Being and Becoming

For the week of September 1, 2018 / 21 Elul 5778

Potential success concept as a full-grown tree as a reflection in water of a sapling

Ki Tavo
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8 (English 26:1 – 29:9)
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22

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Then Moses and the Levitical priests said to all Israel, “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the LORD your God. You shall therefore obey the voice of the LORD your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 27:9-10)

Why do Moses and the priests say to the people of Israel: “This day you have become the people of the LORD your God”? Were they not already God’s people? Didn’t God direct Moses and his brother, Aaron, almost forty years earlier to tell Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to let his people go (e.g. Shemot/Exodus 5:1)? God’s considering Israel as his people was based on an already established relationship, rooted in their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That’s why God said to Moses when he first spoke to him at the burning bush: “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Shemot/Exodus 3:8-9).

Much had transpired since that time. This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) takes place about forty years later. The bulk of the generation who had been slaves in Egypt have died by now. They died, not simply due to natural causes, but God’s judgement upon their faithlessness when first faced with the prospect of taking the Promised Land (see B’midbar/Number 13-14). Could it be that due to the previous generation’s obstinance, Israel’s peoplehood status was lost, and that it was not restored until Moses and the priests made this pronouncement? Could it be that they are not only being given a second chance to take the Land, but also in terms of their divine chosenness?

It is difficult to overstate how farfetched such a conclusion is. From God’s promises to the forefathers to his continued involvement with Israel in spite of their attitude and behavior throughout their wilderness wanderings, God couldn’t make it any clearer that he was absolutely committed to them. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be reading about their getting ready to enter the Land again.

If their status as God’s people isn’t in question, then what’s with this kind of wording? Could you imagine, my taking one of my adult sons aside and saying, “Today you have become my son”? Or maybe you can. Relationship is a complex thing, whether it be of a very personal nature as in me and each of my children or on a broader scale as in a leader and his or her community. My children will always be my children, but they may or may not grow up to embrace their heritage and their destiny. That’s up to them. That which establishes the parent-child relationship is one thing, that which fully expresses it is another.

This generation of Israel was different than the one before. Tragically, their parents didn’t reflect the reality of who they were as God’s people and suffered as a result. Their status as God’s chosen was no different from the next generation, but their children embraced who they were in a way they (the previous generation) did not. The reality of this difference would be evident in the days and years ahead.

Relationship with God must not be taken for granted. Remember, the ones who survived the ten plagues, celebrated the first Passover, crossed the sea, ate the manna, received the Torah, and on and on, failed to trust God when it was time to enter the land of promise. Peoplehood in and of itself doesn’t guarantee embracing it. This is why the next generation needed to hear this affirmation. The true essence of their peoplehood was not solely based on their past, but upon the reality of who they were at that moment, a moment that needed to continue from that day onward.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

For further discussion, watch this episode of TorahBytes Live, scheduled for Wednesday, August 29, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following:

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Being Responsible

For the week of August 25, 2018 / 14 Elul 5778

Flat roof installation

Ki Teze
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

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When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 22:8)

I hate being wrongly accused! I remember when this first happened to me. My mom didn’t ask me if I did whatever it was. She demanded to know why I did it, and I blew up. I was too young at the time to fully understand the complexity of this injustice, but that she would attach to me something I had nothing to do with was absolutely scandalous in my eyes.

I take my responsibilities very seriously. I am not saying that I always successfully deliver on what’s required of me. It’s that I am very aware of what’s happening around me and am constantly asking myself if the burden of action is on my shoulders. Perhaps this is why I find it hard to handle when those close to me appear to insinuate that I am not doing my part.

What I didn’t realize until recently, however, is that what I thought was an overly developed sense of responsibility clouded my perception of the world and crippled my ability to accept what actually comprises my God-given roles. It wasn’t responsibility that motivated me after all; rather it was the fear of guilt and shame. I can’t say for sure, but it might be the accusation incident with my mother years ago, that instilled in me the perceived need to defend myself against the threat of disapproval. I am now beginning to understand that biblically based responsibility is an act of obedience to God built on a foundation of trust based on God’s love and goodness.

