Bridging the Abortion Divide

For the week of February 2, 2019 / 27 Shevat 5779Two road signs pointing in opposite directions: Have a baby/Abortion

Mishpatim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1-24:18
Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-26

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When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Shemot/Exodus 21:22-25)

On January 22, to coincide with the forty-sixth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision over abortion rights, the State of New York has further liberalized their abortion laws. The procedure will now be permitted (under certain circumstances) up until birth and will no longer be regulated by their criminal code. These measures have virtually brought the state in line with Canada’s decades-old approach to the procedure. Canada has no abortion-specific regulations, creating a legal vacuum that has been interpreted as absolute legalization through all nine months of pregnancy.

There are few issues in our ever increasingly polarized society that lack a genuine discussion as this one. Let me illustrate the divide through a personal example that isn’t about abortion. My wife and I recently significantly downsized. We moved from a home in which at one time all ten of our children lived. Over the past several years one, then another, then another has moved out on their own. Currently we only have our two youngest, teenagers, still living with us. It took us a while to understand how radically different life was with our tiny (to us) family. Moving to a new, smaller home presented us with various challenges, one being: what do we get rid of? It’s amazing how much stuff we humans can accumulate. You are probably not surprised that my wife and I had differing opinions on this. As far as I can tell, most of the time, we kept our thoughts to ourselves, but every now and then there was something significant enough to one of us or both that merited a discussion. The problem is that if there was a difference of opinion over this or that item, apart from the item being the topic of discussion, it was as if we weren’t talking about the same issue. At least not the same aspects of the issue. The person wanting to get rid of the item focused on how keeping the item was detrimental to them or the family: no room, doesn’t work anymore, expensive to maintain, outlived its use, and so on. The person wanting to keep it was focused on how precious and essential the item was: it means a lot to me, it was a gift, you never know when we might need it. Before you know it, it’s personal. Either party may accuse the other of not caring about them and their feelings positively or negatively toward the thing. But what about the thing itself and its ongoing place in our lives? Can’t two people intelligently discuss the actual pros and cons of keeping vs. getting rid of something? We tried and succeeded, I think.

Similarly with abortion most of time the two sides are not discussing (arguing!) the same issues. The pro-abortion side is focused on the woman, especially her right to not have the state or anyone else tell her what to do. Pro-lifers, on the other hand, are focused on the preborn child. The existence of a human life demands protection whatever state or condition the prospective mother may be in. For one side, it’s about the woman; for the other, it’s the baby.

But is this lack of true discussion really necessary? Can’t we approach this issue together with concern for both mother and child? In this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), concern over mother and baby are addressed together. Should a violent altercation that leads to premature birth result in further harm, the offending party must make amends. It isn’t clear if the harm is to the mother, the child, or both. Harm to either deserves justice.

Both the mother and the baby matter to God. Both should matter to us. However we resolve our differences regarding abortion, let’s keep all affected parties in mind.

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Greater

For the week of January 26, 2019 / 20 Shevat 5779

The symbols "! > ?" superimposed on a blue sky with one cloud

Yitro
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 18:1-20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5

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Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods… (Shemot/Exodus 18:11)

Last week I explained that in certain contexts knowing God doesn’t necessarily relate to having a personal relationship with him. For the Egyptians to know the God of Israel is to say that they experienced the reality of his character and ability as a result of the incident of the Red Sea.

Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, uses the same word “yada,” meaning “to know” differently. He didn’t experience God’s power first-hand as the Egyptians did. Instead he received it via Moses’ retelling of the events: “Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had come upon them in the way, and how the Lord had delivered them” (Shemot/Exodus 18:8). Yet simply hearing the stories of what happened had a greater impact on him than the impact of what the Egyptians experienced had had on them. Even though the Egyptians experienced the reality of God’s power as well as his favor towards the Israelites, it made no lasting difference in their lives. Jethro, on the other hand, truly learned something, the realization “that the Lord is greater than all gods.”

We don’t know how far Jethro went with this knowledge. He was a priest of Midian (see Shemot/Exodus 3:1). And yet following his realization, he brought offerings to God in fellowship with Aaron and the elders of Israel. This is followed by Moses receiving some helpful administrative advice from him. Then he returned home, which is the last we hear of him in the biblical record. Did he forsake the Midianite gods and establish an outpost of Truth outside of the community of Israel? We don’t know. He is regarded as the chief prophet of the Druze religion, but there is no biblical support for this.

