The Anti-Narcissist

For the week of March 10, 2018 / 23 Adar 5778Screen capture of Google search definition of narcissistVayakhel & Pekudei
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 35:1 – 40:38 & B’midbar/Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38

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Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. (Ezekiel 36:22)

A key theme in the book of the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel (Hebrew: Y’chezkel) is the glory of God. Early in the book which takes place during the early stages of the Babylonian conquest, Ezekiel has a vision of God’s glory in terms of a heavenly chariot. Eventually the prophet sees God’s glory leave the Jerusalem temple, thus illustrating that Israel’s exile is his exile too. On one hand, it is comforting to be reminded that God is with his people even in times like these, but we shouldn’t miss the indictment against them: their misdeeds resulted in the loss of God’s glory.

There are two aspects to what constitutes the glory of God. First, it refers to the outward manifestation of his being. Since God is a spirit, he cannot be detected by our physical senses. But from time to time he displays the essence of who he is within the material sphere –  blinding light and consuming fire being two most common. Sometimes his glory is expressed through actions, often referred to as signs, since there is significance or meaning behind them. The ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the provision of manna, and so on are expressions of his glory.

The second aspect of glory has to do with honor, the appropriate response to these manifestations. When we sufficiently acknowledge a display of God’s glory, we give credit to whom credit is due. So when God does something amazing and we respond with amazement, remarking that only God could have done such a thing, we are giving God glory or honoring him.

God cares very much about his honor to the extent that it is perhaps his prime internal motivating force. The verse I read at the start is one of many examples in the Bible, several of which are in Ezekiel, that convey this idea. In much of the Hebrew prophetic literature, God’s judgement of the Jewish people is not his final word concerning them, but a temporary measure in the process of their eventual physical and spiritual restoration. But, to make sure that the people don’t get the wrong impression, God deems it necessary to remind them that he is not doing this for their sakes but for the sake of his holy name, which is another way to say, for his honor.

One might react to this, wondering why the Supreme Being would appear to be so self-centered as if he wants to remind us: “Don’t forget everybody; this is all about Me!” Perhaps this is exactly what God is saying. Some may even want us to believe that not only is this correct, but that our whole approach to God and life needs to revolve around such a notion.

Is God the ultimate narcissist, ever consumed with himself? No wonder we talk about God using people. Perhaps that’s exactly what he is doing. Are we nothing more than his minions created to do his bidding? Could it be that any perceived kindness toward us is illusionary, since we are nothing but expendable pawns in some divine plan? To hear how some people theologize the Bible, you’d think so.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Everything about God is lavishly generous. He, the only self-sufficient one, far from being narcissistic, freely chose to bring into existence a wonderful creation, designing humans in particular to uniquely share aspects of himself by making us in his image.

God doesn’t need anything. He doesn’t need our honor. But he knows that we need to honor him. Our misunderstanding of this greatly stems from our skewed view of honor. Honor isn’t about its apparent perks or position. Honor is an acknowledgement of truth. Failure to give credit where credit is due detaches us from reality and sends us down the rabbit hole of delusion and destruction. Neglecting to give glory to God for who he is and what he has done shifts our allegiance from the true Master of the Universe to ourselves, thus fashioning human beings into puny false gods. But when we honor him, we place ourselves in our rightful place in the universe, thus allowing us to function according to design.

God’s passion for his honor stems from a deeper motivating force of selfless love. His concern for his glory is his plea for us to live in reality. To know him truly is to honor him. To perceive him accurately is to give him glory. To live otherwise is to dwell in the darkness. Let us honor God and really live!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Truth You Know

14 Adar 5778 / March 1, 2018
Special for Purim 5778

Painting of Haman honoring Mordecai

by Ari Gradus. For Gradus’ work, see <http://rogallery.com/gradus_ari/gradus_hm.htm

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If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him. (Esther 6:13)

One of my favorite moments in the Purim story is when the wicked Haman returns home after his humiliating task of parading Mordecai through the streets of the Persian capital. Seeing his thoroughly despondent state, his wife says to him these insightful words: “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him” (Esther 6:13). But it’s not how prophetically accurate this was that is so striking. What gets me is why didn’t she say this earlier. “If Mordecai is of the Jewish people…” Not long before, right after another one of Haman’s “I can’t stand Mordecai” pity parties, she came up with the brilliant idea of having a 75-foot-high gallows made to hang Mordecai on. In fact, it was Haman’s being in the royal court waiting to ask the king’s permission for this murderous deed that ended up with him publicly honoring Mordecai for rescuing the king some time earlier.