God gives his children responsibility. This stems back to the beginning when Adam and Eve were made stewards of the creation. It is what is behind every human being’s calling to make a positive difference in the world. Yet due to our alienation from God, the gift of being caretakers of the planet has been twisted in all sorts of ways. Instead of sharing in the splendor of God’s mission on earth, we are driven to find our identity in what we do instead of in who we are as God’s children.

As believers in Yeshua this can take on all sorts of spiritual overtones. In my case, I could be so intent on doing the right thing or saying what needs to be said that I may not be sufficiently sensitive to the people around me. The irony is I claim to be the “big picture” guy, quick to point out the implications of things that apparently others are missing. Yet, at the same time, I miss the big picture of life around me, oblivious to how my sense of urgency may be negatively affecting others.

In this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), we learn about the need to take responsibility. God directed the people of Israel to make a protective barrier around the perimeter of their roofs to avoid injury. How often are we so keen to build our lives without taking the time to care for the welfare of others. We drive ourselves in the pursuit of our goals and neglect those things that we should be most concerned about.

Notice that the protective barrier was only necessary if and when a house was built. No house, no barrier. Houses can be dangerous. That’s why God directed the adding of the barrier. While I might focus on the building and neglect the protective barrier, your preference might be to avoid building at all. That way you keep yourself from ever being in the position where danger is a remote possibility.

Both approaches amount to similar things. Just because I might be really intense, expressing concern about almost everything doesn’t mean I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. Building wrongly and not building at all are both ways to skirt our responsibilities. Let us not be afraid to fulfill whatever it is God is calling us to do. As we do, let us remember to include those things that care for others along the way. We are responsible for both.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

For further discussion, watch this episode of TorahBytes Live, scheduled for Wednesday, August 22, 2018 at 4:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following:

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Living Like a King

For the week of August 18, 2018 / 7 Elul 5778

Elegant ballroom with grand piano, couch, and gold columns

Shofetim
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

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And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes (D’varim/Deuteronomy 17:19)

When we think of the elite of society, whether it be in our day or in ancient times, we tend to focus on their perks and privileges. Their houses are bigger and nicer, their modes of transportation are the best of the best. Everything about their lives is above and beyond the comforts and pleasures of the rest of us. But that’s not the whole picture. You have most likely heard the saying that goes something like: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Many ascribe this to the fictional Uncle Ben of Spiderman fame, but it’s much older than that, probably going back to the time of the French Revolution (see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/07/23/great-power/). The truth contained in this statement is rooted in Yeshua’s words: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48).

Positions of authority include more than privilege, power, and responsibility, however. It is this additional ingredient that makes all the difference between leaders successfully fulfilling their crucial roles and causing unnecessary destruction and harm. It’s the need of a good education. I am not talking about acquiring degrees from prestigious institutions. There are ways to do that while not learning anything useful along the way. I am also not talking about career skills, since those are relatively easy to acquire. I am talking about learning how to become a good person. Without that, all the prestige and skills in the world won’t amount to anything. This is especially the case for those called to positions of authority as their lives have far greater impact on others.

This is why God required kings of Israel to be life-long students of Torah. As a leader, he was not to regard himself as being above the law, but rather be subject to it. In order to do that, he was not to rely upon his advisors and teachers to know God’s written revelation. Not that he wouldn’t have teachers and advisors, but their role was to equip him to be able to read the Torah for himself. That would include not only learning to read the text but reading it intelligently.

Personal reading of Scripture would have been very rare. Not only were copies of the Torah not in abundance, the people wouldn’t hear it read that often. God directed the cohanim (English: the priests) to read the Torah to the people once every seven years during the Feast of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles or Booths) (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:10-11). It would be many centuries before the synagogue would provide weekly Torah readings within Israelite society. This meant that only certain people required the ability to read. Kings may have been the only non-cohenim to personally read the Books of Moses.