Whatever the rest of his life looked like, we do have what he said. Through Moses he came to know that the God of Israel is greater than all gods. For readers of the Bible, this is the most basic of truths. The God of Israel is God alone. Nothing or no one compares. In fact, other gods are not really gods even though they may be called gods. In some cases, they are figments of people’s imaginations. In other cases, they are demonic or natural forces that are given god-like status. Jethro’s statement appears to reflect the common belief that other so-called gods did exist. Yet, none match the greatness of the God of Israel.

Do you agree with him? In keeping with biblical truth, you may reject the notion of other lessor gods. Still, there are other personal and impersonal forces at work in the world that you encounter every day of your life. You may or may not think of them as gods or any kind of entity whatsoever, but they seek to assert power over you. We call them circumstances and problems, or more positively, opportunities. Endless books have been written to help you overcome negative forces and leverage positive ones to prevent harm and achieve success. Based on how much time, energy, and money we spend engaging these forces, I wonder sometimes if we actually believe that God is truly greater.

Depersonalizing the myriad of forces in the world doesn’t necessarily reduce their control over our lives. We need to ask the question: who or what concerns us the most in life? Is it money, relationships, your job situation? Maybe it’s yourself. As I have struggled to truly know God for who he is, I have often lamented over myself as being my greatest problem. That might even sound biblical to you. Don’t we have to put off our old nature, for example? Yes, but when we think that the remnants of ungodliness (or however we may express our issues) have the upper hand, then do we not deny Jethro’s assertion that God is greater?

Whether it be our own selves or any other forces, when we assert that they have more power and influence than the good and loving God of the Bible, then we don’t only ascribe god-like status to them, we elevate them above the One whom we claim to worship. And speaking of worship, focusing on these forces in the way we do, whether cowering under their threats or overly investing in them for our benefit, that’s worship.

We don’t know what Jethro did with his realization “that the Lord is greater than all gods.” Perhaps, he had a wonderful spiritual experience with Moses and company, and then after going home, it was business as usual. But what about you and me? If we know that God is greater than every other force in life, will it be business as usual? The same old patterns, the same old fears, the same old tactics? Or are we going to make the appropriate adjustments and live life based on the truth that God is greater than all gods?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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What Do You Know?

For the week of January 19, 2019 / 13 Shevat 5779

A man not knowing what to do

Be-Shallah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17-17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4-5:31

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Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea. For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” And they did so. (Shemot/Exodus 14:1-4)

Three times in Shemot (the book of Exodus), God says through Moses that one of the results of his freeing the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt is that the Egyptians will know who he really is. This may sound as if God was predicting that he would not only convince them that he alone is God, but that they would reject their false gods and turn to him. Witnessing his power through the plagues and the parting of the sea along with the drowning of the Egyptian army would bring about a change of heart and mind.

The problem with this is that there is no indication in Scripture or history that the exodus from Egypt had any such effect upon the Egyptians. It appears that individual Egyptians may have turned to the God of Israel, but there was no grand scale change in the religious and spiritual life of the nation. Perhaps these events didn’t have the predicted impact. Or maybe it did after all.

Saying: “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord,” is not implying that they were to necessarily experience internal, lasting life change. “To know” doesn’t mean to be convinced of something as if these events were solely designed to teach them a theological lesson. That they were given such an opportunity to experience radical spiritual transformation is clear, but nothing needed to happen within the psyche of Egypt to accomplish God’s expressed purpose of them knowing what he wanted them to know. The only thing that needed to happen happened: due to Pharaoh’s obstinance, the Egyptians experienced the presence and power of God.

The Egyptians’ unwillingness to accept the truth of Israel’s God doesn’t mean they didn’t genuinely know it for what it is. Few people in history have been given such an opportunity to see God’s power on display in this way. Their reluctance to give credit where credit was due is not a reflection of their experience of him.

Even though few people have experienced what the Egyptians did, throughout time, all over the world, God’s power has been on display. Everyday people experience God. From his generous goodness to his harsh judgements he makes himself known, not to mention how the natural world proclaims his creativity for all to see.