Obviously, it was this unusual turn of events that tweaked Haman’s wife’s thinking, resulting in her somber prediction. But again, if she already had enough of a grasp of the grand narrative of the Jewish people enabling her to predict her husband’s imminent demise, then why did she think they could get away with her spectacular hang-Mordecai-plan?

It’s because she thought, despite the truth, that they could get away with it. She wasn’t stupid. She and her husband knew how to play the political game to suit their selfish purposes, not caring one bit about who got hurt along the way. She was even able to risk fighting the forces of the universe to succeed. She knew God’s favor was on the Jews. Yet, perhaps she deceived herself long enough to think they could succeed. Weren’t things going their way until now?

Do we always have to wait until heaven pushes back against the forces of evil before we come to our senses? Can we not learn from history that the forces of good will always eventually prevail? Can we not learn from the story of Purim that standing against God, his people, and his plans will inevitably come to naught?

Like Haman’s wife, it’s not as if we don’t know better.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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A Small Price To Pay

For the week of March 3, 2018 / 16 Adar 5778

Gold coin-like illustration with a male head silhouette with a dollar sign superimposed.

Ki Tissa
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 18:1-39

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When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the LORD when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. (Shemot/Exodus 30:12)

At first glance this directive by God to Israel seems odd. If and when a census (or more literally “head count”) is conducted, each and every person was to pay some sort of fee to avoid catastrophe. This is extreme stuff; very serious. In fact, it appears this is exactly what happened centuries later under the reign of King David (see 1 Samuel 24:1ff & 1 Chronicles 21:1ff). While there is nothing inherently wrong with taking a census, David’s Chief of Defense, General Joab, urged him not to do it. The resulting plague that killed seventy thousand people tells us that the issue was most likely the failure to institute the required payment.

Is it necessary to know why God required such a thing? Shouldn’t it be enough to know God means what he says and he knows what he’s doing? If payment is required, payment is required. The warning of negative consequences resulting from disobedience is a bonus. God doesn’t always add an “or else” to what he says. It’s generally implied. Not that we should take his “or elses” as cold threats. Rather his warnings to us are more along the lines of a caring father’s wise insights: “Don’t play with fire, son; you’ll get burned.” So here it’s: “Pay the fee kids and live to see another day!” Therefore, I am good with no further explanation beyond the clear instruction.

Even though we shouldn’t need to be told the reasons behind what God says, giving some thought to what’s going on here might help us gain some helpful understanding about life. So let’s give this a go, and see what happens.

What strikes me as curious is why does the individual pay to be counted? It would be one thing if the purpose of the counting was taxation, but it isn’t. The counting was an act to determine particular population details. Why would the individual have to pay for that? Note that regarding the payment, scholars agree the best English word for the Hebrew word ‘kopher” here is “ransom.” It’s a word that can mean redemption money and in other contexts is translated as “bribe.” There was something about the act of numbering the people that placed the individual in a precarious situation from which they needed to ransom themselves.

Is it just me, or does this sound a bit strange? Here we are, minding our own business, and the government institutes a census (again, nothing wrong with that!). They knock on our door and count the members of our household, thus placing the whole nation in danger of plague unless we pay ransom money. Yikes!

Why is being counted putting people in jeopardy? Are we to be penalized for simply existing? We didn’t ask to be born. At some point at a very young age, we become conscious of being alive, and find ourselves having to survive within a whole set of circumstances that we originally had nothing to do with. We then spend the rest of our lives either justifying or denying our existence. Victims are we all! Then to rub it in, we have to pay ransom for being noticed.

