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For the week of January 2, 2021 / 18 Tevet 5781

Concept art depicted freedom via a broken chain and flying birds

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

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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)

This week’s Torah portion couldn’t have come at a better time. This year the eighteenth of Tevet on the Jewish calendar coincides with the second of January. 2020 has been a difficult year. When COVID-19 restrictions became the norm in much of the world in early spring, we thought that we would see the light at the end of the tunnel by now, if not be on the other side of it. While many place their hope on the various vaccines, we still have a long way to go. Where I live, in the Canadian province of Ontario, we are currently in yet another four-week lockdown.

Many people have suffered as a result of COVID-19, whether due to the illness directly or due to the restrictions. Through it all, I have taken comfort in the Scriptures’ perspective that no matter how difficult life may be, God is with us. A practical element of that is how God’s freedom from all constraint is available to those who are in right relationship with him through Yeshua the Messiah.

In the New Covenant Writings (aka the New Testament), this is exemplified by Paul when near the end of his life, he writes, “Remember Yeshua the Messiah, who was raised from the dead, who was a descendant of David. This is the Good News I proclaim, and for which I am suffering to the point of being bound in chains — but the Word of God is not bound in chains!” (2 Timothy 2:8-9; Complete Jewish Bible). He understood that despite his being bound in chains in a dungeon, the message of the Messiah was nonetheless unrestricted. Little did he know that this and several others of his letters, written in similar highly restricted circumstances, would bless the nations for the next two thousand years!

His awareness of the unrestricted nature of God’s word due to the overcoming of death by the Messiah, empowered him to fulfill his calling even while the superpower of his day had complete control over his life.

I have no doubt that Paul must have been spurred on by Joseph’s own restrictive experience. Sold into slavery by his own brothers, and later framed by his master’s wife, he spent about ten years in prison. I never cease to be amazed by how Joseph was able to emerge from that horrible place and not harbor bitterness against his brothers. They themselves believed that he was only being nice to them for the sake of their father, fearing after his death, Joseph would finally get back at them. But that was not to be, as Joseph accepted that God used their evil intentions for a greater good. His grasp of this was more than intellectual or theological. His understanding of God’s being at work in the midst of the most difficult of circumstances liberated him from the control of his circumstances.

The examples of Paul and Joseph should provoke us to view the current crisis with the eyes of faith. Faith doesn’t blind us to reality, but rather illumines reality so that we can see what is actually going on. We need to allow God to show us how he wants to fulfill his will in and through us. To do so requires our being open to however he wants to use us. It may be very different from anything we have ever experienced before. We may discover that the only thing that is truly restricting us is ourselves.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted

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The God Perspective

For the week of December 26, 2020 / 11 Tevet 5781

The Montreal skyline from atop Mount Royal

One of my favorite views: The Montreal skyline from atop Mount Royal

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

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And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence. (Bereshit/Genesis 45:3)

When I read the stories in the Bible, I try to put myself in the shoes, or should I say, “sandals,” of the various characters. I want to get the impact of the story from their perspective as much as possible. That’s a challenge for many reasons. There is a great deal of linguistic, cultural, historical, and religious layers to dig through. And then, many Bible readers already know the outcome of these stories. So, it is difficult to imagine what the characters were thinking and feeling in the moment. The characters don’t know how things are going to turn out. Moreover, even without knowing the end of the story, the reader may know more of what’s going on than the characters due to what in literature is called, “the God perspective.” It is thus named, because the reader is given information about the situation that the characters don’t have. We encounter this in suspense thrillers, for example, when a detective is investigating a murder, and we are taken (in the story, of course) to the murderer’s hideout to learn of his or her plans.

Much of the Bible is written from the God perspective. That shouldn’t surprise us as, unlike most other stories, God is the main character. Still, we get a sense of the suspense when we are given information that other key characters don’t have, as is the case of Joseph and his brothers.

