The God-Led Life

For the week of June 30, 2018 / 17 Tammuz 5778

Three-stage process cycle business diagram

Balak
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 22:2 – 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6-6:8 (English: Micah 5:7 – 6:8)

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He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

This statement by the Hebrew prophet Micah is one of the most concise and balanced descriptions of the pursuit of the good life. When in tandem, these three things enable us to make a positive difference in the world. Conversely, the neglect of any one of the three is potentially destructive. Neglect, not overemphasis, because keeping each in mind even to a small extent mitigates against the extremes that emerge when neglecting even one of them.

The Hebrew word for justice is mishpat. It refers to the bringing about of what is right. The world is full of what needs to be righted. Saying asah mishpat instructs us that this is the activity aspect of the triad. Making things right is something we need to purposely work at. To do justice demands being aware of injustice, devising practical strategies to confront it, and finding ways to make it lasting. That’s a heavy task, especially since the forces of injustice are not passive, nor do they play fair.

Once the concern for justice captures our hearts, it can blind us, however, to the other essentials of life. Thus, the brilliance of it being stated along with the other two. Too often the purveyors of justice leave much damage in their wake, forgetting that while we are instructed to do justice, it is not to overwhelm our affections. Instead we are to love kindness. The word for kindness here is hesed, which is far more than simply being nice. Hesed, is steeped in committed relationship to God and to others. Depending on the context, hesed can mean “covenant love” or “loyal love.” It’s the type of kindness often shown to a relative or long-time friend. It’s having a generous heart toward someone because of the bonds of a committed relationship.

When adjoined to doing justice, hesed allows for needed change, while at the same time avoiding hurting people in the process. Making things right can be painful, but true committed love greatly reduces potential harm to individuals and communities. When focusing on what we think is right, it is far too easy to forget that on every side of every issue is a fellow human being. It is loyal love for God and others that helps us keep everyone’s best interest in mind even when we adamantly disagree with them.

We might think that these two are sufficient counter-balances to each other. Too much justice and we unnecessarily hurt people. Too much kindness allows injustice to flourish. What more do we need? Without the personal involvement of God, all we have is what is termed principle-based living. Principle-based living can be very appealing but is deceptively misguided. Tragically, the Bible is often abused by treating it as an instruction manual. Passages are read in order to reduce them to moral lessons that we try to apply to contemporary situations. Because God is continually referenced, we don’t realize that we disregard him.

God didn’t inspire the Bible and then remove himself from human affairs while he watches history unfold from afar. The Hebrew, v’hatznei’-a le’khet im elohei’kha describes a life of continual reliance on him.

God doesn’t expect us to figure out life on our own. How do we know whether or not our sense of urgency and allocation of resources match God’s? The Bible provides us with life’s foundations and general priorities, but not the specifics. Wisdom, the ability to implement scriptural truth, is not drawn from study and intelligence alone, no matter how well informed we may be. Rather it stems from a life that keeps in close step with our Heavenly Father.

Doing justice and loving kindness, without the intimate God-dynamic, however noble and well-intentioned, remains self-focused. The greatest of virtues driven by our own agendas eventually become idols. No wonder so many endeavors done in God’s name have defamed him. But if we allow him to initiate what we give ourselves to and correct our course as needed; if we look to him to fill us with genuine love for others as we remember his faithful love for us; then we will become the embodiment of his intentions, accomplishing his purposes in his time and in his way.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Displacement Guilt

For the week of June 23, 2018 / 10 Tammuz 5778

Migrants and refugees camping at the Greek-Macedonian border, April 15, 2016

Migrants and refugees camping at the Greek-Macedonian border, April 15, 2016

Hukkat
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 11:1-33

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But the LORD said to Moses, “Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people, and his land. And you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.” (B’midbar/Numbers 21:34)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) includes two key incidences in the history of ancient Israel. The people are nearing the end of their wilderness wanderings. Moses will die soon, and his leadership will pass on to his protégé, Joshua. In contrast to thirty-eight years earlier, the people will enter and conquer the promised land. In God’s providence he provided these events to more than prepare them for success in the future. They would also serve as reference points when facing greater challenges ahead (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:4; Tehillim/Psalms 136:17-22).

There was no explicit plan to inhabit the lands to the east of the Jordan River. At this stage in their journey Israel was simply continuing their travels. To get the right picture, remember that Israel numbered around two million. This was no family hiking vacation. That the residents of the region would have concerns about this foreign presence is reasonable. And so was Israel’s request for safe passage. It wasn’t until Israel was mortally threatened that battles ensued; battles they won, resulting in their permanently displacing the prior inhabitants.

These preliminary limited conquests function as prototypes for the far more comprehensive dispossession of the peoples of the land to the west of the Jordan. Few items in the Bible are viewed with as much disdain as these today. How could a good and loving God not only tolerate but encourage population dispossession and in some cases genocide? I sympathize with the various theological and philosophical gymnastics used to overcome the stigma of associating with such distasteful behavior. Yet attempting to distance God or ourselves from these events, while perhaps making God and the Bible more appealing, results in misrepresenting Scripture.