But, wait a second! It’s failure to pay the ransom that makes us victims. It’s neglecting God’s directive to give up something of what is rightfully ours that disturbs the equilibrium of the society. It’s being publicly noticed with no cost to ourselves that’s the problem. And why is that? Something happens to us when we are called out of the nameless crowd and individualized. Most of us like being noticed. Many of us want to go much further and be famous. But there is danger when we are noticed. If we don’t stop and express gratitude to God for our existence, we are in danger of turning our attention away from the One who made us to be ourselves.

Far from being victims of a cosmic accident, we owe God for the gift of life. Whenever we are called out from among the crowd, we need to take time to remember we are here to serve him and his purposes and not ourselves. To exist is a heavenly privilege graciously bestowed upon us, a privilege which we would do well to gratefully acknowledge. To fail to do so is to invite destruction upon ourselves and everyone around us.

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

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Imagine That!

For the week of February 24, 2018 / 9 Adar 5778

Young girl expressing her imagination

T’tzaveh & Zakhor
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 27:20 – 30:10; Devarim/Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 15:2-34

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And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord. I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me.” (1 Samuel 15:23)

One of the most wonderful of all human abilities is imagination. We have been gifted by God to be able to conceive of almost endless possibilities. Imagination is more than childlike dreams of fantasy and momentary inspirations of creativity. It is actually an essential aspect of our being, enabling us to effectively engage the world in which we live.

Strange as this sounds, I don’t think we can imagine life without it! We imagine almost as much as we breathe. In almost every situation we find ourselves in, we weigh possibilities. It may happen in an instant but deciding whether to turn left or right at an intersection requires a level of outcome assessment. Unlike animals, whose activities are the result of sensory reaction, we use our minds. We may not necessarily use our minds as much as we should. A case can be made that it is possible to devolve into animal-like sensual behavior, as we choose to shut down imagination. But in that case, I wonder how much imagination shouts to be heard. The image of God in human beings is not easily snuffed out.

There is a downside to imagination, however. The ability that we have to picture victory in battle, light amidst darkness, reconciliation following rejection, healing when harmed, also enables us to imagine nonsense. At a young age we learn that creating fantasy worlds can be fun. Countless children have been entertained by the outlandish creatures produced by Dr. Seuss, for example. But such creatures don’t exist. Neither do the worlds of most science fiction. This is not to say such fanciful tales don’t have elements of truth or that the wildest technical conceptions cannot lead to real inventions. It’s just that imagination has the ability to deny reality itself.

One of the most common, but serious, applications of imaginative reality denial is that we live in a world that is fundamentally good. There is much good in the world, God made sure of that in spite of our first parents’ insubordination. However, be it disease and death, abuse and oppression, resentment and jealousy – the list goes on – evil confronts us at every turn. Yet every time many are jarred from a drugged-like stupor, where even the strongest denial can’t be sustained, and are shocked as if the most bizarre thing just happened: “What’s with those people!” “What kind of monster could do such a thing!” – pretending that evil is an alien object living beyond earth’s atmosphere that once in while accidently breaks through, randomly plummeting to earth. But what fantasy film are you watching? Not only is evil a normal and regular occurrence, it resides in you and me. To think otherwise is to let your imagination run amok.

This week’s readings include a special portion from the life of Israel’s first king, Saul. It is read each year on the Sabbath prior to Purim (the Festival of Esther). The association with Purim has to do with its mention of Israel’s enemy Amalek, whom Saul was supposed to destroy. The setup of the Purim story which occurred centuries later in Persia is that Mordecai wouldn’t show deference to the high official Haman, because he descended from the Amalekites. Saul’s demise was partly due to his unwillingness to sufficiently confront evil by destroying the Amalekites as instructed by God. He imagined that denying the seriousness of evil and pleasing his people was a better option than fulfilling God’s directive.

Today we imagine that denying evil is better than confronting it for what it is. Perhaps pretending everyone else is basically good allows us to trick ourselves into imagining we are too. But as Purim will soon be here again (begins the evening of February 28, 2018), we would be better to acknowledge, resist, and confront evil wherever it lurks. And we can with God’s help. Imagine that!

