The Whys

For the week of August 4, 2018 / 23 Av 5778

The word "why" written on multiple road signs

Eikev
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3

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Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, “It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,” whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 9:4-5)

Getting the facts straight about what’s going on is difficult enough, but understanding why they happen is just about impossible. But that doesn’t stop people from constantly trying to determine the reasons behind the circumstances of their lives. Whether it be informally with friends or through the media, we don’t always notice how supposed facts are overlaid with opinion. That’s because human beings have an insatiable hunger to go beyond the plain facts and grasp the “why”s behind them.

It’s ironic to me that this is still a question in a world that more and more rejects the existence of personal spiritual forces in favor of a naturalistic worldview. I purposely mentioned personal spiritual forces, because, while some people are pure materialists who deny that spiritual forces exist at all, spirituality in various forms is obviously nonetheless popular. What is usually rejected today is a spiritual dimension that purposely and intelligently engages human affairs. Philosophically, the belief in impersonal spiritual forces is not different from atheistic naturalism as far as meaning is concerned. The only people who can legitimately expect an answer as to why something happened are those who accept the reality of a personal spiritual realm.

Let me explain. Let’s take the story of Noah’s ark. The simple facts as the Bible reports them are as follows. After Noah and his family along with samples of each animal kind enter the enormous boat-like structure he built, heavy torrential rains plus underground water eruptions occur. The result is a world-wide flood that kills all the people as well as the land and air creatures. After a year, when the water subsides, Noah, his family, and the animals repopulate and recultivate the earth. Upon hearing of such a calamity, there are two types of whys we tend to want to answer. First, what caused these events in terms of natural causality. This is the kind of information offered to us by meteorologists as in, “a low-pressure system combined with a fast-moving cold front will produce significant precipitation and possible severe thunderstorms.” I made this up for illustrative purposes only and has no reflection on Noah’s weather. Noah’s flood was likely proceeded by unique weather patterns. I would call this kind of “why” a “what.” It’s a description of what circumstances occurred that resulted in another set of circumstances. While we may find this informative and provides a sense of understanding, it’s not really a why. If I total my new car in a crash, my asking, “Why did this happen to me?” is not a question about the cause and effect of physical properties that led up to my situation. Your telling me about road conditions, mechanical failure, and human distraction will not satisfy my why.

Whether it is the story of Noah’s ark or Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land as discussed by Moses in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), the Bible provides the whys we often look for. Whether it is the whys we like or agree with is another matter. Unlike the human opinions we are constantly bombarded with every day by friends, co-workers, and journalists, the Bible gives us the actual whys.

God anticipated Israel’s why regarding their soon-to-be accomplishment. Understanding human nature, he knew that Israel’s success would be interpreted by them to mean that they were better than the peoples they conquered. Wrong! Their victory was solely based on two things. First, the current inhabitants were so wicked, that, similar to the vast majority of people in Noah’s day, they had to be wiped out. It’s so easy for survivors, not to mention conquerors, to think they are morally superior than the conquered. But looking at the plight of others in order to puff up our view of ourselves is completely misguided. The second reason for Israel’s accomplishment was that God was fulfilling his land promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Both whys undermine any attempt at interpreting God’s blessings as a sign of personal superiority.

I wonder how many of our whys are informed by a false sense of self. Whatever our life’s circumstances are, we are not better than anyone else. Most of the time, we don’t know why things happen. Tragically, that doesn’t stop us from spouting off misinformed opinion. It seems we are more interested in answers that satisfy us than in the truth. Why is that?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

For further discussion on this topic, watch this edition of TorahBytes Live:

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Your Story in Two Acts

For the week of July 28, 2018 / 16 Av 5778

Crimson theater curtain slightly parted with bright light showing through with the words, Act 2 will begin shortly

V’etchannan
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

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Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2)

One cannot overstate the drama of Isaiah’s comfort call. The contrast of these words with what comes before is so great that scholars tend to assume that they are authored by a different speaker/writer. The contrast of tone isn’t the only reason for the common scholarly determination of more than one “Isaiah,” but I don’t find such a conclusion compelling. What we really have is the start of a sequel or a new act.

Act One had ended with the stage gone dark. All hope is lost, because Israel had spiraled down to the apparent point of no return. The narrative closed with a most cynical tale of King Hezekiah, one of the greatest of all Jewish kings, receiving God’s message from Isaiah that even though he successfully overcame the Assyrian siege and was miraculously cured of a lethal illness, Babylon, the empire to succeed Assyria, will vanquish his dynasty and take the people into exile. If that’s not bad enough, the hitherto noble king, comforts himself with the news that this won’t happen until he is long dead.

Act Two begins with a brilliant explosion of good news: “Comfort, comfort my people,” says Israel’s God – judgement has run its course, warfare has ended; sin is forgiven. The Hebrew word for “comfort” is “nacham” and has two meanings, depending on how it is used. Either way it denotes change. It could mean “to relent,” a change of intention – one plan of action replacing another. The meaning in this context, however, is “to comfort” or “to be comforted” – an emotional change, where one feels a certain way, usually bad, and is consoled, shifting their outlook on life.

Against the backdrop of despair and cynicism, is the promise of comfort. The diagnosis was devastating, the sickness far worse than imagined. Under normal circumstances, such a road leads to nothing but complete destruction. But not in this case – not as far as God’s people are concerned. The God of unconditional covenant love always has a positive future in mind for his precious people in spite of relatively short-term hardship.