The greatest obstacle to having direct interaction with the divine writings was that access to books in general was highly restricted. Not because it was forbidden for common folks to read the sacred text, but because so few copies were available. It’s almost impossible for us, who live almost six hundred years after Gutenberg’s inventing the printing press, to imagine life without books. We have a hard-enough time remembering what it was like to not have ready access to much of the world’s writing in our pockets, let alone the pre-Gutenberg days when owning a copy of a book was the unique domain of royalty and the rich.

But these are not those days. Today we can all live like kings. God’s directive to kings regarding the reading of Torah was not a symbol of privilege or an initiation rite. It had no ceremonial function at all. It was practical. He was to read the Torah “that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes.” To be a good king required being a good person. To be a good person required reading the Torah. We all have the exact same need. The only difference between ancient Israelite kings and ourselves is access.

There’s nothing magical about reading the Bible. It is God’s equipment to enable us to live effective, godly lives. As one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time writes:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

To not take advantage of what was at one time the privilege of the few is to rob ourselves of God’s provision for living an abundant life. So, let’s pick up a Bible and live like kings!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

For further discussion, watch this episode of TorahBytes Live (scheduled for Thursday, August 16, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time (recorded version will be available immediately following):

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When in Rome, Don’t

For the week of August 11, 2018 / 30 Av 5778

Castel Sant'Angelo, Parco Adriano, Rome

Castel Sant’Angelo, overlooking the Tiber River in Rome

Re’eh
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17 & B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24

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When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 12:29-31)

There is a good deal of wisdom in the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Before venturing into a foreign culture, we are well-advised to learn as much as we can about local customs and conventions to avoid misunderstanding and cause unnecessary offense. This principle doesn’t only apply to travelling to distant places. Interacting with neighbors and co-workers may require crossing very long cultural bridges in order to communicate effectively. Many years ago, the young lady who would one day become my wife had a roommate, the daughter of Canadian parents, who grew up in a South American country. The roommate was aghast when she first saw someone use the common gesture of making an “o” with their thumb and forefinger to signify “okay.” This was because where she grew up, such a gesture was vulgar (it didn’t mean “okay”!). Obviously, should we ever venture to that country, we would avoid the gesture, even though to us it is completely innocuous.

Tragically, many well-intentioned (and not-so-well-intentioned) people have caused a significant amount of damage due to ignoring the sage advice of “when in Rome, do.” Oft times it’s due to ignorance, other times to moral superiority. There is no excuse for the former, though hopefully such sins are worthy of patience and forgiveness. Moral superiority, on the other hand, is far more complex.

It is too simplistic to apply “when in Rome, do” to every context, however. For example, while eating and drinking like a local is a wonderful way to connect with people of other countries and cultures, it can be deadly. Locals have adapted to their environment over time. And while “when in Rome, do” may be a lovely gesture, it is not okay in this case. But accepting one’s inability to immediately acclimatize to a foreign environment is also no excuse for showing arrogant disdain towards cultural differences. Business people and missionaries have often been infamous for this kind of insensitivity. Perhaps they have good things to offer that would indeed greatly benefit the target culture, but carrying one’s self with an air of superiority tends to offset whatever potential benefits there may be.

God’s word to ancient Israel was clearly, “When in Rome, don’t.” However offensive this is to modern readers, God was establishing a morally and spiritually superior culture in what had been known as the land of Canaan. The wickedness of the people Israel was to dispossess was so extreme, Israel wasn’t even to ask about it.

However you might think about such an approach, this chapter of God’s epic story was unique. Israel was to establish a new culture untainted by other spiritual and moral influences. That this failed is a different chapter for another time. Skipping over the failure chapter for now, God’s story eventually sees Israel moving beyond its borders into the rest of the world. This is a key aspect of the epoch launched by the coming of the Messiah. Following Yeshua’s resurrection, the time had come to venture toward Rome (actually and figuratively).

