Divine Inquiries

For the week of November 10, 2018 / 2 Kislev 5779

Man with open arms imploring God

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

The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. (Bereshit/Genesis 25:22)

Something wasn’t right. Rebekah was in physical turmoil. After being married for twenty years without conceiving, she finally got pregnant. As the Torah tells it this was an answer to her husband’s prayers. Miracle pregnancies were becoming a tradition in this family as her mother-in-law had Isaac when she was ninety. Still, most mothers-to-be would get anxious when the rumbly-tumblies in their tummies are harsher than normal, not to mention that, for Rebekah, getting pregnant was no easy feat. Whether it was the discomfort alone or that she was afraid she was miscarrying, it was sufficient to send her to inquire of the Master of the Universe.

The Hebrew word translated “inquire” is “darash,” and it paints a picture of her going to God with the expectation of getting an answer. I wonder if that’s how most people think of prayer. You judge if I am wrongly judging, but my guess is that the vast majority of prayers prayed involve zero expectation. Most prayers are prayed out of obligation: obligation to religious duty, obligation to parents, obligation to peers, even obligation to self. A smaller percentage arises from sincere desire from people who for one reason or other truly want to pray. They may really want to take the time to talk to God. But do we expect him to respond? Some prayers, of course, aren’t requests, including expressions of worship or thanks. But many prayers are. And yet, how often do we throw up our requests to heaven, more or less satisfied with our utterances, and move on with life?

Access to information today has never been easier. Instant search results are so common that it’s difficult to remember what it was like before broadband Internet and Google. Now almost anything we need to know is at our fingertips or in response to our voice. I once successfully used Google to help me find my car in a very large parking lot when I was out of town. Whether it’s how to get a stain out of a particular material or finding the facts about a strange skin rash, we search the Net with the can-do attitude of “It’s got to be here somewhere!” And yet when we “inquire of the Lord,” we don’t expect much.

Not to be glib, but Rebekah related to God a lot more like today’s Internet. She went to him expecting answers. While the Bible in no way implies that there’s a push-button dynamic to prayer, it expects us to expect answers from God. Here’s what the Messiah taught. Familiar words to many, but listen to what he is saying:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11).

Don’t get distracted by the important sub-topic of unanswered prayer. However you grapple with that, any conclusion that contradicts the Messiah’s teaching here is wrong. Which is why later on we read: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). James accepted Yeshua’s teaching on prayer. James knew the story of Rebekah. The Master of the Universe delights to answer our inquiries.

Now for the big question: How much of our lack of hearing from God is due to lack of expectancy? What are we not hearing because we are not being earnest enough? Why should he respond to half-hearted disinterest? This is not to say that we can manipulate our Father in Heaven into answering prayer. What I am saying is let’s at least start by accepting that he “gives generously to all without reproach.” Praying believing that he answers will certainly result in far more answers than praying believing that he won’t.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Dynamics of Effective Living

For the week of November 3, 2018 / 25 Heshvan 5779

Illustration of a gauge showing maximum impact

Hayyei Sarah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 23:1-25:18
Prophets: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 1:1-31

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites. (Bereshit/Genesis 23:19-20)

A survey of Abraham’s life apart from its eventual place in history is not that impressive. An old, childless man travels to a foreign land to live a nomadic existence in a hostile environment. Having the luxury of biblical narration clues us into his motives and hopes as well as the supernatural dynamic working behind the scenes. But what did he actually accomplish? That the three great monotheistic religions claim him as their primary ancestor has little to do with any sense of achievement he may have had. That he and his elderly wife had a miracle baby is more the stuff of tabloids than history books. Sure, leading the charge in the defeat of several kings is pretty impressive, but we know his motive was more for the sake of family than some great noble cause.

I wonder what he thought was going to happen when he first answered God’s call to go to the Land of Canaan. How keen he was is questionable given that his family settled in Haran, halfway between his birthplace and his destination, until his father died (see Bereshit/Genesis 11:31-32). But when he finally resumed his journey, it was in response to God’s promising him greatness, peoplehood, and blessing for the world. Soon after arriving at his destination, he was also promised the land itself. As he waited for the pieces of his puzzle to fall into place, he almost lost his wife Sarah twice due to fearing for his own life. He tried to solve his childless problem via the scheme that produced Ishmael. Later he determined God told him to sacrifice Isaac. Thankfully he stopped at the last minute. He lived long enough to arrange a wife for Isaac who was already thirty and didn’t seem to be too keen to do much. I have often wondered what the psychological effects of his dad’s holding a knife over his heart had on him and subsequent generations, but that’ll have to wait for another time.

