Tefillin

For the week of February 1, 2020 / 6 Shevat 5780

Pair of tefillin (phylacteries)

Bo
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28

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And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand the LORD has brought you out of Egypt. (Shemot/Exodus 13:9)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) contains two of the four references in the Torah to what has been taken to be the basis of tefillin. Tefillin are the pair of black boxes attached to leather straps that are worn during certain prayers. The verses are the one quoted above, Shemot/Exodus 13:9, as well as 16, D’varim/Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18. The boxes contain hand-written parchment scrolls of the passages within which these verses appear (Shemot/Exodus 13:1-10, 13:11-16; D’varim/Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:12-21).

Using tefillin has become a mark of strong adherence to Judaism. Its use is ancient. How ancient, we don’t know. You might be surprised to learn that the oldest recorded mention of tefillin is in the New Covenant Writings (the New Testament), Matthew chapter twenty-three, verse five, where Yeshua is quoted as saying, “they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” Not very complimentary, as the Messiah is critiquing the general showiness of the religious leadership of his day. The casual reader may miss, however, the full impact of Yeshua’s critique here. For the most part, his comments focus on how these people made their religious objects in such a way to draw attention to one’s self. The fringes (Hebrew: “tzitzit”; plural: “tsitsiyot”) are the tassels that God directed to be added to the hem of one’s garment; so designed as a reminder to keep his commandments (see Numbers 15:37-40; D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:12). The Greek word that Matthew uses for tzitsiyot is “kraspedon,” meaning “tassle” – pretty straightforward. The Greek word for tefillin here is far more loaded. Matthew uses “phylakteirion.” Most English translations don’t actually translate the word, but rather transliterate it instead by using “phylacteries.” Other translations use “prayer boxes” or “scripture boxes” to more clearly describe tefillin. But the problem with that is it may miss Yeshua’s point. The Greek phylakteirion means “amulet,” an object worn or used to provide protection from evil forces.

Yeshua may have been adding an extra layer of criticism to his tefillin reference by considering them and those using them as superstitious. Not only were they attempting to show off their piety, they were dabbling in the magic arts at the same time. The other possibility is that tefillin was already commonly regarded as an amulet and that Matthew used the best Greek word to represent tefillin as they knew it. This is discussed in the article: “The Origins of Tefillin.”

Either way, morphing God’s word into a magical object is what happens when we allow it (or should I say “force it”) to take on properties God never intended. One needn’t be a Bible scholar to see that the references used as a basis for tefillin are metaphorical. If the “sign on your hand” and a “memorial between your eyes” were meant to be taken literally, then we should also be stuffing our mouths with Bible verses in order to fulfill “that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth.”

The purpose of the metaphor “sign on your hand… and memorial between your eyes” was to encourage God’s people to always be ready to obey him and to keep his word in focus. The result would be that it would flow from our mouths. As God used his word to create the universe, so our mouths should be filled with his word in order to bring blessing into the world.

It’s a lot easier to create objects to attempt to manipulate the forces of life than to fill ourselves with God’s word as it was intended. I wonder how many amulets we utilize, thus deceiving ourselves into thinking we are godly when all we are doing is showing off or worse. We adopt all sorts of techniques and formulas thinking they’ll provide us with shortcuts to God and his power. Instead, let us embrace his word as he intended, allowing him to fill our lives to overflowing, always ready to hear and obey.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Sometimes It’s a Process

For the week of January 25, 2020 / 28 Tevet 5780

Businessman drawing flowcharts on chalkboard

Va-Era
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21
Originally posted the week of January 11, 2003 / 8 Shevat 5763 (revised)

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Say therefore to the people of Israel, “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.” (Shemot/Exodus 6:6)

Israel had been serving the Egyptians as slaves for many, many years. They suffered terribly under cruel taskmasters. Over one particular period (the time in which Moses was born), Pharaoh, king of Egypt, sought to decimate them through the murder of all male babies.