Israel’s desperate plight at the end of Act One typifies our own day in many ways. In spite of previously unknown levels of affluence and the exceptional quality of life experienced by so many, societal and personal darkness pervades. From old and new terminal illnesses to political instability to grand-scale people displacement, to increasing violence, and the threat of nuclear annihilation, one little spark can set the entire world ablaze. We are becoming unglued as a cloud of meaninglessness and hopelessness saturates the global psyche. What’s the point of being human anyway?

God’s word to Israel was that the day was coming when their suffering would cease, creation would be renewed, and peace would reign forever. The Jewish people’s incessant angst and anguish would finally and forever be transformed, when chaos turns to order, destruction to rebuilding, sickness to health, death to life. Therefore, be comforted. The darkness will not last forever. Light will not only return but will never fade again.

These words of comfort are not for Israel alone. For God’s heart for the Jewish people as expressed at this stage in their history is a reflection of his desire for all peoples. Every human being has a story like Israel, albeit with a different cast of characters and unique sub-plots. Yet, whatever our heritage, the human story is the same: tragically dark and often hopeless, especially if we are honest. Yet, like Israel, your story needn’t end there. With God, there’s a second Act for you too.

You may have thought that your story ends with Act One. You may think there’s nothing beyond the darkness of your life. Or, like Hezekiah, you comfort yourself with short-term vision, making the best of your situation. “It could be worse,” you say. Yet you know if you would look beyond yourself, you couldn’t handle the state of the world.

But the story isn’t over. God will come through. He has proven that through the resurrection of the Messiah. You may already believe that even though you have a hard time being comforted. It might be that you are still stuck at the end of Act One, thinking, in spite of your claim to faith, darkness has the final word after all.

Excuse me while I flick off and on the lights. Intermission is over! There’s more to your story, because there is more to God’s story. Not only does he win in the end, he invites you to be part of it. Perhaps that’s your problem. All the while you have been sitting in the audience when you are cast as a star in the show. You don’t only get to be part of the grand conclusion, you have an essential role to play.

I understand why you are sitting there. Life has been so painful and so confusing. You have tried to comfort yourself to no avail. But that’s the problem. Right now, God wants to heal and restore you. And he will if you cooperate with him. You will be comforted, once you allow him to comfort you on his terms.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Further discussion is available on this edition of TorahBytes Live:

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Teachability

For the week of July 7, 2018 / 24 Tammuz 5778

Son on father's lap, both sitting on floor, thinking

Pinchas
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3

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But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 1:7-8)

I love to teach about Abraham for many reasons. I’ll get to Jeremiah shortly. Abraham is the biblical exemplar of a person of faith (see Romans 4:16). And with faith so central to having a genuine relationship with God, there is much we can learn from his life. One of the essential lessons we learn from Abraham is that we are never too old to make a positive difference. We don’t meet him until he is seventy-five, well past the normal age for what God called him to: leave family and the familiar for a foreign land and have a baby, the latter not happening until he was one hundred. Abraham is not the only senior citizen that didn’t get going on his God-given mission until later in life. Moses, being the next great example, received his marching orders at eighty.

Unlike our day, old age is highly esteemed in the Bible. We read in Mishlei (English: the book of Proverbs): “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (Mishlei/Proverbs 16:31). The   Scripture places on the elderly may lead some to devalue youth except for its potential. Obviously, there are lessons inaccessible to the young, because they can only be learned through experience over a long period of time.

This is apparently what Jeremiah was thinking when God called him. He disqualifies himself from being God’s spokesperson (that’s what a prophet is) on the basis of his being, in Hebrew, a na-ar, which is a reference to the period of life from infancy through adolescence, pre-adulthood in other words. We can’t determine his exact age, but he was most likely in his latter teens. Even if he was older, it is clear that he saw himself as unable due to his lack of life experience.

From God’s perspective, however, Jeremiah’s experience or lack thereof was irrelevant. Age doesn’t matter, because the God of unlimited resources is the one who equips us to effectively serve him. Because God often calls us unto the impossible, taking personal inventory is not going to encourage us to rise up to the occasion. Does that mean, then, that this is a case of all of God and nothing of us? When God enables us to do his bidding, are we no more than empty shells that he animates for his purposes? For him to truly work through us, are we to disengage self and get out of God’s way? Is that what God calls us to do? Is that what he called Jeremiah to do?

Every person’s life, whether acknowledged or not, is completely dependent on God. We wouldn’t be here without him. We wouldn’t survive, much less thrive, without him. That said, are we to be completely passive while he overtakes our person like a body snatcher? Of course not. Obedience to God is accomplished by cooperating with him. He has endowed human beings with all sorts of abilities specially designed to fulfill his purposes on earth. Submitting our abilities to his will allows us to be what he made us to be.

Jeremiah thought he was lacking the necessary experience to be a prophet of God. That he lacked experience is correct. What he didn’t take into account – he may not have been aware of it – was that he did possess a, if not the, foundational qualification: teachability.

God knew that he could teach Jeremiah how to be a prophet during one of the most difficult and confusing times in Israel’s history. His lack of experience likely worked in his favor because the type of message God gave him was so different from the normal prophetic tradition. There was no precedent to tell God’s people to surrender to the enemy as Jeremiah had to do.

The story of Jeremiah may lead you to think that youth are more teachable than the elderly, but that’s not true. Abraham and Moses were two of the most teachable men who have ever lived. In fact, it can take many years of a great variety of life experiences before one finally becomes teachable. As a young person, Jeremiah may actually be an exception. Many young people are know-it-alls. But whether young or old, we will never become what God wants us to be unless we are teachable.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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