By the time Abraham breathed his last, what did he have to show for himself? He didn’t have any grandchildren yet, let alone have any semblance of becoming a great nation. And as for land, all he owned was burial plot. We know the rest of the story, but it would be hundreds of years and unbelievable circumstances before his descendants would become a significant nation and acquire the Promised Land. Good thing that Abraham kept on keeping on in spite of the lack of spectacular, earth-shattering events.

Obviously, it wasn’t fame or any great sense of accomplishment that kept Abraham going. However he understood the promise of greatness, peoplehood, land, and blessing, the lack of fulfilment didn’t prevent him from doing his part albeit with the occasional hiccup. He believed he heard God speak to him and acted accordingly. It didn’t matter to him that onlookers would be clued out as to why he was doing what he was doing no matter how bizarre it seemed. He knew God spoke to him. Perhaps he had second thoughts or thought he was crazy. Yet, he did what God called him to do and changed the world as a result.

Abraham is the Bible’s model of faith (see Romans 4:16). His life demonstrates to us how we can be in right relationship with God and how to live lives reflective of that relationship. Imagine if his goals were like those of so many today: building his personal profile as he strove for fame, selling out others to achieve his personal goals, and so on. Content to live a relatively quiet life, he stayed true to his convictions as he trusted in an invisible God among idol worshippers. The unusualness of Isaac’s birth spoke for itself, but he never leveraged that to his advantage. He was even willing to give him up at God’s request.

If Abraham is our example of how we are to live, what does that say about our social media generation of likes and views, where instant is hardly fast enough and satisfying desire is the highest value? Perhaps we need to listen more and be satisfied with less, to commit ourselves to fulfill God’s call, whatever that is, and leave the results to him.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Reason to Laugh

For the week of October 27, 2018 / 18 Heshvan 5779

Four people laughing together

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

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me. (Bereshit/Genesis 21:6)

Last spring a friend of mine was researching how best to conduct a Passover Seder for his Christian community. He came upon the suggestion that laughter was appropriate in such a gathering. He wrote me because some were concerned that including levity may undermine the Seder’s seriousness. My thoughts immediately went back to one of the first times I did a Seder for a Christian group. During the meal time, one of the leaders said to me: “I didn’t think this was going to be fun!” “Not fun?” I reacted. How could it not be fun? We’re celebrating our deliverance from Egypt!” Reflecting further upon the question, I thought about how the Jewish experience is such a fascinating combination of joy and sorrow. It isn’t simply that our history has had some good times and bad times. It’s that the good and the bad have been intermingled. Time and time again when it appears that darkness is about to overwhelm us forever, the tables surprisingly, even miraculously, turn, and light breaks through. Not only is the threat abated, but the result is often better than the original condition.

In literary terms this is called irony. It’s the story of the bad guy digging a pit only to fall into it himself, while his unsuspecting victim helps himself to the now abandoned lunch. While some may feel bad for the bad guy, the sudden act of justice at his own hand, creates an overwhelming emotional response of delight that often exhibits itself through laughter.

Passover isn’t the only holiday that features irony, of course. At Purim, we commemorate Haman’s parading Mordechai through the Persian capital before being hanged from the very gallows he prepared for him. At Hanukkah, we remember the victory of the small Maccabean army over the great assimilating powers of their day. Besides these formal celebrations, let’s not forget Joseph’s being sold into slavery by his brothers being his circuitous route to the Egyptian palace; the mercenary and false prophet Balaam opening his mouth to curse Israel but pronouncing nothing but blessing instead; the impenetrable walls of Jericho falling down in response to a Jewish parade complete with the sounds of shouting and shofars (English; ram’s horns); scaredy-cat Gideon leading Israel in victory against the oppressive Midianites; and the modern State of Israel emerging from the ashes of the Holocaust.