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

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God Is in the House

For the week of February 17, 2018 / 2 Adar 5778

Illustration of temple curtain tearing in two

Terumah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 5:26 – 6:13 (English: 5:12 – 6:13)

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And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel. (Shemot/Exodus 25:21-22)

It’s fairly common to hear the God of the Old Testament contrasted with the God of the New. Even among those who would never dare to say that these constitute two very different beings, they may as well, given how they mischaracterize what they view as irreconcilable depictions of the one God. There are indeed key contrasts between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Covenant writings vis-à-vis the divine. The differences are not in God himself, however. But, rather, in his relationship to human beings.

To the casual reader, the Old Testament seems to reflect a God who is distant, while in the New he is approachable. That is somewhat true, because on our own we are not fit to approach him, not because he is aloof, sitting far away in heaven, disinterested in human affairs. Far from it! As he revealed himself to the people of Israel within the covenant given at Mt. Sinai, we see him anxious to live among his precious human creatures.

The entire Sinai covenant system was built upon the centrality of God’s dwelling place. God directed Moses to construct a mobile structure called the “mishkan” (English: tabernacle). It was here that the sacrifices and other worship rites were to be exclusively performed. Mishkan means “dwelling.” It was the precursor of the temple, which in Hebrew is “bayit,” the word for “house.” It is difficult to say whether or not God’s taking up residence in the mishkan was metaphorical or actual. Probably it is both in some ways and not in others. Regardless, the people of Israel were to understand that the Master of the Universe was among them.

Inside the mishkan, in its innermost sanctum, called the “kodesh ha-k’dashim” (English: Holy of Holies), was a special golden chest, called the “aron ha-b’rit” (English: the Ark of the Covenant). On top of the aron ha-b’rit was the “kapporet” (English: “cover,” traditionally referred to as “the mercy seat”). As we read at the beginning, it was here that God would meet and speak with Moses. It would be here that the Cohen HaGadol (English: the Chief Priest) would appear before God once a year on Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement).

That God was in the house was an essential element of ancient Israeli society. God is not a concept, but an actual personal being (the Being of all Beings, we can say). Obedience to his Word, even then, was not cold adherence to abstract principles, but the reasonable response to the reality of his presence. Everything that the people did or didn’t say or do was in response to him being in the house.

One of the dramatic developments within the New Covenant is that God’s presence is no longer isolated within the ancient house, be it the tabernacle or the temple. This is illustrated by the miraculous tearing of the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the house. This occurred immediately following Yeshua’s death to demonstrate that his sacrifice not only provided access to God for people of all nations, but that God’s presence was being unleashed throughout the entire world.

Through the New Covenant the God of Israel is no longer exclusive to the people of Israel. In a sense he never was. Not only did the calling of Israel through Abraham always have the nations in mind, but the Hebrew Scriptures are clear that God was neither nationalistic nor regional. It’s that due to the human condition, the globe was not ready for his presence.

Since Yeshua’s death and resurrection, throughout the earth, God’s presence has manifested in a most personal way. While most people seem to be blind to his taking up residence within his creation, he is no less present. God is in the house – the world he has made – yet we too often ignore him. We think we can get away with doing our own thing our own way as if he will not call each and every one of us to account. He is doing far more, speaking far more, and responding far more than we care to admit. We are not alone. God is in the house.

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

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Fake News

For the week of February 10, 2018 / 25 Shevat 5778

Reporters with various forms of "fake news" from an 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper

Excerpted from “The fin de siècle newspaper proprietor” 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper

Mishpatim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1-24:18 & 30:11-16
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 12:1-17 (English: 11:21 – 12:16)

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You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. (Shemot/Exodus 23:1-3)

During the most recent presidential election in the United States, one of the biggest news stories was “fake news.” I don’t mean that “fake news” was fake news. It is that “fake news” had become big news! The phenomenon of fake news is nothing new. It has existed since the Garden of Eden. And I am not talking about the serpent’s deception of Eve. Even before that something went awry in the communication world of that supposedly perfect environment. When the serpent asked Eve, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:1), her reply was technically incorrect, when she said: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:2-3). According to the record, God didn’t say that they couldn’t touch the fruit; only that they should not eat it. I don’t know how much of a difference Eve’s inaccurate report made; I only wanted to point out that fake news goes back a long time.