The people cried out to God. God heard them. He decided that the time to deliver them had come. And so he sent Moses to them, who, in spite of opposition from Pharaoh and lack of support from the elders of Israel, persevered in his calling. But it wasn’t Moses’ persistence that wrested the people from Egypt’s grasp; it was the hand of God. God pummeled Egypt with destructive plagues until Pharaoh begrudgingly let Israel go.

Every time I think on these things, I find myself wondering if God wanted to free his people, then why didn’t he simply miraculously transport them from Egypt to the Promised Land. After all, isn’t he the all-powerful God of the universe? If he could send plagues (and stop them at will), not to mention the other miracles Israel would experience later on, couldn’t he have utilized a quicker method?

I don’t know how you deal with difficult situations, but one of the things I do is wish they didn’t exist. I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, when I discussed the need to not be distracted by difficult and painful circumstances (see Don’t Get Distracted). Some problems to me are like nightmares that I wish I could wake up from. But I know that life doesn’t work that way.

The reality is that most problems don’t disappear through wishing or the snap of a finger. Most problems resolve over time through a process. This was so even when God was involved as he was in the deliverance of Israel from Egypt.

Accepting this will help us have the kind of faith needed in order to deal with life’s difficulties. If we think that God will always provide instant solutions to all our problems, then when things don’t happen as quickly as we expect, we might think that either God doesn’t care or is unable to help us.

This is not to say that God won’t or can’t fix our problems in an instant. Sometimes he does. But when he doesn’t, we need to keep looking to him to guide us through the process as he works things out step by step in his time.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Who Am I?

For the week of January 18, 2020 / 21 Tevet 5780

Man holding large paper with question marks on it in front of his faceShemot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13; 29:22-23

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“Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Shemot/Exodus 3:10-11)

For many people, coming to grips with our identity is life’s greatest challenge. It doesn’t help that we live in what is perhaps the most meaningless time in history. If the world is made of nothing more than energy and matter plus chance, then we are the products of mindless randomization. Any semblance of meaning must therefore be a fantasy concocted by our imaginations. Without meaning, the concept of identity has no basis.

In spite of this, we long for a sense of purpose. We yearn to connect with others and with the world. But without being grounded in meaning, we remain confused. This confusion is one of the causes of relational difficulties and family breakdown. We dump our closest relationships because they don’t satisfy us. They don’t satisfy us because we don’t know why we are on this earth. The more fragmented our communities become, the more our identity crisis grows.

Moses had an identity crisis. God appears to him and gives him a mission, a mission that he sought to pursue forty years before. It didn’t go well back then. Now it was time. But not as far as Moses was concerned: he tries to get out of it. Note the first words out of his mouth as he responds to God’s directive: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Shemot/Exodus 3:11). His issue was not with God – at least not on the surface – but with himself. Thinking he knew himself; this job was not for him.

Can you blame him? What a life he had up to this point! He lived in a day when the government sought to exterminate all the males of his people group. It’s nice that his parents tried to hang on to him as long as they could, but in the end, they put him in a basket in a river. Whether or not they hoped he’d be rescued is beside the point. But wasn’t he too young to be affected by this? Perhaps, yet he knew the story. But what choice did his parents have? Doesn’t matter, the people who were to protect him abandoned him. But wasn’t he miraculously saved by Pharaoh’s daughter? Moses’ mom even got paid to nurse him. Yes, both true, but adopted by the daughter of the evil emperor, who is out to destroy your entire people, while you retain a relationship with your birth mom who is functioning as a hireling? This would mess anyone up. The same with being raised among Egyptian royalty. Nice, but who wouldn’t feel guilty in palace luxury looking through their bedroom window at their people being abused as slaves?

There is every indication that Moses never forgot his Hebrew roots. He even sought to make a difference on their behalf but makes matters worse by killing an Egyptian in the process. Now Pharaoh, the head of his adopted family, wants him executed. So he becomes a fugitive, spending the next forty years among another foreign people, marrying one of them and raising a family in their midst.

No wonder Moses responds with “Who am I?” He is a nobody at best – an outcast and a criminal at worst. A person like this is chosen by the Master of the Universe to confront the planet’s superpower, demanding he release his vast workforce? In spite of God being God, he certainly has got the wrong guy – at least that’s what Moses thought.