Irony provokes laughter, but I wouldn’t call most of these stories funny. Each and every one of these were difficult and dangerous. They include great suffering and loss. But they didn’t end that way. While in no way diminishing great hardships, there was reason to celebrate eventually. What I believe my friend was struggling with in his Passover research was a tendency by some that either the event should be serious or fun, but not both. However, life is both. Especially a life that is wrapped up in the God of the Bible, the God of Israel.

Sarah, Abraham’s wife, understood this. After going childless for almost her entire life and being far beyond her childbearing years, she finally had a son. That is remarkable on its own and more than enough reason to celebrate, but this is not any son. Sarah’s son is the heir to the greatest of all God’s promises. For through him will “all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Bereshit/Genesis 26:4). Through his descendants, evil and its deadly fruit would be destroyed forever. God’s plans and purposes rested on this child, yet the tension and turmoil leading up to his birth made the delight of his arrival so great that he would be forever marked by his name, Yitzhak, which is derived from the Hebrew word for “laughter.”

The ironic complexity of Jewish history reflects the reality of the universe in which we live. Life is difficult and painful and yet, when we are in relationship with the Master of this universe, we can catch the delightfulness, even the humor, of life’s goings on. This is why the New Covenant letter of James (actually Ya’acov or Jacob, reminiscent of the son of Isaac), begins with the encouragement to “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). The Greek word for “joy” here, “chara,” is no disconnected, quasi-spiritual, unemotional sense of contentment. It is full-out celebratory happiness.

Are we really to be that happy in the face of “trials of various kinds”? We’re not talking the “coffee drive-through is busy” type of trial here. It’s the painful kind of threats, unjust loss of employment, family betrayal, beatings, imprisonment, and death. I have a hard-enough time sustaining any semblance of a good mood during times of minimal discomfort. But pure joy? Celebratory happiness? Laughter perhaps?

James understood the irony of life. He not only knew the ancient stories of his people, but also the most ironic of all: The one where Death thought it could hold the Messiah in its grip, only to be defeated once and for all, thus fulfilling the laughter child’s destiny. Maybe James knew that not only would God’s goodness forever have the upper hand in the lives of Yeshua’s followers, but even great trials would be leveraged by God for our good. Realizing this doesn’t belittle the seriousness of our hardships, though if we think about it long enough, it might give us a good laugh.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

God’s Friends

For the week of October 20, 2018 / 11 Heshvan 5779

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

Lekh Lekha
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:8-10)

Like Abraham of old, I am on a journey into the unknown. And like Abraham the unknown isn’t completely unknown. It’s that I am only now truly grappling with what I have known all along. Let me explain. The New Covenant Book of Hebrews states: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). This is in spite of the fact that the Land of Canaan, as the Land of Israel was then called, was clearly his intended destination (see Bereshit/Genesis 11:31; 12:5). He knew exactly where he was going geographically, but he didn’t know what going there would fully mean. Even though God gave him some inkling of purpose in that this would result in blessing for himself and the world (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3), he was clueless as to the actual details and their implications.

Thankfully the unknowns didn’t prevent him from fulfilling his call. He knew enough to trust God for the things he didn’t know. It’s like that with friends. This week’s Haftarah reading (excerpt from the Prophets that accompanies the weekly Torah portion), includes the remarkable statement that Abraham was God’s friend. In all of Scripture, Abraham is the only individual to be called such (see also 2 Chronicles 20:7; James 2:23). Real friends are comfortable in each other’s presence. They don’t require full disclosure and don’t suspect ulterior motives or hidden agendas. Abraham trusted God; God entrusted himself to Abraham.

The Hebrew word for friend in this passage is “ahav,” which is the word for “love.” Similar to English, ahav has a very broad range of usage, denoting affection or desire. At the most basic level to love someone or something is to give ourselves to that person or thing. It is context that determines love’s nature and intent. For God to call Abraham his beloved or friend is to is to speak of giving himself and his resources to Abraham.

Even though Abraham is the only individual referred to this way, he isn’t the only friend of God. The Abrahamic friendship motif is echoed in Yeshua’s words to his disciples during their last Passover together when he said: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Similar to the Hebrew, the word for friends here is derived from one of the Greek words for love, “phileo.”

