Is It Your Time?

For the week of February 27, 2021 / 15 Adar 5781

Man in business suit pointing at watch

Tetzaveh
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
Haftarah: Ezekiel 43:10-27

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And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14)

These are the words spoken by Mordecai to his cousin Esther who had been selected queen of Persia after the former queen had been deposed due to insubordination. Only God knew the circumstances Esther, Mordecai. and the rest of the Jewish people in Persia would find themselves in. At some point after Esther’s installment, the king promoted Haman to the highest bureaucratic position. One of Haman’s perks was that everyone had to display deference towards him whenever he passed by, which everyone did but Mordecai. This infuriated Haman to the extent that he not only wanted to put Mordecai to death, but all of Mordechai’s people, the Jewish people, as well.

Prior to this, Mordecai instructed Esther not to make her Jewishness known. But now, realizing by God’s providence she was in a place of influence he sent a message to her entreating her to approach the king on her people’s behalf. It was obvious, at least to Mordecai, that God’s hand was at work in Esther’s becoming queen, and he helped her to see that perhaps she had come to her role in the kingdom for such a time as this.

As readers of this story, what Mordecai discerned with regard to Esther’s role is obvious. Of course, we also have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story. Anyone who approached the king uninvited would be killed unless the king extended his scepter to that person, a risk Esther decided to take. Not only did the king extend his scepter to her, Haman’s devilish plot was exposed, and the Jewish people overcame another existential threat. This is why we celebrate the festival of Purim (this year: Thursday evening, February 25).

I don’t know how many people ever find themselves in such a position. After all, this is an extreme case, both in terms of the threat and the unusual place that Esther found herself in. I would hope that if I found myself is such a unique position to help that I too would be willing to do what Esther did.

But how about when the situation isn’t as dramatic as this; when the place we find ourselves isn’t as obvious as it was to Mordecai? How about when life seems to be normal: family, work, home, school – day in, day out, same old, same old, what about then? Could it be that wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing there are opportunities staring at us that we are uniquely positioned for, but we are distracted by normal? What if we were more aware of what’s really going on around us? What would happen if we were more sensitive to the Lord’s promptings in our lives? Maybe life wouldn’t seem so normal all the time.

When I referred to “normal,” did you think to yourself we are not in normal times? It’s been a year of COVID confusion, fear, and restrictions, not to mention all the other social, political, and environmental challenges. Yet many are just trying to cope, waiting for this to all be over . We’ll clean it up and regroup after it passes by. But what are you waiting for? This might be your time.

Esther’s initial reaction to Mordecai was “What can I do?” seeing that she hadn’t been summoned to the king in a while. However, she wasn’t in her position simply to accept the way things were, but rather to risk her life to make a difference. She needed to challenge the status quo and put herself in a dangerous place in order to bring about the necessary changes.

This is not the time to sit back and do nothing. You may believe you don’t have any other option. That’s never the case with the God of Israel. What you might be called to do may not have the same impact as what Esther did, but you’ll never know until you are willing to step out in that direction. It might be nothing more than a phone call or an email. But as God leads you, there’s no telling the difference you might make. Perhaps this is your time.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Show and Do

For the week of February 20, 2021 / 8 Adar 5781

Illustration of the tabernacle in the wilderness

Illustration: The tabernacle erected in the wilderness, surrounded by an enclosure and miles of tents. Colored etching after W. Dickes. Courtesy of Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

Terumah & Zachor
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 25:1 – 27:19 & D’varim/Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 15:2-34

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Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it. (Shemot/Exodus 25:9)

There are two major sections in the second book of the Torah that are concerned about the building of the mishkan, usually translated into English as “tabernacle.” It was a large, yet mobile, complex designed as the locale for the offering of sacrifices and other priestly functions on behalf of the nation of Israel. Mishkan means, “dwelling place,” as it was to represent God’s dwelling among his people. This week’s parsha (English: Torah reading portion) through chapter thirty contains the instructions of the mishkan, its furnishings, and other related items, including the priests’ clothing and recipes for the special oil and incense. Then the actual construction is described beginning in chapter thirty-five through the end of the book, chapter forty.

Various people have attempted to draw or build accurate images or models – including life-sized versions – of the mishkan, but there is no way to ensure accuracy due to a missing ingredient in the instructions recorded by Moses. It appears that he was privy to something besides the details we read in the Torah. Not only did God tell him what to do, he also showed it to him. Because Moses saw what to do, he could also instruct the people on how to do it.

