Don’t Leave Home Without It

For the week of September 29, 2018 / 20 Tishri 5779

Sukkah before roof and decorations are added

This year’s sukkah before adding the roof and decorations.

Special note: I am posting this earlier in the week than I normally do. On Erev Shabbat (Sabbath eve), September 21, 2018, two tornadoes touched down in the Ottawa, Ontario/Gatineau, Quebec region. While we were slightly affected by the general weather event in that we only lost power for eight hours, others were not so fortunate. Some homes were completely destroyed and thousands may not have power for days. The beginnings of our little sukkah above surprisingly survived unscathed. I take this as a reminder of how most of the time we, vulnerable as we are, get through the challenges of life. May those who are still dealing with the aftermath of Friday’s storm be comforted and get back to normal soon.

By the way, the following message was composed prior to the weather event above.

Sukkot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 33:12 – 34:26; B’midbar/Numbers 29:26-34
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18 – 39:16

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And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.” (Shemot/Exodus 33:15)

One of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time featured the slogan, “Don’t leave home without it.” American Express claimed to provide security in the midst of the unknown. To leave home is to be unsafe. You never know what is going to happen out there in the wild of the outside world. What are you going to do if you encounter the challenges of life? You don’t on your own possess whatever resources you may need. But don’t worry, American Express will take care of you!

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) is special as it falls in the middle of the week-long festival of Sukkot (English: Booths or Tabernacles. A key aspect of these days is that they address the same human need that the Amex campaign exploited: vulnerability. During Sukkot, the people were to move out of their permanent dwellings and live in temporary shelters to remember how their ancestors dwelt in the wilderness for forty years prior to entering the Promised Land. The Torah reads:

You shall dwell in booths (Hebrew: sukkot) for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:42-43).

For a week every year, they were to leave home. They were to journey from security to insecurity. By purposely making themselves vulnerable, they relived, to some extent, the sense of vulnerability experienced for decades by an earlier generation. This was an object lesson to learn that their security was not in their permanent dwellings, but in the same God who miraculously took care of their predecessors. This was so that upon returning to their homes, they would understand that their security was not due to the work of their own hands, but because of the Master of the Universe. God is our security, taking care of us by any means he chooses, whether it be within buildings of our making or in the desert.

Moses understood this. Following the debacle of the Golden Calf, when the nation was at risk of complete destruction, Moses was receiving instructions from God in preparation for the next stage of their journey. He had a non-negotiable. You might think it strange that a human could relate to God like that, but perhaps you haven’t really read the Bible. The name Israel means, “he who strives with God,” hearkening back to God’s word to Abraham’s grandson Jacob: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:28). God invites us to struggle with him. Moses knew that. So he insisted: “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.” (Shemot/Exodus 33:15). Moses anticipated the challenges ahead. He was willing to face them, but not alone. Without the presence of God, he wasn’t going anywhere.

We don’t have to go out of our way to recreate wilderness experiences. God leads us into all kinds of situations where we are vulnerable, unsafe, and insecure. It’s natural when that happens to protect ourselves accordingly. But do our humanly devised solutions truly give us the protection we need? It can look that way at times, but do they really? Whether it be literal walls of defense or the innumerable emotional survival techniques we devise, we are far more vulnerable than we care to admit. Without God’s presence, we are in grave danger.

The good news is that we don’t have to go it alone. As God was with Israel in the wilderness, he is willing to be with us in whatever impossible situation we might find ourselves in. His miraculous presence is available to anyone who places their trust in the Messiah Yeshua. But something I am learning, is that we shouldn’t take his presence for granted. While we can be confident that he is with us, we can easily default to self-reliance. We offer a little prayer over our shoulders, while actually finding security in our abilities and possessions, not to mention our credit cards. Perhaps, we are well advised to take the time to stop and make sure we are not leaving home without him.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Speed of Life

For the week of September 22, 2018 / 13 Tishri 5779

Concept art of business man riding on top of a missile

Ha’azinu
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: 2 Samuel 22:1-51

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If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern their latter end! (D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:29)

One of the fascinating things science has demonstrated is that everything is always moving. When we are sitting or standing still, our sense of non-motion is only relative to the other creatures and objects around us. But we are moving at an astounding rate. Not only is the earth rotating at about 1600 km/hr (1000 mph), while orbiting the sun at 107,000 km/hr (66,000 mph), the earth and the sun are both moving within our galaxy at approximately 70,000 km/hr (43,000 mph). In addition, our galaxy is spinning while it itself is moving within the universe (see https://astrosociety.org/edu/publications/tnl/71/howfast.html). You get the point. I am so glad that while I have trouble sleeping on airplanes, I can dream away in my bed, while flying at unimaginable speeds.

The earth is on a trajectory to somewhere. Exactly where we don’t know. It’s like our lives. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are constantly developing as we move at lightning speed to the future. Time may feel slow depending on what we’re going through, but like the earth in space, it’s moving. Within our bodies, cells are dying and replenishing. At any moment we are not identical to the person we were a split second ago. Only death can put an end to that.

Until then, every momentary thought, action, and reaction is an investment in our future. Not only are we never truly physically still, we are moving toward a personal destination, a destiny. And that destiny is largely dependent on us.

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) contains Moses’ song to the Israelites not long before his death. It’s not a very happy song as he speaks of their inevitable demise. Over time, things will not go well. They won’t go well because they were clued out about where they were heading. Like most of us, they would live in the now, blind to how they were setting themselves up for failure.

Moses didn’t sing the blues to make them feel bad. It was to help them (and us!) learn to look where they were going. Wisdom, Moses chants, would put them on a very different trajectory. Wisdom, the skill of effective living based on God’s ways, would set a course to a wonderful destination. Wisdom perceives the course of the trajectory. Wisdom knows there’s a destination. Wisdom plans accordingly. Foolishness ignores that we are moving at all. Foolishness drones on and on: life is meaningless; nothing changes; we aren’t going anywhere; there’s no destination; live for the moment; now is all there is.

It’s so easy to fool ourselves. Apart from life moving at an imperceptible pace, the consequences aren’t immediately apparent. No alarm bells. No sirens. Yet, all the while, we are molding the person we become. Every intention, every action, sculpts a finished product we don’t know we are crafting. Until it’s over. Before we know it, we reach the destination, when we see God and discover how it all ends for us. You might think you are standing still, going nowhere. But that’s only an illusion. Your life is speeding along like lightning. What will you have to show for it? Not only will you have to give an account for what God has entrusted to you, your eternal quality of life will be based on what you have done with yourself.

You can change your trajectory. The momentum you have built up needn’t carry you down the path of destruction any longer. God will help you make that sharp turn right now and set you on course for a most wonderful finish. Why wait?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Be the Miracle

For the week of September 15, 2018 / 6 Tishri 5779

Silhouette of man jumping over gap between two cliffs.

Vayelech (Shuva)
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:1-30
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English 14:1-9); Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

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Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:6)

My coming to know God through Yeshua the Messiah just over forty-two years ago completely transformed my life. A few months before my nineteenth birthday, I started having panic attacks. They abated over much of the summer but came back with a vengeance as September approached. I had no interest in spiritual things and so was being nothing more than polite when I started up a conversation with the first Jewish follower of Yeshua I had ever met. Over the course of an hour and a half I encountered the prophecies about the Messiah in the Jewish Bible (Old Testament), learned about the significance of sin, discovered my need to repent, and was invited to ask Yeshua into my heart and life. While I had a strange sense that something significant was happening, it wasn’t until the following evening that I realized I had experienced a miracle, having not had a panic attack for an entire day. For months I was on cloud nine.

The emotional high didn’t last, however, as the specters of my past returned. Until recently I understood this to be God at work, calling me to deal with unresolved issues. The extreme positive nature of my early days in the Messiah was due to its being new, I thought. However difficult my life seemed to be as a youth, that was nothing compared to the challenges of adulthood with marriage, children, work, and so on. That I began with a honeymoon period is wonderful. But it takes a certain level of maturity to accept that God wasn’t as real in my life as I thought he was. The last thing I want is to live in a fantasy of spiritual deception.

A few months ago, I was challenged to rethink this. Not that deception is okay, but perhaps I misinterpreted the loss of joy and excitement I had at the beginning. Instead of my issues being the kind of reasonable pain that comes from facing personal weakness, might it be that I responded to the challenges of adulthood by reverting to the ungodly habits of my youth? Perhaps my struggles were not due to my need to be honest about my deficiencies, but rather because I had become distracted from the power and goodness of God.

`Don’t get me wrong, we need to honestly deal with our deficiencies, what the Bible calls “sin” – all the ways we think and live that are not in keeping with God’s standards. But that’s the point. It’s one thing to be honest about sins’ remnants in our lives, it’s another to allow them to continue to control us.

Even though I have no doubt my miracle was real, there was something about it that I now believe I misinterpreted. I had been an anxious and hopeless mess until God burst into my life. From my perspective, I was like the people of Israel in bondage in Egypt. In my case the bondage was emotional, but no less oppressive. I was trapped until God rescued me. Where I went wrong, I think, is that I have interpreted the vestiges of emotional bondage through the lens of my earlier victimhood. Just as I couldn’t do anything about it until God showed up, I expected I needed to wait for him to come through time and time again. Until then, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. That’s what’s called a victim mentality.