This pronouncement bridges the unique relationship of Abraham to you and me via Yeshua’s original friendship circle. The intimate, loving relationship with God experienced by Abraham is available to any and all who trust in Yeshua as Messiah, which finally brings us back to my journey into the known unknown. From the early beginnings of my coming to know God through Yeshua many years ago, I have been aware of the centrality of love in any genuine relationship to God. Perhaps it was due to my perception that many believers overstated or sentimentalized God’s love, or more likely it was my personal woundedness that prevented me from opening my heart to him as I ought. Whatever the cause, I am finally realizing that in spite of my passion for biblical truth, I have been paying lip service to this most essential of all biblical realities. While I have been aware of the importance of God’s love, I have resisted allowing myself to embrace it or more accurately be embraced by it, until now.

I normally like to have things figured out, to know what’s going on, to be in control. What I really didn’t understand, however, was how much of a barrier all this is to fully experiencing God’s love. I am so glad that the basis of our friendship is not my psychology and behavior, but rather that Yeshua “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). What a friend!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Global Mosaic

For the week of October 13, 2018 / 4 Heshvan 5779

Concept art of satellite earth image with people of different races superimposed

 

No’ah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth. (Bereshit/Genesis 11:8-9)

According to this story, which takes place early within the Torah’s timeline, the people of the earth originally lived in the same geographical vicinity. The motive behind the Babel project was not what I was told when I was a child back in the days when Bible stories were still read in public school. I was led to believe that the people wanted a high tower to keep them safe in case another flood similar to Noah’s would occur. The biblical text records nothing of the sort. The actual reason is clearly stated: “lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Bereshit/Genesis 11:4). This was in direct opposition to God’s earlier directive to do just that (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:28).

The people were also looking for identity in their building project’s goal of corporate security. What they thought was to their benefit God regarded as inevitably destructive. And so, he deemed it necessary to intervene for their good and that of future generations. He disrupted their ability to communicate. Until then all people of the earth spoke the same language. The resulting confusion led to the people gathering in separate communities that eventually migrated to different geographical regions. Thus the people groups of the world came to be.

The circumstances behind the development of nationalities may lead some to conclude that language and cultural differences between peoples is a negative thing. That the steps to this disparity began with disobedience to God is clear. Moreover, since then until now, language and cultural differences have certainly contributed to conflict between peoples. But is peoplehood diversity in and of itself bad? Let’s consider what would have happened if people would have “filled the earth” without the God-imposed confusion. Is it reasonable to assume that the people of the world would have retained the one original language forever? As distinct communities formed in various regions of the earth, accents and dialects would have quickly developed. Also, diverse geographical regions demand unique vocabularies. For example, sea-faring people create tools unknown to mountain folk and vice versa. Clothing common to one climate is often unheard of in another. Differences in language emerging from such contrasting needs and challenges are foundational to the formalization of culture and distinct peoplehood. Therefore, the development of diverse people groups would have happened even without the Babel project.

The complex mosaic of cultures was destined to occur under God’s providence with or without our ancestors’ initial cooperation. That the development of people groups over time is of God is not to imply that everything about every culture is always good. The curse has tainted the creation including culture. But in spite of the ways culture has been corrupted, the fact of national diversity is by God’s design.

False notions about what the Bible calls the “age to come” (see Mark 10:30, Hebrews 6:5) have also tended to undermine our appreciation of the global mosaic. Imagining the human story as moving toward the re-establishment of a unified nation of one language and culture creates an ideal that is contrary to God’s expressed purpose for humankind. In the Bible’s version of the age to come, following the Messiah’s return, the resurrection, and the final judgement, when sin and death are no more and global peace is permanently established, nationalities continue. The description of the New Jerusalem includes: “By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Revelation 21:24). These are not individuals formerly of people groups or kings who used to be of distinct nations. The development of nationalities as overseen by God in history is retained.

This is not to say that there is no room for the mingling of nations. From economic trade and cooperation to intermarriage, there is no indication in Scripture that national distinctions are to be closed and outsiders kept out. At the same time, cooperative ventures should show respect for cultural differences of all parties.

Beware therefore, of noble sounding global unity movements. Any attempt by church or state to homogenize people groups is to undermine the will of God and robs the complex and diverse human family of our distinct and unique histories and the special contributions we have to share with the rest of the world.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Avoiding the Devil’s Trap

For the week of October 6, 2018 / 27 Tishri 5779

The words "It's a trap" in the center of a bear trap

Bereshit
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5 – 43:11

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Bereshit /Genesis 3:6)

When many fans of the Bible read the early chapters of Genesis, it is often to establish little more than a theological framework. Our first parents’ act of disobedience is viewed as simply the basis of the human predicament from which we require deliverance. While the happenings in the Garden of Eden certainly set up the unfolding of God’s salvation plan, there is much more to be gained by noting the details of this tragic tale.