Similar disdain is expressed by many today in the Western world for our being products of European colonialization’s displacement of indigenous peoples. I see this as a psychological condition akin to survivor’s guilt. Survivor’s guilt is when a survivor of a tragedy has trouble coping with their continued existence while others who went through the same tragedy didn’t make it. They feel bad for surviving even though they may not have had anything to with it and certainly can’t reverse history. Similarly, what I am calling “displacement guilt,” is also due to tragedy experienced by others. Yet instead of being survivors of that tragedy, we are descendants of the perpetrators. As with survivor’s guilt, we can’t change the past.

Don’t get me wrong. Past injustices can and should be addressed, especially when the effects of the past are still controlling the present. However, we are not talking about righteous indignation, which channels itself into practical expressions of justice. Instead, displacement guilt rages uncontrollably over the past, harboring bitterness and resentment as we unsympathetically judge our own forebears. Thinking our harsh critique of the past should free us from inheriting responsibility, we nonetheless are burdened by guilt, since we continue to benefit – even enjoy – a lifestyle that deep down we believe was wrongly built on the backs of others.

Every one of us is the product of the events of history, including the brutal, at times unjust, and usually complex displacement of peoples. In the case of Israel, we know from Scripture that people such as the Amorites were displaced because they were extremely wicked (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:16). If it wasn’t for this particular displacement, then the world would be a lot worse than it is. God’s installation and development of Israel in the place of the Amorites and other wicked people groups at that time laid the foundation for much of the goodness that would one day be extended to the nations through the gospel.

Similar to Israel’s past, the current world configuration is largely the result of all sorts of conflict and strife. It’s too easy to sit in the present, pointing fingers at the past. Thinking we would have done differently from our forebears is proof of how extremely blind we have become to the reality of human nature. Life’s circumstances have changed; people have not.

As survivors of history we would do well to be students of history. If we don’t understand where we have come from, we won’t understand how we got here or understand where we are going. If anything, the Bible is painfully honest. It reminds us that history is full of brutality and conflict and that even the best of human endeavors have often resulted in disaster. But if you are reading this, then you are still here, and you can make a positive difference. To do that requires hope in God’s future, not bitterness towards the past.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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That’s Not Fair!

For the week of June 16, 2018 / 3 Tammuz 5778

Boy celebrating with checkered flag

Korach
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Haftarah: 1 Shmuel/1 Samuel 11:14 – 12:22

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They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (B’midbar/Numbers 16:3)

I was traumatized the other day – maybe I should say “triggered.” My wife, our two youngest children, and I along with several other homeschooling families participated in an annual track and field day. We have been homeschoolers for a long time, beginning with our youngest child (we have ten in all) in the mid-1980s. Having lived in different parts of four of Canada’s largest cities and being committed to tailoring each child’s schooling as best we could to their individual needs and abilities, our education experience has been quite varied. From time to time we have been involved in formal and informal co-ops, where we would connect with other families to provide subjects and/or activities to complement what we were doing at home. This school year, we enrolled our two youngest (the only children still living at home) in a once-a-week formal co-op. For many years in the region where this occurs, parents have been putting on an annual field day.

That’s all to say that it has been a long time since I have attended, not to mention been involved, in such an event. I remember similar days from my own school years. Just like this one, they tend to be a mix of classic track events, such as running races of various distances, standing and running long jumps, etc. and fun ones, such as the three-legged race. It was a most pleasant event for the most part, except for what triggered me.

Before I get to the truly painful part, I was first taken aback by the giving of ribbons for first through fifth place. When did they add fourth and fifth place? Will this generation be lobbying the International Olympic Committee for more medal categories? I wonder what they would be made of? Would you believe in 2012 a man from England took it upon himself to have pewter medals made and sent to fourth place finishers of the Summer Games in London? But my relatively minor state of shock over extending winning ribbons beyond third place didn’t prepare me for the BIG TRIGGER. As I was watching one of the races of the younger children (six-year-olds, perhaps), it was so obvious that some children were genetically superior than the others. It wasn’t even close as this one child (note my purposeful gender-neutral language) ran with superhero speed (comparatively speaking).

I stood there with dropped jaw. It was incredulous that well-meaning parents (as I assume these were) would allow such disparity of ability to be flaunted before impressionable minors. This child (as were a few others) were clearly physically privileged. No wonder they had ribbons for fourth and fifth places. My daughter’s group only had five competitors, so that was fine, but others had more. I don’t know how the ribbon-less children were able to show their faces in public after such a shameful display of inequality. Speak of unfair!

Korah and company who challenged Moses in this week’s parsha understood this and they were even more irate as I was (whether I really was traumatized or not is up to debate. You decide if I am being satirical or still bitter over being such a loser at athletic events). I know the parallel isn’t exact. The inequality demonstrated at the field day had to do with athletic prowess, while Korah was angry over what he perceived to be prejudicial preference. Yet I don’t think the resentment principle at work in these two contexts are that different, especially when you take God into account.