And yet, in spite of Moses’ identity crisis and his attempt to resist God’s call, Moses gives in. We are not told what changed in his psyche to make him willing to confront Pharaoh. All we know is that he goes. Perhaps God’s responses to his objections were sufficient to bring about a change of heart and will. Or he surmised he didn’t have a choice in the matter. Something must have happened inside him, because not only does he accept the mission, he perseveres in it against overwhelming obstacles. Whatever changed his perspective, his life going forward proved God’s response to his “Who am I?” question to be true.  For the most part, whatever the circumstances, Moses believed God when he said, “I will be with you” (Shemot/Exodus 3:12).

Once God clarified his relationship to Moses, he was able to emerge from being an outcast in the wilderness to a place of leadership among his people.  Moses’ identity crisis, however, was not resolved simply by his hearing God’s clarification, but by believing God’s word to be true and living accordingly.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Don’t Get Distracted

For the week of January 11, 2020 / 14 Tevet 5780

Cable wire bridge in a green forest

Va-Yehi
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 2:1-12

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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. (Bereshit/Genesis 50:20)

Joseph’s consolation of his brothers after their father, Jacob, died is one of my favorite stories in the entire Bible. What Joseph says to his brothers here, is the kind of thing that Canadian professor and psychologist Jordan B. Peterson likes to say when he encounters the deep things of Scripture: we could think about this for a very long time! Somehow Joseph, in this brief statement, captures the complex interplay between human activity and the work of God. While, in no way turning a blind eye toward his brothers’ wrong, he acknowledges God’s upper hand.

Joseph’s brothers’ murderous jealousy could not undermine the good plan of God. It would be wrong to say that God made the brothers do it, however, as if he manipulates human affairs. Instead, God is able to accomplish his purposes through the free agency of human beings. We often like to ask the question, could he not have done it some other way? But as C.S. Lewis asserts through the lion Aslan in the Narnia Chronicles: you never know what would have happened. In other words, there’s no such thing as the hypothetical past; we always only know what actually happened. Joseph experienced what he experienced because of his brothers’ jealousy, their misguided choices. At the same time, God was at work to fulfill his purposes in the world.

I have always wondered at Joseph’s ability to cope with the tension between his brother’s actions and God’s grand plan. Clearly, he must have regarded God’s goodness as being a more dominant force in his life in spite of the hardship. But on the morning of the day I was preparing this message, I realized that there must be something about how Joseph viewed hardship itself that enabled him to endure what he did without bitterness. The situation he had been in was terrible. He was sold into slavery by his own brothers. His master’s wife framed him when he wouldn’t give in to her seduction. He spent many years after that in a dungeon from which he longed to be released. Even though that day finally came, and he was exalted to second-in-command under Pharaoh, most people would resent such a long period of unjust suffering.

I had previously thought that which made Joseph so great was his ability to keep his focus on God in spite of his circumstances – and I still think that. But, to keep focus on God necessitates not focusing on his suffering. I don’t know about you, but I tend to find that suffering or even less-intense discomfort distracts me from other things, God included. In fact, my discomfort can easily become an obsession. And if you are at all like me, you are aware that we cannot function well while obsessing over our problems.

I don’t like suffering. I prefer it didn’t exist. When I face hardship, I try to wish it away hoping it would vanish as if I were  waking up from a bad dream. But, as you know , life doesn’t work that way. You probably also know that the Bible has a very different take on suffering. The New Covenant letter of Ya’acov (Jacob) or more commonly known as James states:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (1:2-4).

It sounds very spiritual to think of Joseph as simply focusing on God in spite of difficulty. But what’s really difficult is “simply focusing on God” without changing our perspective on hardship itself. Until we believe that God is more powerful than hardship’s evil, suffering will control us, and we will become resentful. But once we grasp that God’s goodness is with us no matter how bad things get –more than that!– that God uses the terrible things in our lives to accomplish great good, both for us personally and for his grand purposes, then hardship will lose its power to distract us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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