The text provides us with insight as to Eve’s internal process as she pondered the serpent’s crafty suggestion. First, we are told she “saw that the tree was good for food.” As someone who was just born yesterday (I know she wasn’t “born,” and the event timeline isn’t clear), how did she so quickly become such a pomologist (fruit expert)? While Eve, like Adam, was created innocent, she didn’t possess all knowledge. As a human being made in God’s image, she was graced with great intelligence potential, but at this point, she was still quite naïve. Remember their lack of shame was not due to their being comfortable with their unclothed state, as much as their not knowing they were naked (compare Bereshit/Genesis 2:25 with 3:7 & 11). Over time, God would mature the human family. Be that as it may, Eve thought she knew better.

Not only did she confidently determine the goodness of the fruit, she found it to be “a delight to the eyes.” Looking at it evoked a sensation of pleasure. It made her feel good and excited her. Nothing like powerful positive vibes to entice someone.

Finally, she also saw that it “was to be desired to make one wise.” In other words, she felt that it was just the thing to enhance her life. Wisdom is more than knowledge or experience. It is the ability to harness knowledge and experience to fully and effectively engage the world around us. Eve was sufficiently conscious of the fact that there was much for her to learn and concluded that consuming the fruit would enable her to live a wonderful life.

It’s hard to miss that Eve was subject to the same tactics that propagandists and advertisers have always used. The serpent set her up to be vulnerable to the lure of the fruit. It was both beautiful and powerful. And perhaps there would be a time to engage it, but not for Eve nor Adam, not yet, if ever.

Where did Eve go wrong? She shouldn’t have listened to the serpent, I know. But there’s more to this dark tale than that. It might surprise you that Evil had a voice in the Garden at all. But it did, and it has been speaking ever since. Like Eve, we can’t completely ignore Satan’s temptations. Are we then doomed to succumb? It would be nice if “getting saved” would inoculate us from the devil’s schemes, but too many genuine Yeshua followers have been entangled by his trickery to claim such a thing.

Taking note of the dynamics of Eve’s own entrapment can help guard us when facing temptation. Her biggest mistake, replicated by millions since then, was to entertain the possibility that God could not be trusted. She opened herself to the possibility that God was not only lying, but that he was purposely and selfishly keeping her from what was truly best. The result was that her heart was twisted away from God her creator to herself, the creature. Transitioning from being God-focused to self-focused, she became her own god. Thinking she could accurately assess her environment and make her own life determinations didn’t liberate her from God’s apparent arbitrary limits as expected, but instead imprisoned her under her own mastery.

Such has been the condition of all since then. While turning to God in Yeshua breaks the chains of self-focus, it doesn’t automatically prevent us from returning to its trap. Whenever we prefer our own perceptions, desires, and feelings over and against God’s word, we play out the first sin all over again. The devastating effect of our first parents’ misguided actions should remind us to resist the lure of our perceptions, the deception of our desires, and the untrustworthiness of our feelings. Rather by fueling our lives with the truth of God through the Scriptures and nurturing an intimate relationship with him in the Messiah, we give ourselves the best opportunity to avoid the devil’s devices.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Don’t Leave Home Without It

For the week of September 29, 2018 / 20 Tishri 5779

Sukkah before roof and decorations are added

This year’s sukkah before adding the roof and decorations.

Special note: I am posting this earlier in the week than I normally do. On Erev Shabbat (Sabbath eve), September 21, 2018, two tornadoes touched down in the Ottawa, Ontario/Gatineau, Quebec region. While we were slightly affected by the general weather event in that we only lost power for eight hours, others were not so fortunate. Some homes were completely destroyed and thousands may not have power for days. The beginnings of our little sukkah above surprisingly survived unscathed. I take this as a reminder of how most of the time we, vulnerable as we are, get through the challenges of life. May those who are still dealing with the aftermath of Friday’s storm be comforted and get back to normal soon.

By the way, the following message was composed prior to the weather event above.