Because we have the God perspective, we experience tension, knowing that they have no idea that the Egyptian leader they are standing before is their very own brother, whom they had sold into slavery. They didn’t know that the reality of their situation was very different from appearances. And learning the truth that the second most powerful man in Egypt – the man who held their lives in his hands – was their very own brother – was just the beginning. Once Joseph revealed himself to them, they would have a difficult journey of reconciliation ahead.

The God perspective in the Bible is not simply a literary device within its stories. The Bible equips us to have the God perspective on all of life. Scripture rightfully understood, provides all sorts of insights into how the world works whether it is the current pandemic, political intrigue, media bias, sex scandals, poverty, racism, and so on.

Due to the God perspective, we don’t need to live life blind. The worst kind of blindness is not knowing that we are blind. This is what Yeshua said to some arrogant religious leaders of his day: “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains” (John 9:41). The God perspective in the story of Joseph and his brothers, shows us how badly we can misjudge the situations in which we find ourselves. Actually, Joseph’s brothers’ blindness goes back about twenty years before, when their jealousy blinded them to the favor that was upon Joseph. God chose him to save them one day. They couldn’t see it then and they couldn’t see it later, until it was revealed to them.

I can relate to Joseph’s brothers. Growing up, hearing about the person called “Jesus,” I thought he was a Gentile god. He certainly didn’t look like a, not to mention the, Jewish Messiah to me. I had no idea that not only did he, like Joseph, hold my life in his hands and was prepared to rescue me from the oppressive darkness that controlled my life, but also, like Joseph, he was my brother, the true Messiah, whom my people had longed for for so long.

What a shock it was for me to learn that the New Testament is one of the most Jewish books ever written. Contrary to my people’s common perspective, it was not an anti-Semitic manual, but rather a Jewish love story through and through. The New Testament confirms God’s promises to our people as it documents the outworking of God’s commitment to Abraham that his descendants would be a blessing to the whole world (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:3; compare Galatians 3:8).

Like Joseph’s brothers the God perspective enabled me to see the truth of what life is really all about. It’s not that my accepting the God perspective means that I always see things perfectly now. Rather it enables me to be willing to allow God to change my perspective as needed again and again.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Waiting

For the week of December 19, 2020 / 4 Tevet 5781

Young boy sadly looking out a window on a very rainy day

Miketz
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 3:15 – 4:1
Originally posted the week of December 4, 2010 / 27 Kislev 5771
The following revised version taken from the book  “Torah Light: Insights from the Books of Moses” by Alan Gilman (more info here)

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After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile. (Bereshit/Genesis 41:1)

The Torah—like the whole Bible, in fact—is not wordy. Perhaps that is due to the scarcity and cost of writing materials in the days it was written. In any case, the lack of lengthy description in no way diminishes its literary depth. So much is communicated in surprisingly few words. An example of this is found in the short phrase at the beginning of our verse: “After two whole years.” The Hebrew reads: “Va-yehi miketz shenatayim yamim,” more literally translated as, “And it was at the end of two years of days.” This expression underscores for us how long a time it really was. Our translation tries to get this across with “two whole years,” but since readers of English tend to take statements of time simply as calendar references, this may come across as nothing more than “two years later, Pharaoh had a dream.” By contrast, “two years of days” draws us into the experience of Joseph, who after correctly interpreting the dreams of his influential fellow inmates had to endure over seven hundred more individual days in a horrible dungeon.

Throughout the Bible we have stories of people who had to endure great hardship for long periods of time. When we read these accounts, the waiting periods fly by in an instant unless we stop to think about it. In Joseph’s case in particular, the wording, at least in the original Hebrew, draws our attention to what the passing of time must have been like for Joseph after all he had gone through. First, he was hated by his own brothers, who sold him into slavery, and then he was unjustly incarcerated in an Egyptian dungeon. While God was with him and gave him favor in these difficult circumstances, we cannot underestimate how difficult it must all have been.

God doesn’t work according to our expectation of time. If we had our druthers, we would get everything instantly. We think that getting something faster is almost always better. But that is not God’s way. Living things develop over time. Good food takes time to grow. Good food takes time to prepare. It takes time to manufacture quality products. Good character takes a lifetime.

It is likely that before Joseph experienced his hardships he wasn’t ready for the kind of leadership to which God destined him. I don’t think a person like Joseph, who had no issue telling on his brothers and broadcasting dreams that foretold his place of prominence among them, would necessarily treat his family (or anyone else) with the type of kindness he ended up extending to them. It is possible that the time delay was designed to allow for deep work in Joseph’s heart to take place. I am aware that the Torah gives no comment as to the work of God in Joseph’s life, but we do know he endured abusive and oppressive circumstances for a long time and that something about those last two years in particular was especially long.

Whatever God was doing in Joseph’s heart and life, is this not what many of us go through? There is a proverb that reads, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Mishlei/Proverbs 13:12). Waiting for God-given expectations to be fulfilled can be sickening. Those of us who have experienced this may sometimes think we would be better off without the hopes than having to wait and be given glimpses of our hope’s fulfillment only to have to wait again. But God knows what he is doing. His timing is perfect. We will never know all that he is accomplishing during our periods of waiting, but we can be assured that if we truly love God, then he is doing everything necessary to accomplish his purposes in us and through us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Separated Land

For the week of December 12, 2020 / 26 Kislev 5781

A flag of Israel superimposed upon a map of Israel

Vayeshev & Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 37:1 – 40:23 & B’midbar/Numbers 7:18-29
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English 2:10 – 4:7)

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And the LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem. (Zechariah 2:16 [English: 2:12])

This verse is part of this week’s special Haftarah reading (supplemental reading recited on Shabbat and other holy days). It was most likely chosen due to its inclusion of the prophet’s vision of the temple menorah (English: lampstand), which is a feature of the commemoration of the eight-day festival of Hanukkah, which begins this year, Thursday evening, December 10.

What caught my attention is the reference to “holy land,” a term I have never been very keen on. To me, holy land conjures up images of religious pilgrims visiting religious sites having religious experiences. It’s not that “religious” or “religion” are bad terms in themselves. It’s that for some, religion becomes an end in itself, a compartment of one’s life detached from the other aspects of life. As a result, it takes on a sense of being unreal.

The teachings of Scripture, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Covenant Writings (the New Testament), are anything but unreal. They are so down to earth, whether in their narrative context of real people in real-life situations or their reflections on those events. When it comes to their exposition of life principles, besides the fact that the vast majority of these emerge out of real life, they themselves are practical, down-to-earth directions on how to live a good and fruitful life.

It seems to me that when some people think of the “holy land,” it’s a version of Israel separated from reality. Despite awareness of historical events that have occurred there, the actual Israel morphs into a fabricated backdrop, framing pre-determined spiritual sentiments. When such people visit the “holy land,” the real sights and sounds of what is perhaps the most vibrant and dramatic region on earth, becomes nothing more than fodder to fuel preconceived notions of disconnected faith.

But the term “holy land” is found in the Bible, appearing in the verse I quoted at the beginning as well as in Tehillim/Psalms 78:54: “And [the LORD) brought them to his holy land, to the mountain which his right hand had won.”). It’s not that I have a problem with the term itself. It’s that, as I just mentioned, it has been used to separate the Israel of the Bible from the Israel of real life. Ironically, the Hebrew word for “holy,” kodesh, means “separate.” This separateness of the land is not a separation from reality unto a disconnected spirituality. Rather, it is a statement of claim on the part of the God of Israel that he has separated this geographical region unto his particular purposes.

These purposes are anything but disconnected from real life, no less the real-life Israel of today. Core to the biblical record is God’s commitment to Abraham and his natural descendants that our destiny would be deeply entwined with the holy land (I write “our,” since I am one of those descendants). To separate the land from the people to whom God gave it is to separate it from God and his Word. In order to appreciate the holy land as the separated land it really is, we must reconnect it to its holy purposes.

This is what Hanukkah is about as it commemorates a time when evil sought to redefine the purpose of the holy land. Assimilation forces almost succeeded in absorbing Israel into the pervading culture. Unity and sameness almost overcame the God-ordained uniqueness of Israel. It took the bravery and determination of the Maccabees to restore both land and people to their holy purpose, a purpose to illumine the world with God’s love and goodness.

The separate nature of the land reminds us what true holiness is all about. Those who belong to the God of Israel by faith in Israel’s Messiah have been separated unto him and his purposes within the context of all of life. We need to guard against a false separation unto an unreality of superficial spirituality. Instead, we need to discover (or re-discover) our real-life calling unto what God has separated us unto in these interesting times.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Life Is a Struggle

For the week of December 5, 2020 / 19 Kislev 5781

Turtle walking up stairs

Vayishlach
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43 (English: 32:3 – 36:43)
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12

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And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Bereshit / Genesis 32:24-28)

The profound nature of the biblical stories is found not only in how remarkably they reflect common human experiences, but how they call us to become the kind of humans God designed us to be. It is this that prompts people like the controversial Canadian psychologist and professor Jordan B. Peterson to be passionate about the Bible even though he denies its historicity. The introduction to his biblical lecture series reads:

[The Bible] contains the most influential stories of mankind. Knowledge of those stories is essential to a deep understanding of Western culture, which is in turn vital to proper psychological health (as human beings are cultural animals) and societal stability. These stories are neither history, as we commonly conceive it, nor empirical science. Instead, they are investigations into the structure of Being itself and calls to action within that Being (https://www.jordanbpeterson.com/bible-series/).

Having listened to this series and other things he has said about the Bible, I don’t think Peterson has fully faced that the reason these stories are so profoundly relevant is because they really happened. These are not the projections of some highly developed human mind, creating archetypical stories for us to emulate. They are real-life encounters informed by the mind of God, designed to equip us for living effective godly lives (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Despite Peterson’s denial of the Bible’s historicity, he well captures how its stories portray the intricacies and challenges of life. Many Bible readers, while honoring its divine inspiration and being adamant that it reports actual events, tend to treat it superficially (for more on this, see my blog/podcast, “In Celebration of Biblical Narrative: A Biblical Critique of Jordan B. Peterson”).

The story of Jacob’s wrestling with God is a case in point. Its significance begins with informing the reader of how Jacob became the patriarch he was called to be. Up until this point he had striven for success, but now he strives with God and discovers true blessing. The God whom he considered as only that of his father and grandfather finally becomes his God.

Jacob’s experience is not for Jacob alone. While few, if any, have literally wrestled with God, untold numbers have been through the process of agonizing prayer. This story presents Jacob as our model, metaphorically of course: hold on until God blesses us even if it hurts.

There’s more. Jacob’s wrestling with God is a picture of life in general. From the moment of conception, we face all sorts of challenges which must be overcome in order to live, not to mention, live well. Some struggles are easier than others. Some are impossible. But each and every struggle is designed to craft us into what we are meant to be. It’s in this sense we can say that life itself is wrestling with God.

Life is a struggle. As we grow up, we learn, one way or another, how to navigate that struggle. We may confront it, roll with it, run away from it, or deny it. We may blame it on others or numb ourselves against it. Not every tactic is the wisest or most beneficial. So while Jacob’s wrestling match on one hand reflects the general struggles of life, on the other, the key to truly overcoming them isn’t found in human effort alone. We should also note that unlike Jacob’s brother Esau, who threw his birthright away to satisfy a need, dire as it seemed in the moment, Jacob held on to the God of Israel until he prevailed. Only then did he become the man he was called to be.

I don’t know what you are going through right now. Whatever it is, remember, life is a struggle. Don’t give up. But don’t simply endure either. Hold on to the God of Israel until he blesses you.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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