Positively Negative

For the week of September 26, 2020 / 8 Tishri 5781

Silhouette of a large finger pointing aggressively at a silhouetted intimidated man

Ha’Azinu/Shuva
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English: 14:1-9); Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

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

The annual Torah reading cycle comes to an end during the High Holiday season. Whenever a festival falls on Shabbat, a special Torah reading replaces the regularly scheduled ones. This year that happens quite a bit; this week being the one exception. It is also unusually negative.

We live in unusually negative times. I am not referring to the general intensity of the current challenges we are facing, including the pandemic and various political and social issues. It’s the loud angry tone of accusation being incessantly fired at real or perceived wrongs, be they current or past, systemic or not. Somehow it has become acceptable to harshly and angrily criticize those with whom we disagree and blast those deemed to be the source of injustice.

I in no way want to suggest that the concerns being addressed are necessarily unjustified. Perhaps some are. I personally believe that we should do our best to listen to the complaints of others. I know it’s difficult to hear the content of what someone is saying when they are very angry. But just because their presentation is upsetting and extreme shouldn’t mean they should be automatically disregarded.

That said, I also believe there is an underlying misnomer about life in general that is fueling the anger. Perhaps if the victims of injustice and their supporters would take a moment to catch some of what is being addressed by Moses in this week’s reading, we all might have a better chance at resolving many, if not all, the issues we are facing today.

These are some of Moses’ final words to the people of Israel before he died, thus the Torah is near completion. The Books of Moses are foundational to the whole Bible and contain core stories such as creation, human rebellion, and the early beginnings of God’s restoration plan. It’s in Torah we learn of God’s choosing of Israel and the demonstration of his power through the exodus from Egypt, followed by the revelation of his word at Mt. Sinai and subsequent teaching through Moses. Throughout Torah’s pages we discover God’s worldview and the delineation of his ways as they touch on all aspects of life. Yet, as Moses completes his mission, his outlook is bleak. Instead of the expected, “You can do it!” pep talk, he tells his people, “You are going to fail!”

His words may be negative but are designed for a positive result. Moses isn’t trying to discourage the people; he is helping them to take a realistic view of themselves. They have a problem, a deep-seated spiritual and moral problem. Essential to understanding this problem is to accept that they all have it. It may sound as if Moses considers himself an exception, but remember he had been recently barred from entering the Promised Land due to his own misbehavior. No one is exempt from this negative assessment.

The good words of Torah, while being an overall blessing, testify against Israel by exposing the negative condition of human nature. This is not exclusive to Israel, of course. For Israel was chosen partly to demonstrate to the whole world our twisted state. This is what the Bible calls, “sin.” In the subsequent years Israel would face their sin as God would teach them (and through them the world), that only he possesses the remedy. It’s only by humbly admitting our need and receiving God’s forgiveness and power through the Messiah that we can be the people we were meant to be.

The current rage has failed to grasp that we are all in this together. No one can claim to be in possession of a nature that is morally and spiritually superior to anyone else’s. Sin may express itself differently in and through each one of us, but it will express itself. Thankfully, the remedy too is available to anyone willing to receive it.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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God Hears

For the week of September 19, 2020 / 1 Tishri 5781

Message information over oil painting of Hagar and Ishmael.

Painting: “Hagar and Ishmael” by Benjamin West. 1776, reworked 1803. Metropolitan Museum of Art collection. Public Domain (Creative Commons).

Rosh Hashanah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 21:1-34; B’midbar/Numbers 29:1-6
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 1:1 – 2:10

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And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.” (Bereshit/Genesis 21:17)

This week’s Torah readings are special for Rosh Hashana, which literally means “head of the year.” A more biblical term for this festival is Yom T’ruah, meaning “Day of Blowing (the Shofar),” which over time became the occasion to mark the civil new year for the Jewish people. When major festivals fall on a Shabbat, the normally scheduled reading is postponed and replaced by special readings pertinent to the festival. Rosh Hashanah, being observed for two days (this year beginning the evening of Friday, September 18), there are different readings for each day.

The first Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah includes the birth of Isaac, the son promised to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. This section of Bereshit/Genesis was likely chosen because it is acting as an introduction to the second reading later in the same book, when God provides a ram to be sacrificed in place of Isaac. The connection to the festival is due to the ram’s being caught by its horns in a thicket, and that the ram’s horn, shofar in Hebrew, is the central symbol of the festival.

The first reading also includes the account of Hagar’s and Ishmael’s final separation from Abraham’s household. Ishmael was the product of a surrogacy arrangement urged by Sarah as a way to resolve her barrenness. This was the second time that an issue between Sarah and her maidservant, Hagar, led to Hagar’s leaving. The first time Hagar was instructed by God to return (see Bereshit/Genesis 16), but this second time the separation was to be permanent. The first time, when she was still pregnant, she was told by an angel that she would bear a son, named Ishmael, and that God would give him many offspring. This second time, she is told he would become a great nation.