Sukkot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 33:12 – 34:26; B’midbar/Numbers 29:26-34
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18 – 39:16

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.” (Shemot/Exodus 33:15)

One of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time featured the slogan, “Don’t leave home without it.” American Express claimed to provide security in the midst of the unknown. To leave home is to be unsafe. You never know what is going to happen out there in the wild of the outside world. What are you going to do if you encounter the challenges of life? You don’t on your own possess whatever resources you may need. But don’t worry, American Express will take care of you!

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) is special as it falls in the middle of the week-long festival of Sukkot (English: Booths or Tabernacles. A key aspect of these days is that they address the same human need that the Amex campaign exploited: vulnerability. During Sukkot, the people were to move out of their permanent dwellings and live in temporary shelters to remember how their ancestors dwelt in the wilderness for forty years prior to entering the Promised Land. The Torah reads:

You shall dwell in booths (Hebrew: sukkot) for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:42-43).

For a week every year, they were to leave home. They were to journey from security to insecurity. By purposely making themselves vulnerable, they relived, to some extent, the sense of vulnerability experienced for decades by an earlier generation. This was an object lesson to learn that their security was not in their permanent dwellings, but in the same God who miraculously took care of their predecessors. This was so that upon returning to their homes, they would understand that their security was not due to the work of their own hands, but because of the Master of the Universe. God is our security, taking care of us by any means he chooses, whether it be within buildings of our making or in the desert.

Moses understood this. Following the debacle of the Golden Calf, when the nation was at risk of complete destruction, Moses was receiving instructions from God in preparation for the next stage of their journey. He had a non-negotiable. You might think it strange that a human could relate to God like that, but perhaps you haven’t really read the Bible. The name Israel means, “he who strives with God,” hearkening back to God’s word to Abraham’s grandson Jacob: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:28). God invites us to struggle with him. Moses knew that. So he insisted: “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.” (Shemot/Exodus 33:15). Moses anticipated the challenges ahead. He was willing to face them, but not alone. Without the presence of God, he wasn’t going anywhere.

We don’t have to go out of our way to recreate wilderness experiences. God leads us into all kinds of situations where we are vulnerable, unsafe, and insecure. It’s natural when that happens to protect ourselves accordingly. But do our humanly devised solutions truly give us the protection we need? It can look that way at times, but do they really? Whether it be literal walls of defense or the innumerable emotional survival techniques we devise, we are far more vulnerable than we care to admit. Without God’s presence, we are in grave danger.

The good news is that we don’t have to go it alone. As God was with Israel in the wilderness, he is willing to be with us in whatever impossible situation we might find ourselves in. His miraculous presence is available to anyone who places their trust in the Messiah Yeshua. But something I am learning, is that we shouldn’t take his presence for granted. While we can be confident that he is with us, we can easily default to self-reliance. We offer a little prayer over our shoulders, while actually finding security in our abilities and possessions, not to mention our credit cards. Perhaps, we are well advised to take the time to stop and make sure we are not leaving home without him.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Speed of Life

For the week of September 22, 2018 / 13 Tishri 5779

Concept art of business man riding on top of a missile

Ha’azinu
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: 2 Samuel 22:1-51

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

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

One of the fascinating things science has demonstrated is that everything is always moving. When we are sitting or standing still, our sense of non-motion is only relative to the other creatures and objects around us. But we are moving at an astounding rate. Not only is the earth rotating at about 1600 km/hr (1000 mph), while orbiting the sun at 107,000 km/hr (66,000 mph), the earth and the sun are both moving within our galaxy at approximately 70,000 km/hr (43,000 mph). In addition, our galaxy is spinning while it itself is moving within the universe (see https://astrosociety.org/edu/publications/tnl/71/howfast.html). You get the point. I am so glad that while I have trouble sleeping on airplanes, I can dream away in my bed, while flying at unimaginable speeds.

The earth is on a trajectory to somewhere. Exactly where we don’t know. It’s like our lives. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are constantly developing as we move at lightning speed to the future. Time may feel slow depending on what we’re going through, but like the earth in space, it’s moving. Within our bodies, cells are dying and replenishing. At any moment we are not identical to the person we were a split second ago. Only death can put an end to that.

Until then, every momentary thought, action, and reaction is an investment in our future. Not only are we never truly physically still, we are moving toward a personal destination, a destiny. And that destiny is largely dependent on us.