It’s not really fair to refer to all inaccurate reports as fake news, however. Satires and parodies, for example, are forms of fake news for fun. Yet even then, there have been incidences of fabricated news items that have caused large scale panic, because the public didn’t get the joke. The most famous one occurred on October 30, 1938, when the radio drama “War of the Worlds” was in the form of a simulated news broadcast. Apparently, people really thought America was under Martian attack, resulting in mass panic. I write “apparently,” because it appears that the level of reaction regularly referred to might itself be exaggerated. Whatever really happened that night is the stuff of myths and legends. Something happens. It’s conveyed a certain way, and then grows in the consciousness of people, taking a life of its own.

Myths and legends aren’t fake news. Neither is a whole spectrum of inaccurate reporting. Real fake news (did I just write that?) is intentional misrepresentation of the truth in order to deceive. What makes the current hoopla over fake news ironic is that popular culture fueled by academia has for a long time set its sights against truth. “All truth is relative,” they say. “You have your truth; I have mine,” they say. So now, new media is fertile breeding ground for all sorts of fake news from the personal to the political, and people cry foul? As the Bible says: “You reap what you sow” (Galatians 6:7).

People’s reaction to fake news exposes an innate sense of the existence of truth, regardless of whatever misguided philosophy they buy into. Truth is an accurate reflection of reality. Everyone knows deep inside that reality isn’t different for every person. We may have different opinions about all sorts of things. But the way things are is the way things are. Yet we so readily create worlds of fantasy. It’s to God’s credit that he made creatures who can conceive of nonsense. It’s all part and parcel of being given the gift of imagination, I suppose. Yet it is tragic that our alienation from God leads us to use this precious gift for nefarious purposes.

It doesn’t have to be that way, you know. But to be free of the deceptive lure of fake news, you need to be friends with the truth. Truth is a stubborn companion. The fake news of the serpent’s deception in the garden led Adam and Eve to hide from God and the truth. We have been hiding ever since. It’s scary to come out into the light of reality. But God has made a way. Because of what Yeshua the Messiah has done for us, the truth that condemns us becomes the truth that sets us free. Once we accept the truth about ourselves and the truth of what God has done on our behalf through Yeshua, then we are no longer under the oppressive control of deception and become bearers of truth to others. That’s good news!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Facing Self

For the week of February 3, 2018 / 18 Shevat 5778

Man covering face with extended open hand in foreground

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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And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) includes one of the greatest revelations of God of all time, when he personally spoke the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai. This might surprise you, but the people’s reaction was not a positive one. They said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Shemot/Exodus 20:19). Many years later, as we read in this week’s Haftarah (accompanying reading from the Hebrew prophets), the prophet Isaiah also had a revelation of God to which he too reacted negatively. Drawn into God’s presence, he immediately became aware of his own inadequacy.

We might think that encountering God so vividly would be wonderfully delightful as if to see him in this way would shed us of all doubt and place us on an unwavering path of spiritual enlightenment. The Bible tells us a different story, however. Most often when God or a heavenly messenger appeared to someone, they freaked out. Is that because God is just plain scary? Certainly, to be confronted with such unusual phenomena can be unnerving, but that’s not the main reason.

Peter had a similar experience with Yeshua early on in their relationship (see Luke 5:1-11). Yeshua was teaching by Lake Kenneret (the Sea of Galilee). Peter was already aware of Yeshua and the possibility that he was the Messiah but hadn’t yet joined the inner circle of disciples. To harness the acoustics of the surroundings, Yeshua asked to teach from Peter’s fishing boat on the water. We are not told what he taught, but when he was done, he told Peter to cast his net into the water for a catch – the carpenter rabbi telling a professional fisherman how to fish. After Peter made it clear that he thought it was a silly idea, out of deference to the Teacher, he did as instructed. The result was such a quantity of fish that their nets began to break and the boat began to sink. At this point perhaps Peter should have been ecstatic, thinking Yeshua could make him very rich. But that’s not what happened at all. Instead, he responded like Isaiah. Overwhelmed by his sense of inadequacy, he asked Yeshua to go away.

