Anybody Home?

For the week of November 28, 2020 / 12 Kislev 5781

A man unlocking his front door, and entering his house

Vayetzei
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10-32:3 (English 28:10 – 32:2)
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13-14:10 (English 12:12 – 14:9)

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Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:16)

Have you ever entered your house and called, “Is anybody home?” If no one answered, what did you do next? Did you immediately conclude that you were alone, or did you call out again in the same manner? If you called again and still no answer, what then? What did it take before you were satisfied that no one else was there? I imagine most of us would call out a couple of times and that would be enough. But have you really thought this through? Maybe someone is home, but they have their earbuds in and cannot hear. Maybe they are in the shower. Or they are sleeping. They may even be hiding.

Of course, depending on the situation and the people involved, we are most often capable of accurately sizing up situations like these. On the other hand, I suspect that some of you have funny, embarrassing, or frightening stories of when you thought you were alone but were not. This goes to show that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to prove the non-existence of something. Even if you scoured your entire house, you could never be completely certain that there was no one else there. All you can do is make a tentative conclusion based on reasonable evidence.

In Jacob’s case, he had been in the presence of God and wasn’t aware of it. Only upon awakening from his inspired dream did he realize that God had been there. You might think that since his experience was within a dream, it didn’t indicate anything about God’s actual presence in that place. Didn’t Jacob know the difference between a dream and reality? Perhaps Jacob overstated the significance of the dream. Yet, his statement reflects his general lack of God-awareness.

Until this point, we have no record of prior interaction between Jacob and God. In fact, the only mention of God from Jacob’s lips before this, was when he took the Lord’s name in vain while attempting (and succeeding) to steal his brother’s blessing (see Bereshit/Genesis 27:20). So, whether or not Jacob was correct in his understanding of how God’s presence manifested in the place he named “Beit-el,” he had been generally unaware of God altogether. Despite this experience, it would be many years before he would fully reckon with God’s reality in the world. Until his dramatic and painful encounter with God upon his return to the Promised Land (see Bereshit/Genesis 32:22-32), Jacob would continue to live his life as if God didn’t exist.

Many people have dismissed God’s reality because they concluded the evidence speaks against his existence. It doesn’t seem like anyone’s home, so we must be alone. I understand that God’s invisibility lends itself to such a conclusion. But if there are personal invisible forces at work in the universe, then we wouldn’t be able to see them. Evidence for their existence would need to be of a non-material sort. The problem is we process information via our physical senses. Thankfully, God is aware of that. After all, he made us this way. And that’s why he has made himself known through means which we can perceive.

Dreams are not the only way that God makes himself known. He is reflected in the grandeur, variety, and precision of nature; he demonstrates his power through unusual events; he reaches out to us through human kindness and love; and he is most clear through his written Word, especially with regard to the coming of the Messiah. For those who are openhearted and are willing to seek him out, the evidence for God’s existence is readily available. There really is someone home. God is not hiding. It is we who are too quick to conclude otherwise.

This is not simply a message for the unbeliever, the atheist, the God denier. We may confidently claim to believe in the existence of God, yet still live our lives as if no one is home. Just because he doesn’t impress himself upon us in the ways we might prefer, he expects us to be far more aware of his presence than we are normally. God is with us as he was with Jacob. We shouldn’t have to wait until things get drastic before we take him seriously. On the contrary, the times we are in currently are far more drastic than we know. It’s time we accepted that the Lord is in this place and act accordingly.

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

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What’s Your Birthright Worth?

For the week of November 21, 2020 / 5 Kislev 5781

Marble relief of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob. From the facade of the Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy.

Marble relief of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob. From the facade of the Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy.

Toldot
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 25:19-28:9
Haftarah: Malachi 1:1 – 2:7

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Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Bereshit/Genesis 25:29-34)

For much of history it was common that the first-born male inherited the entire or main share of his father’s estate. To us today this seems completely unjust, but it appears that part of the reason for the custom was not a matter of unfair material advantage, but responsibility. It fell upon the first-born male to oversee the future of the family line. Do note, however, that despite the general practice of this custom in ancient Israelite society, in the Torah it was often the younger or youngest who carried on God’s mission in the world, be it Seth not Cain, Isaac not Ishmael, and—from this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion)—Jacob not Esau.

This custom, which has come to be known as “primogeniture,” provides the background for the powerful lesson we may learn from this story. However distasteful we may find primogeniture, Esau, as the older of the two twins, was set to inherit their father’s estate. This would have included the promises that God had given to their grandfather Abraham via their father Isaac. These promises were divine guaranties of national greatness, the land of Canaan, and being a powerful positive influence (blessing) among the nations of the world.

Before I continue, I can hear the more theologically minded saying, hold on. Esau would have never inherited these promises because God had determined otherwise. The issue of predeterminism is way bigger than what I can cover in a message like this. Regardless, let me be clear that thinking along those lines completely misses the point. We don’t have this story to fill us in on how God manipulates human affairs, which I don’t believe he does, by the way. What we do have here is a serious warning against giving in to a common human tendency that lurks inside each one of us.