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) contains Moses’ song to the Israelites not long before his death. It’s not a very happy song as he speaks of their inevitable demise. Over time, things will not go well. They won’t go well because they were clued out about where they were heading. Like most of us, they would live in the now, blind to how they were setting themselves up for failure.

Moses didn’t sing the blues to make them feel bad. It was to help them (and us!) learn to look where they were going. Wisdom, Moses chants, would put them on a very different trajectory. Wisdom, the skill of effective living based on God’s ways, would set a course to a wonderful destination. Wisdom perceives the course of the trajectory. Wisdom knows there’s a destination. Wisdom plans accordingly. Foolishness ignores that we are moving at all. Foolishness drones on and on: life is meaningless; nothing changes; we aren’t going anywhere; there’s no destination; live for the moment; now is all there is.

It’s so easy to fool ourselves. Apart from life moving at an imperceptible pace, the consequences aren’t immediately apparent. No alarm bells. No sirens. Yet, all the while, we are molding the person we become. Every intention, every action, sculpts a finished product we don’t know we are crafting. Until it’s over. Before we know it, we reach the destination, when we see God and discover how it all ends for us. You might think you are standing still, going nowhere. But that’s only an illusion. Your life is speeding along like lightning. What will you have to show for it? Not only will you have to give an account for what God has entrusted to you, your eternal quality of life will be based on what you have done with yourself.

You can change your trajectory. The momentum you have built up needn’t carry you down the path of destruction any longer. God will help you make that sharp turn right now and set you on course for a most wonderful finish. Why wait?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Be the Miracle

For the week of September 15, 2018 / 6 Tishri 5779

Silhouette of man jumping over gap between two cliffs.

Vayelech (Shuva)
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:1-30
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English 14:1-9); Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:6)

My coming to know God through Yeshua the Messiah just over forty-two years ago completely transformed my life. A few months before my nineteenth birthday, I started having panic attacks. They abated over much of the summer but came back with a vengeance as September approached. I had no interest in spiritual things and so was being nothing more than polite when I started up a conversation with the first Jewish follower of Yeshua I had ever met. Over the course of an hour and a half I encountered the prophecies about the Messiah in the Jewish Bible (Old Testament), learned about the significance of sin, discovered my need to repent, and was invited to ask Yeshua into my heart and life. While I had a strange sense that something significant was happening, it wasn’t until the following evening that I realized I had experienced a miracle, having not had a panic attack for an entire day. For months I was on cloud nine.

The emotional high didn’t last, however, as the specters of my past returned. Until recently I understood this to be God at work, calling me to deal with unresolved issues. The extreme positive nature of my early days in the Messiah was due to its being new, I thought. However difficult my life seemed to be as a youth, that was nothing compared to the challenges of adulthood with marriage, children, work, and so on. That I began with a honeymoon period is wonderful. But it takes a certain level of maturity to accept that God wasn’t as real in my life as I thought he was. The last thing I want is to live in a fantasy of spiritual deception.

A few months ago, I was challenged to rethink this. Not that deception is okay, but perhaps I misinterpreted the loss of joy and excitement I had at the beginning. Instead of my issues being the kind of reasonable pain that comes from facing personal weakness, might it be that I responded to the challenges of adulthood by reverting to the ungodly habits of my youth? Perhaps my struggles were not due to my need to be honest about my deficiencies, but rather because I had become distracted from the power and goodness of God.

`Don’t get me wrong, we need to honestly deal with our deficiencies, what the Bible calls “sin” – all the ways we think and live that are not in keeping with God’s standards. But that’s the point. It’s one thing to be honest about sins’ remnants in our lives, it’s another to allow them to continue to control us.

Even though I have no doubt my miracle was real, there was something about it that I now believe I misinterpreted. I had been an anxious and hopeless mess until God burst into my life. From my perspective, I was like the people of Israel in bondage in Egypt. In my case the bondage was emotional, but no less oppressive. I was trapped until God rescued me. Where I went wrong, I think, is that I have interpreted the vestiges of emotional bondage through the lens of my earlier victimhood. Just as I couldn’t do anything about it until God showed up, I expected I needed to wait for him to come through time and time again. Until then, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. That’s what’s called a victim mentality.