But why? Why do these magnificent displays of God’s power repel people instead of drawing them to himself? We don’t know if it had anything to do with what Yeshua taught in Peter’s boat. I doubt that was the issue, seeing how Peter acquiesced to his directive. Nothing appeared to be amiss until the miracle occurred. There also didn’t seem to be anything in what Isaiah heard that was a direct reflection on him. In both cases their encounters with God’s reality resulted in deep awareness of their personal inadequacy.

Have you ever arrived at a formal social event, thinking it was to be casual? As soon as you see the other guests in their finery, you immediately become aware of your state. No amount of assurance from the host could divert your attention from your self-focus. Instead of reveling in the beauty of the occasion, all you can think of is your unworthiness due to your condition. This is what happened to Isaiah and Peter, but not based on anything outward. The brilliance of God’s essence illuminated their internal condition, exposing their unworthiness to be in his presence.

This demonstrates how one of, if not the, obstacle to people coming into right relationship with God is not God, but self. We can list all sorts of difficulties along the road to knowing God. But none is greater than our hesitancy to face ourselves. And this applies not only to the atheist and agnostic, but to the believer as well. Isaiah and Peter weren’t hostile to God and his ways. Wherever they were at in their lives of faith, they were being called to something more – a road that first took them to themselves before they could move on.

And move on they did, because they were honest about their condition. However devastating this was, they were able to admit their failings. God then made the next move, enabling them to get on with the next stage of their journey with God.

Wherever we may be in our journey with God, don’t be surprised if the next person you meet along the way is you.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Impossible

For the week of January 27, 2018 / 11 Shevat 5778

Violent ocean surf

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

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Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea.” (Shemot/Exodus 14:1-2)

You may be familiar with the oft-quoted, eighteenth-century hymn that begins with “God moves in a mysterious way; his wonders to perform.” This captures the difficulty of understanding what God is doing amidst difficult circumstances. A life of faith can be a life of confusion as we face the tension of the love and goodness of God with the pain and sorrow we must endure at times.

As we grapple with this, there is an aspect of God’s intentions that we may miss. Our failure to fully reckon with these intentions may prevent us from walking through difficulty as effectively as we should. At times we regard coping with difficulties as sufficient, when what God wants is something way more than that. Godly endurance isn’t necessarily passive, as if the best course of action when facing a storm is always hunkering down waiting for it to pass.

This is not what God wanted the people of Israel to do when they faced the impossible situation of being between the Egyptian Army and the Red Sea. Moses seemed to think all they needed to do was to stand there, trust God, and all would be well. Certainly there are such incidences in the Bible, but this is not one of them. Here, God told the people to go forward towards the Sea. We know what was going to happen, because the story is so familiar. We also have the luxury of being able to read this on paper, not live through it as they did. Imagine, God’s expressed will was to head toward the water.

This is not simply a case of finding yourself in a difficult situation, confused by circumstances, wondering where God might be in it all, as you try to find comfort in sayings such as “God moves in a mysterious way.” This is not simply an opportunity to cope with the broken nature of life. This is God thrusting his people into what appears to be the jaws of death, while expecting them to do the impossible.

God is not hiding in the shadows here. He is smack in the middle of this terrifying situation, calling his people to go for it as never before. Hey, the water’s fine! You only think you’re committing suicide. Get going; you are about to do the impossible!

I don’t think Israel had much choice with this one. To disobey the command to move forward toward the sea meant annihilation by the Egyptians. We also at times find ourselves moving forward toward the impossible in spite of ourselves. How many terrifying things have we had to face only to experience the power of God to get us through?

I wonder if there might be other times, when God wants to thrust us toward the impossible, but because there is no army threating our backs, we pull back. Overwhelmed by apparently insurmountable challenges, we miss the opportunity to accomplish what God has for us. Can that happen? It happened in the Bible. Think of this same group of people, who about two years later lost their opportunity to enter the Promised Land due to fear and lack of faith (see Numbers 13-14). One of the issues at that time was they doubted God’s intentions in calling them to face the impossible, thinking he was out to destroy them. Sounds ridiculous to us now, but at the time the impossible can be so overwhelming that we lose sight of God’s good intent.