Before I continue, a word about the so-called Oral Torah. Jewish tradition claims that when God gave Moses his word to write down, he also told him other things that he did not write down, but instead was to be passed on orally. One of the main purposes of the Oral Torah is to interpret the written Torah. The Mishnah, which is the core of the Talmud is the written version of the Oral Torah. A scriptural basis for the Mishnah is the verse we are looking at, since it suggests that Moses was made aware of certain aspects of God’s revelation to Israel that he didn’t write down. However, this is no way legitimizes an oral tradition that most certainly was developed over time. Just because Moses was equipped with more than the written instructions for the Mishkan here doesn’t prove anything about other later rabbinic teachings.

What, then, might we learn from Moses’ experience of the mishkan? The people of Israel needed more than just “the what” of building it. They also needed “the how.” Throughout the ages people have abused the Bible because they thought that a simple reading was sufficient to live out its teachings. Armed with only the what, well-meaning, but otherwise naïve people have caused more damage than good. They claim to be taking God at his word but possess neither the sensitivity necessary to understand it nor his wisdom to live it out effectively.

When we read the Bible, we are not on our own. It’s a very old book, but its ultimate author is still alive. Not only that, he has made himself available to anyone who seeks him. In order to truly understand his word, we need to rely on him to show us how. This is not to say that our intuition or spiritual senses are reliable guides in themselves to understand the difficult and not-so difficult parts of scripture. The scriptures themselves provide interpretive boundaries for us. If Moses, having recorded the mishkan instructions, claimed that God showed that they were to build a boat, then everyone would know something was not right. I know that’s an extreme example, but it makes the point clear. If an interpretation of scripture is not well-supported by scripture, we should not trust it.

The same goes for any attempt to follow God’s instructions. Through the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit) God speaks to his people in various ways. But too often we fail to wait upon him for how to do what he is calling us to do. Instead, we need to wait on him to show us, and then do.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Practical Torah

For the week of February 13, 2021 / 1 Adar 5781

Illustration of Torah scroll with "Practical Torah" supperimposed

Mishpatim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1 – 24:18 & B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/ 2 Kings 12:1-17
Originally posted the week of February 6, 2016 / 27 Shevat 5776 (updated)

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Now these are the rules that you shall set before them (Shemot/Exodus 21:1)

Last week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) including the giving of the Ten Words (commonly known as the Ten Commandments). As I explained in a previous TorahBytes message, the Ten Words function as representative of the covenant God established with the people of Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai (see http://torahbytes.org/76-17/). Accepting them as eternal principles simply because they are the Ten Commandments or rejecting them as Old Testament relics fails to regard their covenantal function. With the coming of Yeshua and the inauguration of the New Covenant as promised by the prophet Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31-33; compare Luke 22:20), the constitution of God’s people underwent a major transformation. That which was given on tablets of stone has been internalized as Jeremiah had foretold (see 2 Corinthians 3:3). The life that God had called Israel to live was no longer something outside and out of reach, so to speak, but instead to be lived from the inside out. The alienation from God which had prevented Israel from living up to the Sinai covenantal demands was resolved by the forgiveness of sin brought about through Yeshua’s sacrificial death.

The main contrast between the Sinai and New Covenants, therefore, is found – not primarily in their practical details – but in the contrasting constitutional arrangements within which the details are given. The older covenant provides for the organization of a national entity; the newer one enables the inclusion of all nations without requiring specific membership in Israel. The great change in the sacrificial system from ongoing and temporal to final and permanent makes the older priestly function obsolete and thus allows all believers to approach God directly.

But just because the covenantal foundations have changed, that doesn’t mean that every God-given directive through Moses is no longer relevant. For it is in the Torah that we encounter almost every aspect of life from God’s perspective. Discerning which elements of God’s “teaching” (for that’s what “torah” means) were for ancient Israel alone and which ones are for all people for all times can be a challenge, but a worthwhile and enriching one.

Through Torah we are reminded that relationship with God is not something detached from life’s practicalities. While abstract notions of love and forgiveness are essential, it is through the directives of Torah that the core of our faith is expressed in very practical ways. When reading the first section of this week’s Torah portion you might wonder if that is really true, however. The subject of slaves in the Bible is often used to demonstrate how backwards it is. But what we actually have here is God’s speaking into a world where slavery was taken for granted. The boundaries and regulations God established through Moses emphasizes the value of all human beings. This would have been radical for those days and sets the stage for its eventual abolishment. How’s that for being practical?

