and have been thwarted in pursuing what are clearly God-given goals, hitting a rock wall because of a loved one? Household obligations may dictate holding off on all sorts of noble, inspired objectives.

Abraham’s willingness to alleviate his situation only stemmed as far as surrogacy within the confines of his understanding of the cultural norms of the day. But that didn’t resolve the matter. Note that he never took a second wife. Maybe God kept him from that temptation by taking him to a hostile, alien land. We don’t know. What we do know is that God wasn’t put off by the length of time or Sarah’s infertility and that Abraham was willing to cooperate with the details of God’s plan as they were revealed to him.

There may be times when we unnecessarily accept obstacles to God’s plans for our lives. We may assume a false sense of responsibility towards family, friends, or business. We may have misguided financial expectations. But at other times, we need to resist skirting God-given limitations, trusting he knows what he is doing and will bring to pass whatever he wants in his time and in his way.

Some time later, God would say to Isaac, concerning his dad: “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Bereshit/Genesis 26:5). The exemplary nature of Abraham’s faith is not confined to a few highlighted moments, but includes a lifestyle, imperfect though it was, loyal to God. This is no less found in his faithfulness to Sarah in spite of her insufficiency. He knew that the God who called him to be a great nation had also determined that marriage be permanent. He accepted the challenge and became the father of all who truly believe.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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