Escape to Reality

For the week of January 23, 2021 / 10 Shevat 5781

Child pretending to be a "Gruffalo."

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

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And when in time to come your son asks you, “What does this mean?” you shall say to him, “By a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” (Shemot/Exodus 13:14)

The other day, I happened upon a local school board promotional ad on a bus shelter that read, “Helping your child find out what they want to be. Even if it’s a Gruffalo.” If you don’t know what a Gruffalo is, as I didn’t, it is a character in the very popular (over 13 million copies sold), award-winning illustrated children’s book, entitled, “The Gruffalo” from the UK. It has been made into plays performed on both Broadway and London’s West End as well as a short, animated film nominated for an Academy Award and a BAFTA.

The main character of the book is not the Gruffalo, but a mouse, who, as he walks in the woods, is confronted by several animals. When, in turn, each animal expresses their desire to eat the mouse, the mouse escapes by fabricating an imaginary horrific beast – a Gruffalo – whose food preference happens to be whatever animal is threatening the mouse at the time. Surprisingly (to me at least), they believe him and run away in terror. Then to the mouse’s own surprise, he comes upon an actual Gruffalo, who is exactly as he portrayed him. The Gruffalo’s favorite food is actually mouse. But the mouse says he can prove that he himself is the scariest creature in the woods, if the Gruffalo would walk behind him as they visit the other creatures. The Gruffalo is so affected by the creatures’ frightened reactions, he becomes afraid of the mouse and runs away.

I think it’s wonderful when parents and educators strive to help children discover their true potential. I also think that encouraging children’s imaginations is key to this. Imagination enables human beings to envision what could be when the state of our lives appears otherwise. Perhaps the philosophy behind this promotion is based on the belief that human potential is based on placing no limits whatsoever upon a child’s imagination.

We have been hearing a version of this for a long time. It’s usually through movies that make assertions such as “You can be whatever you want to be as long as you put your mind to it.” There is some truth in this. God has given human beings the ability to overcome great obstacles. Working hard at something and not giving up often results in great accomplishments. But we can’t be anything we want. Just about anyone can learn how to sing, for example, but not everyone can achieve a performance standard.

The school board promotion takes this already extreme idea even further, however. At first glance, it sounds as if they are simply committed to do whatever it takes to help your child achieve their goals no matter what they may be. This might create enough positive feelings in a parent to prod them to register their child for kindergarten. I doubt that there are many parents thinking, “Finally an education system that’s going to help my child become a Gruffalo!” Still, this kind of ad could not be tolerated without a certain sentiment taking hold in our society. That sentiment is the physical world we live in, including our very bodies, is irrelevant to who we are as people. The material world; with its laws, properties, and other people; stifles our potential. Our imaginations enable us to break free from the material world’s control. Escaping from reality is the new salvation. We are mice deluding ourselves and others to control our lives with no repercussions, or so it seems.

In contrast we have another tale. A true story this time of a people oppressed by a world power. They had potential they had lost touch with. God sent Moses and Aaron to rekindle their collective imagination. It wasn’t easy to dream of a better life. Things quickly went from bad to worse at first, but eventually their oppression was miraculously lifted, and they began their journey to a new life.

In the not-so-distant past, the Gruffalo would have eaten the mouse. His manipulative concoction would have been his demise. Not so today. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that our illusions of self and life will set us free from the overbearing burdens of reality. We don’t want to accept that our delusions will eventually swallow us.

This is not to say that we, like the mouse or like the people of Israel, aren’t in trouble. We are. The world oppresses us, preventing us from being what we are meant to be. Yet, it won’t be fantasy that saves us. We cannot escape reality by becoming Gruffalos. Instead, with God’s help, like the people of Israel, we can escape to the reality of God’s will for our lives.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version 

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Big Problems; Big Solutions

For the week of January 16, 2021 / 3 Shevat 5781

Women standing before a wall with an opening in the shape of a gigantic key

Va-era
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:21

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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)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) contains seven of the ten disasters (usually called “plagues”) with which God struck the Egyptians due to Pharaoh’s refusal to allow the people of Israel to leave Egypt. This is the first time we read of God’s intervening on behalf of his people in such a tangible and powerful way. This could have all been avoided had Pharaoh responded favorably to God’s demand delivered by Moses and Aaron.

At the end of last week’s parsha, we find Moses praying to God following his first audience with Pharaoh. Before presenting to Pharaoh, Moses was well-received by the elders of Israel as he shared with them the details of his mission. Pharaoh, on the other hand, did not respond so favorably. Not only did he turn down Moses’ request, he instead made Israel’s already oppressive burden much more difficult. This resulted in Israel’s elders turning on Moses, blaming him for their increased suffering.