Our portion continues by addressing the subject of personal liability. We are privileged to be given God’s mind regarding common issues like those that people have faced throughout history. We neglect God’s word on these matters to our peril.

In another section in this week’s reading, we see the consequences for certain types of social behavior, including premarital sex, bestiality, sorcery, as well as dealing with the vulnerable members of society: foreigners, widows, and orphans. As with the slavery section, modern readers might too quickly react to the prescribed consequences for certain behaviors rather than glean wisdom from God’s perspective. The determining of consequences is subject to the jurisdiction of civil leaders, which while regulated under Sinai for ancient Israel, is not expanded to the nations under the New Covenant. What we can derive from this is the destructive nature of the things addressed, so that they can be avoided among believers and discouraged within the cultures in which we find ourselves.

This is what Yeshua meant when he told his followers that they are “salt and light” (see Matthew 5:13-16). As the great Master Rabbi, he expounded the teachings of Moses, so that they (and us!) can learn the practical details of Torah within a New Covenant framework.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

 

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What Are We Missing?

For the week of February 6, 2021 / 24 Shevat 5781

A man sitting in a chair staring at a wall full of question marks

Yitro
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6; 9:5-6 (English: 9:6-7)

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For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 6:5; English 6:6)

This week’s Haftarah (selected reading from the Hebrew Prophets) is quite unusual. Before I explain why, I need to mention that there is more than one tradition of Haftarah readings. The two major ones are the Ashkenazi, rooted in Eastern European Jewish tradition and Sephardic, rooted in Spain and Portugal, with Ashkenazi Jews being a majority in the world. I follow the Ashkenazi tradition because I am Ashkenazi. The Ashkenazi reading this week is Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6 and 9:5-6 (in most English translations, it’s 9:6-7, that’s due to verse numbering differences between the Hebrew and English that occur from time to time). The Sephardic reading is only Isaiah chapter 6. Why which selection is chosen no one knows for sure. The custom of reading from the Prophets on Shabbat goes back to at least Yeshua’s day if not earlier (see Luke 4:16-21). Yet, it seems which passage was read may not have been set as it would become at some later point.

The most obviously unusual aspect of this selection is that it is made up of more than one passage. This only happens five times in the year. One would think that whoever and however this decision was made, it must have been purposeful. The first part of the selection is a high mark in Hebrew prophetic writings as it is the call of Isaiah, which includes the magnificent, “kadosh kadosh kadosh adonai tz’va-ot, m’lo khol ha-aretz k’vado;” “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). This passage may have been selected as a compliment to this week’s Torah reading as it also is a high mark in Scripture, the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

But why the two extra verses – and especially in the Ashkenazi tradition that already extends well into chapter seven? These are the famous verses that many people would recognize from Handel’s Messiah. Having not grown up as a regular synagogue attender and having never heard Handel’s Messiah, I first heard them when I was presented the Jewish Bible’s evidence for Yeshua’s being the Messiah. Here, I was told, was a prediction that a great child would be born, who would be much more than a normal king as indicated by his complex name: “pele-yo’etz el gibbor avi-‘ad sar-shalom;” “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

But that which is most unusual about including these verses is that there is a tendency to not include passages that have been used through the centuries to refer specifically to Yeshua as Messiah. I am not saying that this is due to an intended coverup. There is a lot of material to choose from in the Prophets, and it’s not as if there was a set Haftarah list in Yeshua’s day that was changed in order to reject such passages.

That said, if there was a coverup in order to prevent Jewish exposure to Yeshua-sounding prophecies, one would think these verses would be targeted. There is a common Jewish assumption that the Messiah would not be divine, but a normal human being, rejecting the New Covenant Writings’ claim that Yeshua was the divine Son of God.

Some may dismiss the divine identification of this great king as predicted by Isaiah as not a description of his nature, but as a way to exalt God. Reference to God and God’s name is common in many Hebrew names. One may assert that the name “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us,” found in another of Isaiah’s prophecies (7:14), could express the encouraging truth that God is with the people as opposed to the concept that the person given this name is himself God who is among us.