So, when in Rome, is it “do” or “don’t”? On one hand it was “do,” as it was necessary to enculturate the truth of God. On the other hand, it was “don’t,” as it was also necessary to preserve the essence of that truth. The challenge in those early years was how best to embody God’s word within foreign cultures without compromising it.

Today, there tends to be more emphasis on cultural adaptation. As a result, those components of Scripture deemed problematic are downplayed or completely discarded. Israel’s earlier call to absolute purity is regarded as obsolete if not altogether misguided. This fails to appreciate the necessary preparation God’s people needed to experience in order to equip them one day to make the positive difference among the nations in the name of the Messiah.

The early Jewish believers wisely embraced the delicate balance of communicating the uncompromising truths of God within foreign, not to mention hostile, cultural settings. They understood those elements of Scripture that were uniquely Jewish, while identifying those which were universal. They knew “when in Rome, do, but sometimes don’t.”

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

For further discussion, watch this episode of TorahBytes Live (scheduled for Thursday, August 9, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time (recorded version will be available immediately following):

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The Whys

For the week of August 4, 2018 / 23 Av 5778

The word "why" written on multiple road signs

Eikev
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3

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Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, “It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,” whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 9:4-5)

Getting the facts straight about what’s going on is difficult enough, but understanding why they happen is just about impossible. But that doesn’t stop people from constantly trying to determine the reasons behind the circumstances of their lives. Whether it be informally with friends or through the media, we don’t always notice how supposed facts are overlaid with opinion. That’s because human beings have an insatiable hunger to go beyond the plain facts and grasp the “why”s behind them.

It’s ironic to me that this is still a question in a world that more and more rejects the existence of personal spiritual forces in favor of a naturalistic worldview. I purposely mentioned personal spiritual forces, because, while some people are pure materialists who deny that spiritual forces exist at all, spirituality in various forms is obviously nonetheless popular. What is usually rejected today is a spiritual dimension that purposely and intelligently engages human affairs. Philosophically, the belief in impersonal spiritual forces is not different from atheistic naturalism as far as meaning is concerned. The only people who can legitimately expect an answer as to why something happened are those who accept the reality of a personal spiritual realm.

Let me explain. Let’s take the story of Noah’s ark. The simple facts as the Bible reports them are as follows. After Noah and his family along with samples of each animal kind enter the enormous boat-like structure he built, heavy torrential rains plus underground water eruptions occur. The result is a world-wide flood that kills all the people as well as the land and air creatures. After a year, when the water subsides, Noah, his family, and the animals repopulate and recultivate the earth. Upon hearing of such a calamity, there are two types of whys we tend to want to answer. First, what caused these events in terms of natural causality. This is the kind of information offered to us by meteorologists as in, “a low-pressure system combined with a fast-moving cold front will produce significant precipitation and possible severe thunderstorms.” I made this up for illustrative purposes only and has no reflection on Noah’s weather. Noah’s flood was likely proceeded by unique weather patterns. I would call this kind of “why” a “what.” It’s a description of what circumstances occurred that resulted in another set of circumstances. While we may find this informative and provides a sense of understanding, it’s not really a why. If I total my new car in a crash, my asking, “Why did this happen to me?” is not a question about the cause and effect of physical properties that led up to my situation. Your telling me about road conditions, mechanical failure, and human distraction will not satisfy my why.

Whether it is the story of Noah’s ark or Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land as discussed by Moses in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), the Bible provides the whys we often look for. Whether it is the whys we like or agree with is another matter. Unlike the human opinions we are constantly bombarded with every day by friends, co-workers, and journalists, the Bible gives us the actual whys.

God anticipated Israel’s why regarding their soon-to-be accomplishment. Understanding human nature, he knew that Israel’s success would be interpreted by them to mean that they were better than the peoples they conquered. Wrong! Their victory was solely based on two things. First, the current inhabitants were so wicked, that, similar to the vast majority of people in Noah’s day, they had to be wiped out. It’s so easy for survivors, not to mention conquerors, to think they are morally superior than the conquered. But looking at the plight of others in order to puff up our view of ourselves is completely misguided. The second reason for Israel’s accomplishment was that God was fulfilling his land promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Both whys undermine any attempt at interpreting God’s blessings as a sign of personal superiority.