Korah, like Moses, was of the tribe of Levi. They were appointed by God to serve the priesthood, while God gave the priesthood itself to Moses’ brother Aaron and his descendants. Being specially set aside by God to be Levites was not enough for Korah as he wanted the priesthood as well. While he accused Moses of favoritism, in reality his resentment was targeting God himself.

Life isn’t fair. Not everyone gets to be a priest. Nor is everyone graced with the same abilities. Not everyone is born into the same life situation. Not everyone experiences the same challenges and/or opportunities. Not everyone handles their challenges and opportunities the same way. Life’s not fair.

What are we to do about it? Hand out ribbons for tenth place? Don’t hand our ribbons at all? Don’t have competitions? Some may think so, especially if equality of outcome is a high value.

But is that what we want, really? More importantly, is that what God wants? With all the attention given to diversity in our day, do we know how to truly celebrate actual diversity? We are all so different. And to a great extent, it’s by God’s design. It may not be fair, but it is only when we commit ourselves to utilizing our God-given differences to their maximum potential, free of resentment, that each and every one of us can discover what we were created for.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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When If Means Since

For the June 9, 2018 / 26 Sivan 5778

Random Scrabble tiles with the word "words" on top.

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

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If the LORD delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. (B’midbar/Numbers 14:8)

When we communicate, whether spoken or written, we process what we hear very rapidly, giving little conscious thought to the actual words. While misunderstanding is common, at times contributing to all sorts of issues, most of the time we communicate quite accurately. That’s because most communication is done within context, and it is context that determines meaning.

Not only can we easily tolerate wrong words in sentences – accurately understanding what is being communicating in spite of mistaken word choice – the words we use often have a wide range of meaning. I don’t know if this is generally true for all languages, and/or if it is due to the age in which we live, but contemporary English has great tolerance for imprecision. The most extreme example I know of is what has happened to the word, “like.” Whatever we might think about this phenomenon, clearly it is tolerated by the vast majority of English speakers today. And by tolerated, I mean understood. While it is often nothing more than a silence filler, in the same way “uh” or “um” are used, or to punctuate what is about to be said or to introduce a quote (“She like ‘It’s so good to see you!”). It’s also used for “approximately” (“I think we are allowed like two cookies each”), not to mention older common usages of comparison (“this tastes like chicken”) or preference (“I like chocolate”). There are more, but you get the idea.

Our ability to easily tolerate lack of precision in language, doesn’t mean that there is no benefit in scrutinizing words more closely, both in how we give and receive within the communication process. While at times it might be inappropriate to scrutinize for precision, especially in personal, non-technical situations (I may correct my kids’ vocabulary too much), our tendency to not take the time to give more careful thought to what we say and what we hear prevents us from communicating at anything more than a superficial level.

Which finally brings us to this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). Included in this reading is one of the more tragic episodes of Israel’s biblical history. The rescue from Egypt was not a liberation unto some sort of general freedom; it was the breaking of the oppressive bonds of slavery with the expressed aim of their acquiring the Promised Land. The process of getting from Egypt to Canaan was an arduous one partly because it was necessary training to equip them for the challenges that lay ahead. While success was assured, it would nonetheless necessitate engaging formidable opposition that would fight to the death. I have no criticism of their feeling intimidated.

It’s therefore understandable that confidence was in short supply as the twelve scouts returned from their reconnaissance mission. Be that as it may, the minority opinion of Joshua and Caleb was based on very firm evidence. But why did they say, “If the LORD delights in us”? Were they unsure as were the others? On the contrary. They were convinced that God delighted in Israel. They knew that because of his great love and faithfulness, whatever the odds, victory was guaranteed. So, what’s with the “if”?

The Hebrew word for “if” is im (pronounced “eem”) and indeed means “if.” Most often, as we would expect, it is used as a conditional. For example, its first occurrence is God’s warning to Cain, Abel’s brother, when he says to him, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” (Bereshit/Genesis 4:7). In the eventuality that Cain would do one thing, certain results would follow; otherwise different results would occur. But that’s not how Joshua and Caleb were using im. They meant “since the LORD delights in us.” Then why not translate it “since”?

Well, there is actually something slightly iffy about Joshua and Caleb’s statement, but not in the normal conditional sense. They are not suggesting the people will only be okay in the event God might perhaps delight in Israel. Rather, the conditional aspect is dependent, not on God, but on whether they will live their lives based on his faithfulness. While it is certain that God delights in his people, if they live as if this is a lie, then the reality of that fact will be lost on them.

This is like my saying to someone “Why are you bringing your raincoat, if it is sunny outside?” That it is sunny is certain. Yet, I am implying it is inappropriate to wear rain gear under the condition of good weather. Whether or not you benefit from this condition is up to you. Thus, the if. If (meaning “since”) you are in right relationship with God through the Messiah, then you can have confidence that he delights in you and will enable you to face whatever challenges come your way. Whether or not you believe that and benefit from it is up to you.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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