But this is hardly the case of Isaiah 9. This lengthy designation is hardly a name by which a person is called. It is a description of the person. The great king to come is far more than a regular human being, but rather the God of Israel coming in the form of a human being.

The common Jewish objection is that God doesn’t or wouldn’t take on human form. But this idea is more of a reaction to Christian thought than a grappling with such an amazing prophecy. Through Isaiah, God tells us that he himself would do for us what no normal human being could ever do. And that’s besides other scriptures that suggest that God has taken on human form prior to the coming of Yeshua. Some examples are the two mysterious messengers who visit Abraham (Bereshit/Genesis 18:1-14); Jacob’s wrestling with God (Bereshit/Genesis 32: 24-32); Joshua’s encounter with the captain of the army of the Lord (Joshua 5:13-15), and the messenger announcing Samson’s birth (Judges 13).

In the same way people’s presuppositions and prejudices about the coming Messiah cloud their reading of messianic prophecy, I wonder how our presuppositions and prejudices about life and scripture keep us from fully appreciating what God is seeking to say to us today.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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God’s Instruments

For the week of January 30, 2021 / 17 Shevat 5781

Illustration of Moses' parting the Red Sea

Beshalach
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17-17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4-5:31

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The LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground. (Shemot/Exodus 14:15-16)

The Bible is a book (a collection of books actually) about God. While it is historically sound, it is not a history book. It contains a great assortment of personal stories, but it’s not a biography. It is full of profound insight into human behavior; yet it is neither a psychology book nor is it a self-help book. The greatest contribution of the Bible is that it informs us as to the character, workings, and intentions of God. That said, the Bible isn’t about God in the sense that it reveals him to the reader at the expense of anything else. Rather, he is revealed to us through demonstrating his desire to work in and through his creation, particularly human beings.

This is clear from the very beginning as God entrusted our first parents with the responsibility of caring for Planet Earth. Their failure to do so didn’t cancel out humanity’s essential role in his plan. On the contrary, the Bible’s story is about God’s working to restore his mandate to rule the earth though humans under his direction.

The relationship of God to his creation as manifest through people was never designed to be one where God would leave orders and then take off for some far away disconnected realm. Rather, his intentions were for an intimate ongoing, communicative relationship with us. The distance from God that people have known all too well was due to Adam and Eve’s dismissal of that relationship. Despite the unintended distance that resulted, God continued to seek to re-establish intimacy with us.

The image of God unique to human beings is fundamentally expressed in our role as God’s representatives on earth. This is why, apart from a few exceptions, what God does on earth he does through people. We see this through the story of God’s rescue of his people, Israel, from Egypt. God didn’t directly speak to Pharaoh; he chose Moses to do it. Most of the ten plagues came about in response to Moses’ or Aaron’s stretching out their hands along with Moses’ staff. This happens again in this week’s parsha as God directed Moses, “Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground” (Shemot/Exodus 14:16).

There is no sense whatsoever that Moses, Aaron, or the staff, possessed magical powers. It was not as if they could wield it at will as if it were a divinely infused weapon. God initiated these events. God caused these events. God directed Moses and Aaron to use the staff as he worked through their obedience to him. This demonstrates the dynamics of relationship that he established from the beginning as he chose human beings as his instruments of blessing for the sake of the creation.

The question many are afraid to consider is what would have happened had Moses and Aaron not done their part. We can’t know what would have happened, since we only have what did happen. What we do know, however, is what happens when people disobey God. Things go very wrong. Yet, I have the impression we assume God will always have his way, whether or not people obey him. I agree, but only in an ultimate sense. God’s overall purposes will be accomplished, but along the way, the outworking of God’s plan is fraught with human irresponsibility, foolishness, laziness, distractedness, ignorance, stubbornness, and outright disobedience. And while God uses everything, good and bad, to meet his desired ends, so much unnecessary damage is done along the way by our bad behavior. That we cannot thwart God’s ultimate purpose is no excuse for mismanaging our lives.

I don’t like thinking about how I have failed to meet my God-given responsibilities be it in small or big ways. But I need to take this seriously. I am aware that some of us have to be careful not to be obsessed with self-focus in the name of serving God. Thankfully, God never intended that you and I should seek to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. But you and I can (must) give ourselves to those things God wants me and you to do. It may not be at the level of parting the Red Sea. But whatever it is, God wants us to be his instruments.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version 

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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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Unrestricted

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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