I wonder how many of our whys are informed by a false sense of self. Whatever our life’s circumstances are, we are not better than anyone else. Most of the time, we don’t know why things happen. Tragically, that doesn’t stop us from spouting off misinformed opinion. It seems we are more interested in answers that satisfy us than in the truth. Why is that?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

For further discussion on this topic, watch this edition of TorahBytes Live:

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Your Story in Two Acts

For the week of July 28, 2018 / 16 Av 5778

Crimson theater curtain slightly parted with bright light showing through with the words, Act 2 will begin shortly

V’etchannan
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

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Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2)

One cannot overstate the drama of Isaiah’s comfort call. The contrast of these words with what comes before is so great that scholars tend to assume that they are authored by a different speaker/writer. The contrast of tone isn’t the only reason for the common scholarly determination of more than one “Isaiah,” but I don’t find such a conclusion compelling. What we really have is the start of a sequel or a new act.

Act One had ended with the stage gone dark. All hope is lost, because Israel had spiraled down to the apparent point of no return. The narrative closed with a most cynical tale of King Hezekiah, one of the greatest of all Jewish kings, receiving God’s message from Isaiah that even though he successfully overcame the Assyrian siege and was miraculously cured of a lethal illness, Babylon, the empire to succeed Assyria, will vanquish his dynasty and take the people into exile. If that’s not bad enough, the hitherto noble king, comforts himself with the news that this won’t happen until he is long dead.

Act Two begins with a brilliant explosion of good news: “Comfort, comfort my people,” says Israel’s God – judgement has run its course, warfare has ended; sin is forgiven. The Hebrew word for “comfort” is “nacham” and has two meanings, depending on how it is used. Either way it denotes change. It could mean “to relent,” a change of intention – one plan of action replacing another. The meaning in this context, however, is “to comfort” or “to be comforted” – an emotional change, where one feels a certain way, usually bad, and is consoled, shifting their outlook on life.

Against the backdrop of despair and cynicism, is the promise of comfort. The diagnosis was devastating, the sickness far worse than imagined. Under normal circumstances, such a road leads to nothing but complete destruction. But not in this case – not as far as God’s people are concerned. The God of unconditional covenant love always has a positive future in mind for his precious people in spite of relatively short-term hardship.

Israel’s desperate plight at the end of Act One typifies our own day in many ways. In spite of previously unknown levels of affluence and the exceptional quality of life experienced by so many, societal and personal darkness pervades. From old and new terminal illnesses to political instability to grand-scale people displacement, to increasing violence, and the threat of nuclear annihilation, one little spark can set the entire world ablaze. We are becoming unglued as a cloud of meaninglessness and hopelessness saturates the global psyche. What’s the point of being human anyway?

God’s word to Israel was that the day was coming when their suffering would cease, creation would be renewed, and peace would reign forever. The Jewish people’s incessant angst and anguish would finally and forever be transformed, when chaos turns to order, destruction to rebuilding, sickness to health, death to life. Therefore, be comforted. The darkness will not last forever. Light will not only return but will never fade again.

These words of comfort are not for Israel alone. For God’s heart for the Jewish people as expressed at this stage in their history is a reflection of his desire for all peoples. Every human being has a story like Israel, albeit with a different cast of characters and unique sub-plots. Yet, whatever our heritage, the human story is the same: tragically dark and often hopeless, especially if we are honest. Yet, like Israel, your story needn’t end there. With God, there’s a second Act for you too.

You may have thought that your story ends with Act One. You may think there’s nothing beyond the darkness of your life. Or, like Hezekiah, you comfort yourself with short-term vision, making the best of your situation. “It could be worse,” you say. Yet you know if you would look beyond yourself, you couldn’t handle the state of the world.

But the story isn’t over. God will come through. He has proven that through the resurrection of the Messiah. You may already believe that even though you have a hard time being comforted. It might be that you are still stuck at the end of Act One, thinking, in spite of your claim to faith, darkness has the final word after all.