What I would like for us to notice in this encounter, is the statement: “God heard the voice of the boy” (Bereshit/Genesis 21:17). Every year in synagogues all over the world, these words are chanted: “God heard the voice of the boy.” Every year at the beginning of what has become the holiest three weeks in the Jewish calendar, the people of Israel are reminded, “God heard the voice of the boy.” Which boy? Ishmael—rejected from being a member of God’s covenant community. Yet, God heard him. In fact, his name means, “God hears.”

This one sentence to this one person tells us something about the God of Israel that is too often forgotten. From this earliest stage in the development of the Chosen People, Torah makes clear that the God of Israel isn’t the God of Israel only. The ears of God are open to all. This is not to say that every representation of the spiritual domain humans have invented is correct. Neither does this justify misguided actions of those who claim to be true believers. The Bible in no way condones an anything-goes approach to God and life. But it also doesn’t condone any attempt to claim exclusive rights to him.

The chosenness of Israel was established by God to bless the nations of the world (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:3). Israel was chosen as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Without in anyway downplaying God’s eternal commitment to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, chosenness was never to result in an exclusive claim on God.

It took the early followers of the Messiah some time to grasp this. A breakthrough in this regard happened when Peter was called by God to be the first to present the good news of the Messiah to a non-Jewish household. He said, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). He didn’t understand that before. He should have, but he didn’t. Now he did.

I assume that many reading or hearing this at least theoretically understand that “God shows no partiality,” but do we really? While good definitions of appropriate faith are essential to walking in God’s truth, I wonder how many unnecessary boundaries we have placed on our particular brand. It’s one thing to cluster with like-minded people, but there is a fine line between preference and arrogance. If God is willing to hear people from outside our strictly defined groupings, then perhaps we are well advised to hear them too.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Individualism vs. Collectivism

For the week of September 12, 2020 / 23 Elul 5780

Multiple darts flying together toward a large target while a single dart heads to a separate small target

Nitzavim & Vayeilech
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30 (English 29:10 – 31:30)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9

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You are standing today, all of you, before the LORD your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, so that you may enter into the sworn covenant of the LORD your God, which the LORD your God is making with you today, that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. It is not with you alone that I am making this sworn covenant, but with whoever is standing here with us today before the LORD our God, and with whoever is not here with us today. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:9-14; English: 29:10-15)

One of the cultural clashes we are experiencing in our world today is individualism vs. collectivism. Some claim the successes of the Western world are built upon stressing the value of the individual, leading to individual freedoms, rights, and responsibility. Pop culture has derived “you can be whoever you want to be” from this way of thinking. Most of the world for most of history has downplayed the individual in favor of the collective. According to collectivism, who you are and your role in life are derived solely from your family and community. According to this way of thinking you are born into a particular station in life and are expected to remain there.

Individualists reject this type of deterministic thinking and look to remove what they regard as societal obstacles usually in terms of unnecessary government controls to provide individuals the opportunity to prosper. Collectivists on the other hand put their hopes on bettering community control, through greater government involvement as the way to prevent a small percentage of individuals from gaining inordinate advantage over the masses.

The reason for the intensity of the clash between these two ways of thinking is each views the whole of reality through their particular lens. Individualism only sees individuals.  They see collectivist leaders as nothing more than individuals riding the backs of the masses in the name of equality and equity. Collectivists don’t see individuals, but only an oppressive class to be replaced.

On the surface these may appear to be two different political approaches. But they are more than that, they are political approaches stemming from two different ways of seeing the world. What they have in common is that they are both wrong. Both create caricatures of the other based on skewed perceptions. Reality is best understood through a biblical lens. God’s perspective as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Covenant Writings is not just another way of looking at life. It’s the understanding of the designer of the universe himself.

According to Scripture, human beings are individuals intimately connected to identifiable groups. We see this reflected in the beginning of this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion). The people of Israel are being addressed by Moses as he nears the end of his life. That he is addressing a community is obvious. He reminds Israel that their covenant with God establishes them as a people whose community identity extends beyond the current generation. Yet, how he addresses them also emphasizes their being individuals within that community: “You are standing today, all of you, before the LORD your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:9-10; English 29:10-11).

Throughout the Scriptures we see the dynamic of community obligation and individual responsibility. For ancient Israel the individual was at its best when he or she earnestly lived out his or her national community obligations. The greatest community builders in Israel were those who took very lonely stands for the greater good of the people, including Joseph, Moses, and David.

The basis for the well-balanced functioning of the individual and the community is that neither derived ultimate meaning in one or the other. Instead both individual and collective meaning and value were derived from God and his word. Focus on self or focus on community blinds us from the higher view of life that only God can provide.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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