It’s in this sense the Egyptians got to know God. Pharaoh knew better than to resist God’s word through Moses over and over again. His destructive stubbornness had nothing to do with lack of knowledge. He simply preferred to be selfish rather than submit to the obvious truth.

The rest of the world is no different. Refusal to submit to the God of Israel has little to do with lack of knowledge. That’s why we needn’t try to prove his existence. His evidence is everywhere. We simply need to point it out as we call people to a personal relationship with him through the Messiah.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Do You Know God’s Name?

For the week of January 5, 2019 / 28 Tevet 5779

The words WHAT'S YOUR NAME? written on an chalk board

Va-Era
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21
Originally published: For the week of January 21, 2012 / 26 Tevet 5772

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God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them.” (Shemot / Exodus 6:2-3)

The statement I just read often troubles readers of the Torah. When God appeared to Moses he told him that he did not make himself known to the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, by the name (in Hebrew) yod, hei, vav, hei (corresponding English letters: YHVH), often translated in English as LORD with full caps. This is sometimes written out as “Yahveh,” or “Yahweh.” This is where we get the mispronounced name “Jehovah”. This name is derived from the Hebrew verb for “to be” and signifies God as the eternal Being, the self-existing one from whom all existence is derived. The reason why we don’t use Yahveh or something close is that in Jewish tradition, God’s name was considered so sacred that its use was reserved for very special occasions and even then by certain people. Since Hebrew is a consonantal language, meaning only the consonants are written out, the vowels for each word were to be remembered through oral tradition. In the biblical text the vowel sounds are noted through special markings. But these markings were added many years after the text was written down and were known only by tradition. The vowel markings for YHVH are most likely taken from the word “adonai”, meaning “Lord.” Using these markings was to signal the reader to say “adonai” whenever encountering YHVH in the text.

Be that as it may, our passage sounds as if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob didn’t know God by this name at all, but rather by “el shaddai” (commonly in English: “God Almighty”) even though there are references to YHVH all through the stories of the patriarchs, including in quotes of the forefathers themselves.

There are two possible solutions to this issue. First, the use of YHVH in the earlier biblical period was introduced some time later by Moses or other editors of the Torah. According to this view, the forefathers had never once heard this name for God, but the stories are written using what later became the most widely used name for God. The problem with this explanation is that it runs counter to the usual care of the biblical writers to preserve correct uses of terms within their original time periods.

A better explanation is based on understanding that the way names in the Bible are used is primarily to describe something about the one named, rather than a simple designation. People in many cultures today tend to name children with particular names because they like the sound. An exception to that is naming someone after someone else. But even in that case the name simply functions as a designator, similar to how a serial number functions in order to differentiate individuals from one another. In Biblical times people are often named in such a way as to denote something about the person or in reference to an event of some kind. A person’s name tells a story about the person or something about the context in which they live. Moses’ name serves as an example of this in that it refers to his being taken from the water when he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter. God’s name as revealed to Moses is far more about the meaning of that name than its sound. It is possible that the forefathers were aware of this name even though they never experienced its full meaning.

Up until the time of God’s deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt, his activity with people was for the most part intimate and personal only. While he did create the universe, instigated the flood, and confused the languages at Babel, his work was limited to words of promise, warning, and guidance. It is with Moses and the exodus that we see the powerful hand of God at work favoring his covenant people. Through the plagues God judges Egypt, its leadership and its gods while revealing his loyalty to his chosen people. He doesn’t sit idly by, simply offering words of encouragement. Instead he powerfully fights their battles by manipulating the forces of nature and twisting Pharaoh’s arm in order to accomplish his purpose.

This demonstrated to his people and the world that God was not limited in any way. The power of the God of Israel extended far beyond their own community into every aspect of creation. What Israel knew about God through the stories of creation, the flood, and Babel, became personally relevant to them as a people. Their relationship to God was not to be something of myth and legend, designed only to encourage them in difficult times, but they could count on God to fight for them in the midst of greatest difficulty.

There are people today that think it is essential to use God’s actual name, thinking that something special would happen or that God would be more pleased with us if we did. But what God desires for us is that we would know his name in the way that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not. He is not far off, existing simply to warm our hearts through gentle reminders of intangible thoughts. But rather he is a God of action who wishes to powerfully break through into our lives in order to reveal his tangible reality to and through us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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