Excuse me while I flick off and on the lights. Intermission is over! There’s more to your story, because there is more to God’s story. Not only does he win in the end, he invites you to be part of it. Perhaps that’s your problem. All the while you have been sitting in the audience when you are cast as a star in the show. You don’t only get to be part of the grand conclusion, you have an essential role to play.

I understand why you are sitting there. Life has been so painful and so confusing. You have tried to comfort yourself to no avail. But that’s the problem. Right now, God wants to heal and restore you. And he will if you cooperate with him. You will be comforted, once you allow him to comfort you on his terms.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Further discussion is available on this edition of TorahBytes Live:

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Teachability

For the week of July 7, 2018 / 24 Tammuz 5778

Son on father's lap, both sitting on floor, thinking

Pinchas
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3

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But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 1:7-8)

I love to teach about Abraham for many reasons. I’ll get to Jeremiah shortly. Abraham is the biblical exemplar of a person of faith (see Romans 4:16). And with faith so central to having a genuine relationship with God, there is much we can learn from his life. One of the essential lessons we learn from Abraham is that we are never too old to make a positive difference. We don’t meet him until he is seventy-five, well past the normal age for what God called him to: leave family and the familiar for a foreign land and have a baby, the latter not happening until he was one hundred. Abraham is not the only senior citizen that didn’t get going on his God-given mission until later in life. Moses, being the next great example, received his marching orders at eighty.

Unlike our day, old age is highly esteemed in the Bible. We read in Mishlei (English: the book of Proverbs): “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (Mishlei/Proverbs 16:31). The   Scripture places on the elderly may lead some to devalue youth except for its potential. Obviously, there are lessons inaccessible to the young, because they can only be learned through experience over a long period of time.

This is apparently what Jeremiah was thinking when God called him. He disqualifies himself from being God’s spokesperson (that’s what a prophet is) on the basis of his being, in Hebrew, a na-ar, which is a reference to the period of life from infancy through adolescence, pre-adulthood in other words. We can’t determine his exact age, but he was most likely in his latter teens. Even if he was older, it is clear that he saw himself as unable due to his lack of life experience.

From God’s perspective, however, Jeremiah’s experience or lack thereof was irrelevant. Age doesn’t matter, because the God of unlimited resources is the one who equips us to effectively serve him. Because God often calls us unto the impossible, taking personal inventory is not going to encourage us to rise up to the occasion. Does that mean, then, that this is a case of all of God and nothing of us? When God enables us to do his bidding, are we no more than empty shells that he animates for his purposes? For him to truly work through us, are we to disengage self and get out of God’s way? Is that what God calls us to do? Is that what he called Jeremiah to do?

Every person’s life, whether acknowledged or not, is completely dependent on God. We wouldn’t be here without him. We wouldn’t survive, much less thrive, without him. That said, are we to be completely passive while he overtakes our person like a body snatcher? Of course not. Obedience to God is accomplished by cooperating with him. He has endowed human beings with all sorts of abilities specially designed to fulfill his purposes on earth. Submitting our abilities to his will allows us to be what he made us to be.

Jeremiah thought he was lacking the necessary experience to be a prophet of God. That he lacked experience is correct. What he didn’t take into account – he may not have been aware of it – was that he did possess a, if not the, foundational qualification: teachability.

God knew that he could teach Jeremiah how to be a prophet during one of the most difficult and confusing times in Israel’s history. His lack of experience likely worked in his favor because the type of message God gave him was so different from the normal prophetic tradition. There was no precedent to tell God’s people to surrender to the enemy as Jeremiah had to do.