It was a victim mentality that prevented the generation that left Egypt from confidently entering the Promised Land. Even though God miraculously rescued them and demonstrated his love and power to them over and over again, they couldn’t trust him enough to face the later challenges of acquiring their inheritance.

Now as the second generation had the same opportunity, they were called to be “strong and courageous.” God was not going to simply wipe out their enemies and transport his people into Canaan. They themselves had to do it. It’s not as if they were on their own, of course. God would be with them. God guaranteed victory. But they still had to fight. In order to fight and win, they had to trust God. Trusting God means not giving in to fear. To do that requires no longer thinking like a victim. It means to purposely turn from fear and actively trust God, instead of waiting for him to take the fear away.

There are times, such as my introduction to Yeshua, where God overwhelms us with his miraculous power, doing for us what we in no way can do for ourselves. But these miracles are not designed to create passive misguided overdependence on God in the name of faith. Rather they are to equip us to be “strong and courageous,” trusting him to confidently fulfill the exploits to which he calls us. How many times are we waiting for a miracle when what God really wants is for us to be the miracle?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Are you ready to be a miracle? Find out how on TorahBytes Live, scheduled for Thursday, September 13, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following:

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Crazy Peace

For the week of September 8, 2018 / 28 Elul 5778

Face of a man wearing peace sign sunglasses

Nitzavim
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 (English 29:10 – 30:20)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:17-18; English: 29:18-19)

Last week, we looked at how Moses regarded the new generation of Israelites as truly embracing their identity as God’s people, something at which their parents had failed miserably. Still, as further developed in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), they needed to be reminded not to take their relationship with God for granted. Instead they were to be conscious of the danger of turning away to other gods.

Moses explains that this danger can be subtle, since the pull towards falsehood didn’t solely exist in the external world around them, but also within their own hearts. Unless they were actively aware of this, they could easily deceive themselves. The subtlety, however, was not due to the possibility of temptation toward ungodly behavior, but how individuals may relate to that temptation.

It’s one thing to feel drawn toward illicit behavior. Fighting temptation can be overwhelming at times. In those times, we can tend to overly identify with the temptation, thinking we have no choice but to fulfill desires we normally loathe. But that’s not Moses’ concern. It’s not the false gods themselves that are the problem. It’s that there is something worse at play here. It’s an attitude. The presence of this attitude almost certainly guarantees succumbing to the lure of ungodliness in its innumerable forms.

This attitude is expressed in Hebrew as “hitbarech bilvavo lemor shalom yi-ye-li” (“he will bless his heart saying, I have peace in me”). In the translation I quoted at the beginning, shalom, the common word for “peace,” is translated as “safety.” The word shalom refers to completeness – everything in its right place, which is often best expressed as peace. In this context, however, the person claims to have peace in himself. In our day, we might say, “I’m okay” or “I’m good,” as an expression of feeling inner peace or safety.

In spite of feelings, this is an absolute denial of reality. Turning from God’s word to pursue the lies and perverted behaviors of false gods creates havoc for those who do such things as well as for their relationships. It’s not as if these people are ignorant of what they are doing. They have heard God’s Word. They understand the warnings. They even know they are stubbornly refusing to do what God says. Yet their sense of peace creates a self-centered false security that prevents them from doing what is good and right, blinding them to the inevitable doom that awaits them.

You might be surprised if I told you that the basis of this deceptive peace is fear. Human beings can be so afraid of fear that we shut it out completely. In order to avoid terrible consequences, we convince ourselves that everything is okay, when it is anything but. We prevent ourselves from feeling fear by feeding ourselves falsehoods, such as what we are considering isn’t all that bad, our situation is an exception to the rule, or that God doesn’t really mean what he says. The positive feedback from these lies is so strong that it instantly becomes reality to us. At that point the deception is complete and we’re living in a world of our own making. In that world, God’s truth appears as false.

Feelings of peace on their own indicate nothing. Both good or bad feelings may or not reflect the reality of our hearts or the world around us. Confidence is a good thing, but not when it’s ill-informed. The only trustworthy indication of truth and reality is God’s Word. To think that we can get away with misbehavior on the basis of a personal sense of peace is nothing less than crazy.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

But what about “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding”? Is that crazy too? Find out on TorahBytes Live, scheduled for Thursday, September 6, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following:

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail