Beating Bitterness

For the week of December 22, 2018 / 14 Tevet 5779

Scuffed up baseball

Va-Yehi
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 2:1-12
Originally posted January 3, 2015 / 12 Tevet 5775

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But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Bereshit/Genesis 50:19-21)

Joseph was the object of his own brothers’ extreme jealousy, resulting in their selling him to slave traders and tricking their father into thinking he was killed by wild animals. While God gave him favor in the sight of his Egyptian master, his plight went from bad to worse. Even though he stayed true to God by resisting the advances of his master’s wife, she falsely accused him of abusing her, resulting in his spending years in a dungeon. Eventually his God-given gift of dream interpretation catapulted him to second in command in Egypt. While I think many, if not most of us, would have harbored bitterness in our hearts toward everyone who sought our harm, Joseph did not. Even when things work out well for people, good times don’t necessarily heal bitter hearts. Instead, bitterness has a way of skewing how we look at life – the good as well as the bad. The comfort that Joseph was able to experience is only possible for someone who refused to be bitter. We know this is the case with Joseph, because of how he dealt with his brothers later on, when they came to Egypt in the hope of buying food during the famine.

Joseph’s life vividly reminds us of how important it is to avoid bitterness. I have seen how destructive bitterness can be, including the control it has over people who allow it to grow inside them. Bitterness can lead to compulsive obsessive anger as well as to personal isolation. If Joseph had handled life differently, God would have used other means to preserve Israel in order to accomplish his purposes through them, but Joseph may not have been part of it.

I want to be like Joseph, but I haven’t been able to figure out how he did it. The ultimate answer is God’s “hesed,” his steadfast love. But that doesn’t mean that Joseph was carried along by God unconsciously. His relationship with God expressed itself in very specific ways. We have glimpses of his behavior, but that hasn’t been sufficient to enable me to understand what was really going on in his heart. But I have just read a book that may shed some light on this issue.

You may be surprised to learn that the book is called The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America by Joe Posnanski. O’Neil was a most unusual man. He died in 2006 at the age of 94. He was a baseball player, manager, coach, and scout. He was also an African American whose career as a player occurred before Blacks were allowed to play in the Major Leagues. Due to the racial discrimination of those days, special “Negro Leagues” were created so people like O’Neil could play “The National Pastime,” as Baseball was called in the United States. Following retirement O’Neil became an ambassador for the Negro Leagues to ensure their place in history and to help raise out of obscurity some of the greatest ball players of all time.

Buck O'NeilIt is difficult for many of us to fully understand the injustices Buck O’Neil endured and witnessed. And yet, like Joseph, he didn’t allow bitterness to take hold. As I was completing the book, what helped him be that way became clear to me. It may have been the same thing that helped Joseph as well. First, Buck O’Neil didn’t let others define life for him. He would never accept how others justified their bitterness. More importantly, he didn’t let his own circumstances define his life. Instead of wallowing in disappointment and hurt, he determined that he would focus on the positive and seek to be a blessing. Even in the face of great difficulty, he decided that life was a good thing and should always be cherished as such. More than that, he purposely helped others to do the same. He wasn’t always successful, but often was. I can’t say for sure what made him this way, except that he recognized how destructive bitterness was and made a concerted effort to avoid it at all costs.

Buck O’Neil’s life helps me to see Joseph more clearly, who also rose above his circumstances, not allowing them to define his life. While not denying the ill intent of his brothers and others, he really believed that God retained ultimate control of his life.

Buck O’Neil puts me to shame as does Joseph. But I will continue to pray that God helps me to look at life with their perspective, because while I might feel the pull of bitterness at times, their example is the right one; one most worthy to follow.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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It’s Alright To Cry

For the week of December 15, 2018 / 7 Tevet 5779

Adult son crying on his father's shoulder

Va-Yiggash
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28

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And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. (Bereshit/Genesis 45:2)

Sometime in my late teens I stopped crying. I don’t mean that up until then I was crying nonstop. It was as if I had lost the ability to cry. All children cry. It’s our automatic, God-given survival device. As we get older, most of us learn to control the tears and express our needs and disappointments in other ways. In many cultures, males are often discouraged from crying at all. “Big boys don’t cry,” we’re told; so they stop, but that’s not why I did. My parents didn’t teach me such a thing. I remember seeing my father cry on more than one occasion, and there was no shame in that. Despite that, I distinctly remember by the time I was eighteen years old, I could feel an incessant need to cry lodged in my throat. It was awful.

My life was awful. My father had abandoned me and my mother a few years before. By this time, my mother was not well enough to work, forcing us to turn to government assistance. I had no direction in life, I was very superstitious, I thought success was measured by degrees of pleasure, and I was becoming more and more afraid of dying.

Everything about my life was out of sorts. I had no clear vision of what it should be or could be. Wrapped in a shroud of confusion and fear, I was stuck just like the lump in my throat. Then a few days before my nineteenth birthday, my life was transformed by my first encounter with the truth of Yeshua as Messiah. As I reached out to God that day, I had no idea I was embarking on a truly Great Adventure. Yet, still no tears, just smiles.

In those early months, I experienced a happiness I never dreamt of. I was ecstatic, and people could see it all over me. The next few months were exhilarating even though there were also new tensions and relationship strains due to the unusual path I was on. Still no tears.

A year after coming to faith, I left home for biblical studies. Leaving home brought with it renewed anxiety as I began to face some of my entrenched insecurities and fears. As I woke up one morning in my dorm room, I was fiercely struggling with I don’t really know what. I was not doing well and didn’t know what to do. I was alone since I didn’t have an early morning class that day. My roommate had a small (for those days) stereo and a few Gospel albums. I didn’t listen to a lot of music back then, as music had been one of my gods during my Bad Old Days. I don’t know why I put the album on. Then something happened as the singing started. The faucet finally opened. I was shocked as for the first time in I don’t know how long, I cried and cried. It felt so good! And while the lump would return from time to time, eventually so would the tears as God has allowed me to express myself in this way.

It’s hard to say for sure what it was about that moment that released all that pent-up emotion. I can guess, because I have had similar experiences since. It hasn’t always been with a song, but when I get a glimpse of the essence of life’s reality, it’s as if in that moment I see things as they really are, that amidst the confusion and chaos of life – my life – God really is my security, and everything will be okay after all. When that truth hits me, I am undone as all the tension of the insecurity I feel from the instability and pressures around me is released in an emotional torrent.

Perhaps that is something akin to what Joseph experienced when he was finally reconciled with his brothers. We can’t overestimate the emotional turmoil he must have carried all those years. We shouldn’t assume his rise to power in Egypt completely soothed the confusion, anger, and sadness he carried for so long. The emotions must have built to volcanic proportions during the process of revealing himself. For his own reasons, he shrewdly dealt with them as they travelled back and forth to Egypt for food all the while not knowing he was their brother. Then when he deemed the time was right, all that pent-up emotion flowed so freely that everyone around knew he was weeping.

I am aware that there are many people, men included, who cry like freely flowing fountains. You probably have no trouble relating to Joseph. You might be crying right now. Then there’s the others. Maybe you have an incessant lump in your throat as I had. Perhaps you have buried your emotions for so long that you can’t feel them anymore. I don’t know what it will take to release all you have been carrying inside. I just wanted to tell you: it’s alright to cry.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Mountain Movers

For the week of December 8, 2018 / 30 Kislev 5779

Man facing mountain range

Mikez & Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17 & B’midbar/Numbers 7:42-47; 28:9-15
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)

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Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of “Grace, grace to it!” (Zechariah 4:7)

A key, if not the core, aspect of Hanukkah is captured in this special Haftarah reading for the Shabbat that coincides with the festival (Hanukkah this year began the evening of December 2). The time period in which the prophet Zechariah lived is not normally given that much attention. Yet, not only is it an important chapter of Israel’s history, it provides the background for the events to follow, including the Maccabean revolt and the coming of the Messiah.

The return from Babylon never lived up to expectations. The Hebrew prophets envisioned a grand reestablishment of the kingdom of Israel, with a joyful and fruitful population and a glorious temple to which the nations would stream. Not only that, it would coincide with God’s blessing overflowing from Israel to the uttermost parts of the globe. Instead, a majority never returned, the rebuilt temple was pale in comparison to the original, and the worst of it was that, except for a brief time following the Maccabean revolt, Israel was ruled by foreigners (the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans), a sure sign of God’s disfavor. The fulness of the prophetic expectation would have to wait.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah document aspects of the return. It was no easy time and very discouraging. Zechariah, along with the prophet Haggai, were tasked with helping the people to not give up and fulfill their priority mission, the rebuilding of the temple. Zechariah had a particular word for Zerubbabel the governor.

I don’t know how aware the Maccabees were of Zechariah’s message to Zerubbabel, but somehow, they took it to heart. It’s a message that has been embraced by most courageous and faithful followers of Israel’s God. It’s what Yeshua told his disciples they would be able to do if they would possess even the most minuscule amount of genuine trust. Zechariah’s message is that when God is with us in what he gives us to do, no challenge is too difficult, no obstacle too great. Success is not dependent upon our physical capabilities, intelligence, or resources. When God is with us, he makes the impossible possible.

We read about miracles and the wondrous exploits of biblical characters, and don’t always catch how they must have felt standing before insurmountable challenges. When faced with difficulties, we may see ourselves as failures: “If only I do better or work harder, then maybe I can do it. And if I can’t certainly someone somewhere can.” But then there’s the truly impossible. That’s what Zerubbabel was facing. He wasn’t called to climb a mountain, he had to remove it. That’s the impossible. And that’s overwhelmingly discouraging. And that’s why he needed God’s word through the prophet: It’s coming down!

As Yeshua said: “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you’” (Matthew 17:20). From Abraham, called to be a great nation in spite of being old and childless; to Moses, mandated to confront the world power of his day; to David, standing before the giant; to the small Maccabean army taking on the mighty Greeks; to Yeshua, conquering death itself, mountains have been moving.

I wonder how many impossible situations we have allowed to remain in our lives when God wants them gone. I am not saying we have superhuman ability to do the impossible at will. But when God calls us to face great intimidating challenges, perhaps we often give up too quickly.

Think of the mountains in your life right now. Make a list if necessary. Ask God to speak to you as you offer them one by one to him. You may just sense a tiny spark of faith with regard to one or more. If so, speak to the mountain and watch what happens.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


For more Hanukkah reflections, a children’s story, and activities, see the TorahBytes Hanukkah section.

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