Think of how devastated Moses must have been. God allowed his expectations to rise astronomically. Having encountered God at the burning bush and equipped with signs to convince Israel’s leaders, it worked! His people were onboard. Everything was going according to plan, God’s plan, or so he thought. Then came his really big moment. It was time to confront the evil power. The result was disastrous.

It’s discouraging enough when we try something and it doesn’t work. It’s another thing when everything’s going well and then it falls apart. Perhaps it’s because by that time the personal investment is greater; much more to lose. The precipice is higher; a lot further to fall. Remember Moses didn’t want this job in the first place. So, the fact the initial stage was successful helped to alleviate his misgivings, until the situation he was called to resolve went from bad to worse.

Moses’ prayer is an expression of exasperation, if not outright despair: “O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all” (Shemot/Exodus 5:22-23). Some may be offended by such a prayer, telling God off for the worsening situation. But God isn’t offended. Far from it! It’s as if he was waiting for this moment as he tells Moses: “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.” (Shemot/Exodus 6:1). From God’s perspective Pharaoh has played into his hand. Not only will Israel be rescued from slavery, but the world will see a demonstration of God’s power on behalf of Israel like nothing anyone’s seen before.

I doubt Moses expected such an answer, but his prayer opened his heart to hear it. He was discouraged and upset like most people would have been. But unlike most people, he didn’t shut down or run away. He prayed. And God answered. Even though God got him into this mess, he didn’t give up on God. He may have given God a piece of his mind, but at least he kept communication open. This in turn allowed him to be where he needed to be, so he could receive instructions for the next step. The problem got bigger; God’s solution would be bigger still.

There are many challenging aspects to the current COVID crisis. But let’s remember, as far as God is concerned, the greater the problem, the greater the solution. I am convinced that there are great things in store for those who don’t give up and are willing to hear what God wants to say to us. This isn’t something some expert is going to figure out. It’s something that only God can give to hearts that are genuinely open to him.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Holy Curiosity

For the week of January 9, 2021 / 25 Tevet 5781

Man staring through magnifying glass looking shoked

Shemot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13; 29:22-23

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Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Shemot/Exodus 3:1-4)

Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush is one of the most crucial interchanges between God and human beings. It is here that God conscripts Moses for the mission of leading his people Israel out from oppressive bondage to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Under Moses’ leadership God would demonstrate his power to Israel, Egypt, and the world. Moses was also to be the channel through whom God’s Torah (his teaching, his direction) would be revealed.

There is one particular aspect to this encounter that is overlooked. In the Bible God engages people in a variety of ways. Most of the time, when we read that he speaks, there is no reference to the actual dynamics of the communication. Other times, we are told that it is through a dream or a vision. The burning bush is unique, not only in that it’s the only time God speaks through a plant, burning or otherwise, but also due to the part Moses played. Going about his normal daily activities as a shepherd, this unusual sight catches his eye. Moses decides to check it out. It is only when Moses gives his attention to it that God calls to him.

Moses’ curiosity drew him into this life-changing experience. He could have just as easily not noticed. How often are we so focused on ourselves and whatever we are going through at the time that extraordinary opportunities pass us by without our knowing it? Sometimes it’s not so much that we are distracted, it’s that we are oblivious. Life has ceased to arouse our interest. I say, “has ceased,” because curiosity is natural to most of us as children until for one reason or another, the wonder of the universe is lost to us. Perhaps curiosity got us into trouble. It may have resulted in injury or blame, leading us to conclude that it is better to live life with blinders on. Good thing Moses didn’t become like that.

Many years ago, I read the classic, “Confessions” by Augustine of Hippo, written about sixteen hundred years ago. At the time I was troubled by his depicting curiosity in negative terms as one of life’s great temptations. To him, curiosity was a craving after knowledge and experience for its own sake, but this presupposes a warped understanding of the world in which we live. Curiosity may kill the cat as the proverb says, but the craving that leads to trouble is not the curiosity itself, but sinful desires hijacking an essential God-given quality.

How many burning bushes are we missing because we are no longer curious? There is far more going on around us than we think. God is working to fulfill his purposes in the world. He longs for us to be part of that. But are we paying attention? Or are we so wrapped up in our current life situation, that we can’t even smell that’s something’s burning nearby?

As the current COVID crisis drags on into another calendar year, I am especially concerned. How many are hunkering down waiting for the oppression to pass? How many have put more faith into a vaccine than in God? And if we soon find ourselves in a post-COVID world, what then? Business as usual? Tending our sheep, so to speak, still not noticing that God is trying to get our attention?

The Messiah tasked us to pray, “May your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” a transformative process that God wants me and you to be part of. Exactly how, I can’t say. But aren’t you curious?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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