God calls for a faith in keeping with the great and awesome God he is. Yeshua told his followers during his last Passover with them, that after he was gone, they would do greater works than he did. Instead of shrinking the word “greater” into tiny packages we can handle, we should allow the enormity of his statement to saturate our beings. Not only does God want us to do “greater works,” he fabricates the situations in which they are to occur by thrusting us into the impossible. That’s impossible for us; not impossible to God. It’s time to move forward!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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What’s in a New Year?

For the week of January 20, 2018 / 4 Shevat 5778

Happy New Year as a world map in multiple languages

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

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The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you.” (Shemot/Exodus 12:1-2)

Much of the world recently celebrated the beginning of the new year. Regarding January as the beginning of months appears to go back to ancient Rome. In 46 B.C., when Julius Caesar introduced his new solar calendar, the Julian Calendar, January 1 was established as the first day of the year. In the sixth century, the Council of Tours abolished that day as the new year, regarding its associated celebrations as pagan. Various regions in Medieval Europe celebrated the beginning of the year at different times. January 1 was restored as New Year’s Day by the Gregorian Calendar reform in 1582, though it would be some time before it was commonly accepted.

It is curious that in what has become the most common calendar in use today, the new year begins when it does. It is true that in the Northern Hemisphere, the long dark nights of winter begin to give way to longer days. Also, its proximity to Christmas, the traditional time when the birth of the Messiah is celebrated, may have some bearing. However, if his birth was reason to mark the beginning of the year, then why not celebrate the new year precisely on that day?

When it comes down to it, January 1 is nothing more than a way to mark the passage of time, an acceptable device in a world devoid of meaning. But contrary to popular misconception, the world isn’t meaningless, which is why the Torah has a different take on new year’s. Not that anyone, including Jews or Christians, takes notice, however.

God established the beginning of months to coincide with the most important event in Israel’s history, the exodus. The first month of the year commemorates the birth of a nation, when God liberated his people from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. From that time on, the new year was to function in terms of a national birthday through the celebration of Passover. Every year in the spring, the people of Israel were to look back to this moment of salvation.

Hold on. Isn’t the Jewish new year in the fall, not the spring, observed as Rosh Hashanah (English: the head of the year), the biblical Feast of Trumpets? Yes and no. Jewish tradition recognizes four different new years. That might sound strange, but we are more familiar with the concept of different new years than we might think. Besides the beginning of the calendar year in January, we have the beginning of the school year in late August/early September. Companies also have fiscal years. In Jewish tradition, the first of Nisan, in which Passover occurs, is regarded as the beginning of the religious year. The first of Elul is the new year for the tithing of cattle. The first of Tishrei, coinciding with Rosh Hashanah, is the civil new year, and the fifteenth of Shevat is the new year for trees and the tithing of fruit.

Even though the first of Nisan is acknowledged as the beginning of the religious year, at some point and for reasons not altogether clear, the Jewish world shifted focus from the biblically explicit new year to Rosh Hashanah. Let me offer an observation. How we mark our beginnings makes a difference on how we understand who we are. While Passover is one of the most observed of all the festivals, diminishing its primacy in any way results in losing awareness of what our fundamental identity is as slaves set free. Further, we are to remember that God rescued us from our desperate state because of his commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We are intimately and irreversibly connected to God’s committed faithful love. How we live, everything we do, is rooted in this primary event. To place the fall feasts or anything else ahead of the exodus is to skew the way we understand how God relates to us and us to him.

What relevance does this have, if any, to non-Jewish believers in the Messiah? First, as it is for the people of Israel, the exodus is the primary event for all believers. Israel’s rescue from bondage in Egypt is the prototype of the universal rescue of all people through faith in Yeshua. This is made vividly clear by Yeshua’s leveraging the Passover seder as the vehicle through which all people would remember his death and resurrection. What has become known as the Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, or Communion cannot be fully understood outside of its Passover context.

I am not necessarily making a case for a new calendar. What we need to do is make sure we never forget that first and foremost we are all slaves set free. Regardless of nationality, the exodus is the beginning for every child of God.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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