By virtue of the customs of their day, both Esau and Jacob expected Esau to inherit his father’s estate. Yet, this story tells us that in a moment of great exhaustion, Esau was willing to give up his future inheritance for a bowl of stew. For the reader who understands what’s at stake, this may seem ridiculous. Perhaps Esau didn’t understand the value of what was rightfully his. In his mind, he may have been trading something of little to no value for a single meal. That’s doubtful, unless somehow Jacob was aware of God’s promises, while his brother was not. If that’s the case, then Esau’s devaluing of his birthright started well before this incident. He either knew what it meant and didn’t care, or he didn’t take the time to know. By the reader not knowing the contributing factors, the story covers all sorts of possibilities that may lead a person to make such a rash and foolish decision. Whatever Esau’s understanding was, this still is a tragic story. His nearsighted decision to satisfy a momentary physical desire cut himself off from God’s blessing.

One may think that Jacob was not much better, having used his brother’s weakness against him for personal gain. Moreover, there’s every reason to believe that Jacob didn’t fully understand the implications of the birthright. He would have some difficult lessons to learn moving forward. Yet, unlike his brother, he knew that his father’s estate was worth contending for.

God will deal with Jacob’s issues later, but for now, let’s not miss the opportunity to learn from Esau’s mistake. Esau represents the age we live in. Never before are we able to satisfy our desires in an instant as Esau did that day. And like Esau, we don’t know for what we are selling ourselves out in return. We get we want when we want it and that’s without the level of desperation Esau felt. Note that it’s not easy access to goods and services that’s our problem. It’s that we have been taught for some time now that satisfying self is a virtue. We love instant gratification so much, not only because it feels good in the moment, but because to deny our desires is one of today’s greatest sins. We are taught that to resist our desires is to diminish the very essence of who we are. If it’s stew we want, it’s stew we must have, whatever the cost. Replace “stew” for your desires.

Every human being has a birthright. Made in God’s image, we are to be conduits of his blessing to the world. Called to be royalty under the Heavenly King, we too cheaply sell off our divine inheritance in order to satisfy our desires in the moment. If we are going to live effective genuine lives in the way God designed us to, we need to grasp the value of our birthright and resist the temptation to sell it off.

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

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Give It Up

For the week of November 7, 2020 / 20 Heshvan 5781

Painting: The Sacrifice of Isaac, Marc Chagall, 1966

Painting: The Sacrifice of Isaac, Marc Chagall, 1966

Vayera
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/ 2 Kings 4:1-37

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By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice. (Bereshit/Genesis 22:16-18)

“The Binding of Isaac,” as it is called in Jewish tradition, is a most disturbing story. Readers have struggled with how it could be that the God who reveals himself as “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Shemot/Exodos 34:6) could demand the sacrifice of another human being, let alone one’s own son. Clearly it was never God’s intention that he would go through with it since he stops Abraham at the last moment. While God was not going to allow Isaac to be sacrificed, what was the purpose of telling Abraham to do so in the first place?

The answer is in what God said to him following: “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Bereshit/Genesis 22:22). God was testing the state of Abraham’s relationship with him based on whether or not he would withhold Isaac from him. The result was an affirmation of God’s earlier promises to him. Isaac was key to the fulfilment of the promises to be a great nation that would bless the entire world. The passing of this test was essential for these promises to come to fruition.

Abraham had gone through so much between God’s call on his life and this point. Leaving family and the familiar behind, he travelled to a strange and hostile land. Already well advanced in years, he and his wife were childless. This did not prevent Abraham from trusting God’s promise of becoming a great nation and possessing this land one day. He had no clue that it would be twenty-five years before the son of promise would be born. And now, everything hinged on Isaac. It was on Mount Moriah, where one day the Jerusalem Temple would be built, that God called for extreme relinquishment in order to move forward in the unfolding of his plan. Why was that so necessary?

Let’s fast forward two thousand years. Overlooking Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, is the Mount of Olives. It’s there the Messiah would face his own test of relinquishment. After spending three years of teaching on God’s Kingdom and demonstrating its power, preparing his followers to carry on his mission, he had a date with destiny. Prior to this, he had sought to explain to his followers several times that it was necessary for him to suffer, die, and rise back to life. They couldn’t comprehend that the Messiah would do anything but lead them and the nation of Israel in victory over their oppressors by military means. Regardless, he was resolute that he must face a deadly onslaught of darkness. However, on the eve of his arrest, knowing what he would have to endure, he pleaded with his Father in heaven in agonizing prayer for a way out. Perhaps there might be some other way to fulfill God’s plan without having to suffer under the misrepresentations, mockery, beatings, and execution that lay before him. Despite his earnest desire for an alternative, he was clear: “not as I will, but as you will” (e.g. Matthew 26:39). Once he fully relinquished his claim on his life, he was ready to complete the task before him.

What may not be obvious is how for both Abraham and Yeshua these acts of extreme relinquishment work against the thrust of the curse that has oppressed the world since Adam and Eve. God’s original design for the creation called for human beings to oversee Planet Earth under God’s rule. Instead, our first parents turned from God to the Evil One, resulting in our becoming subservient to the creation rather than being its masters.

It is this oppressive situation that God sought to resolve from the beginning. He initiated a plan to break the curse, a plan which began with Abraham and developed over time within the context of the people of Israel and came to fruition in Israel’s Messiah. In order to be restored to our rightful place as stewards of the creation under God, we like Abraham and Yeshua need to relinquish our claim upon our own lives. It is when we die to self and the things of the world, that we begin to truly live.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated

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