It was a victim mentality that prevented the generation that left Egypt from confidently entering the Promised Land. Even though God miraculously rescued them and demonstrated his love and power to them over and over again, they couldn’t trust him enough to face the later challenges of acquiring their inheritance.

Now as the second generation had the same opportunity, they were called to be “strong and courageous.” God was not going to simply wipe out their enemies and transport his people into Canaan. They themselves had to do it. It’s not as if they were on their own, of course. God would be with them. God guaranteed victory. But they still had to fight. In order to fight and win, they had to trust God. Trusting God means not giving in to fear. To do that requires no longer thinking like a victim. It means to purposely turn from fear and actively trust God, instead of waiting for him to take the fear away.

There are times, such as my introduction to Yeshua, where God overwhelms us with his miraculous power, doing for us what we in no way can do for ourselves. But these miracles are not designed to create passive misguided overdependence on God in the name of faith. Rather they are to equip us to be “strong and courageous,” trusting him to confidently fulfill the exploits to which he calls us. How many times are we waiting for a miracle when what God really wants is for us to be the miracle?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Are you ready to be a miracle? Find out how on TorahBytes Live, scheduled for Thursday, September 13, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following:

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Crazy Peace

For the week of September 8, 2018 / 28 Elul 5778

Face of a man wearing peace sign sunglasses

Nitzavim
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 (English 29:10 – 30:20)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9

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Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:17-18; English: 29:18-19)

Last week, we looked at how Moses regarded the new generation of Israelites as truly embracing their identity as God’s people, something at which their parents had failed miserably. Still, as further developed in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), they needed to be reminded not to take their relationship with God for granted. Instead they were to be conscious of the danger of turning away to other gods.

Moses explains that this danger can be subtle, since the pull towards falsehood didn’t solely exist in the external world around them, but also within their own hearts. Unless they were actively aware of this, they could easily deceive themselves. The subtlety, however, was not due to the possibility of temptation toward ungodly behavior, but how individuals may relate to that temptation.

It’s one thing to feel drawn toward illicit behavior. Fighting temptation can be overwhelming at times. In those times, we can tend to overly identify with the temptation, thinking we have no choice but to fulfill desires we normally loathe. But that’s not Moses’ concern. It’s not the false gods themselves that are the problem. It’s that there is something worse at play here. It’s an attitude. The presence of this attitude almost certainly guarantees succumbing to the lure of ungodliness in its innumerable forms.

This attitude is expressed in Hebrew as “hitbarech bilvavo lemor shalom yi-ye-li” (“he will bless his heart saying, I have peace in me”). In the translation I quoted at the beginning, shalom, the common word for “peace,” is translated as “safety.” The word shalom refers to completeness – everything in its right place, which is often best expressed as peace. In this context, however, the person claims to have peace in himself. In our day, we might say, “I’m okay” or “I’m good,” as an expression of feeling inner peace or safety.

In spite of feelings, this is an absolute denial of reality. Turning from God’s word to pursue the lies and perverted behaviors of false gods creates havoc for those who do such things as well as for their relationships. It’s not as if these people are ignorant of what they are doing. They have heard God’s Word. They understand the warnings. They even know they are stubbornly refusing to do what God says. Yet their sense of peace creates a self-centered false security that prevents them from doing what is good and right, blinding them to the inevitable doom that awaits them.

You might be surprised if I told you that the basis of this deceptive peace is fear. Human beings can be so afraid of fear that we shut it out completely. In order to avoid terrible consequences, we convince ourselves that everything is okay, when it is anything but. We prevent ourselves from feeling fear by feeding ourselves falsehoods, such as what we are considering isn’t all that bad, our situation is an exception to the rule, or that God doesn’t really mean what he says. The positive feedback from these lies is so strong that it instantly becomes reality to us. At that point the deception is complete and we’re living in a world of our own making. In that world, God’s truth appears as false.

Feelings of peace on their own indicate nothing. Both good or bad feelings may or not reflect the reality of our hearts or the world around us. Confidence is a good thing, but not when it’s ill-informed. The only trustworthy indication of truth and reality is God’s Word. To think that we can get away with misbehavior on the basis of a personal sense of peace is nothing less than crazy.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

But what about “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding”? Is that crazy too? Find out on TorahBytes Live, scheduled for Thursday, September 6, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following:

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