The story of Jeremiah may lead you to think that youth are more teachable than the elderly, but that’s not true. Abraham and Moses were two of the most teachable men who have ever lived. In fact, it can take many years of a great variety of life experiences before one finally becomes teachable. As a young person, Jeremiah may actually be an exception. Many young people are know-it-alls. But whether young or old, we will never become what God wants us to be unless we are teachable.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The God-Led Life

For the week of June 30, 2018 / 17 Tammuz 5778

Three-stage process cycle business diagram

Balak
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 22:2 – 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6-6:8 (English: Micah 5:7 – 6:8)

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He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

This statement by the Hebrew prophet Micah is one of the most concise and balanced descriptions of the pursuit of the good life. When in tandem, these three things enable us to make a positive difference in the world. Conversely, the neglect of any one of the three is potentially destructive. Neglect, not overemphasis, because keeping each in mind even to a small extent mitigates against the extremes that emerge when neglecting even one of them.

The Hebrew word for justice is mishpat. It refers to the bringing about of what is right. The world is full of what needs to be righted. Saying asah mishpat instructs us that this is the activity aspect of the triad. Making things right is something we need to purposely work at. To do justice demands being aware of injustice, devising practical strategies to confront it, and finding ways to make it lasting. That’s a heavy task, especially since the forces of injustice are not passive, nor do they play fair.

Once the concern for justice captures our hearts, it can blind us, however, to the other essentials of life. Thus, the brilliance of it being stated along with the other two. Too often the purveyors of justice leave much damage in their wake, forgetting that while we are instructed to do justice, it is not to overwhelm our affections. Instead we are to love kindness. The word for kindness here is hesed, which is far more than simply being nice. Hesed, is steeped in committed relationship to God and to others. Depending on the context, hesed can mean “covenant love” or “loyal love.” It’s the type of kindness often shown to a relative or long-time friend. It’s having a generous heart toward someone because of the bonds of a committed relationship.

When adjoined to doing justice, hesed allows for needed change, while at the same time avoiding hurting people in the process. Making things right can be painful, but true committed love greatly reduces potential harm to individuals and communities. When focusing on what we think is right, it is far too easy to forget that on every side of every issue is a fellow human being. It is loyal love for God and others that helps us keep everyone’s best interest in mind even when we adamantly disagree with them.

We might think that these two are sufficient counter-balances to each other. Too much justice and we unnecessarily hurt people. Too much kindness allows injustice to flourish. What more do we need? Without the personal involvement of God, all we have is what is termed principle-based living. Principle-based living can be very appealing but is deceptively misguided. Tragically, the Bible is often abused by treating it as an instruction manual. Passages are read in order to reduce them to moral lessons that we try to apply to contemporary situations. Because God is continually referenced, we don’t realize that we disregard him.

God didn’t inspire the Bible and then remove himself from human affairs while he watches history unfold from afar. The Hebrew, v’hatznei’-a le’khet im elohei’kha describes a life of continual reliance on him.

God doesn’t expect us to figure out life on our own. How do we know whether or not our sense of urgency and allocation of resources match God’s? The Bible provides us with life’s foundations and general priorities, but not the specifics. Wisdom, the ability to implement scriptural truth, is not drawn from study and intelligence alone, no matter how well informed we may be. Rather it stems from a life that keeps in close step with our Heavenly Father.

Doing justice and loving kindness, without the intimate God-dynamic, however noble and well-intentioned, remains self-focused. The greatest of virtues driven by our own agendas eventually become idols. No wonder so many endeavors done in God’s name have defamed him. But if we allow him to initiate what we give ourselves to and correct our course as needed; if we look to him to fill us with genuine love for others as we remember his faithful love for us; then we will become the embodiment of his intentions, accomplishing his purposes in his time and in his way.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Displacement Guilt

For the week of June 23, 2018 / 10 Tammuz 5778

Migrants and refugees camping at the Greek-Macedonian border, April 15, 2016

Migrants and refugees camping at the Greek-Macedonian border, April 15, 2016

Hukkat
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 11:1-33

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But the LORD said to Moses, “Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people, and his land. And you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.” (B’midbar/Numbers 21:34)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) includes two key incidences in the history of ancient Israel. The people are nearing the end of their wilderness wanderings. Moses will die soon, and his leadership will pass on to his protégé, Joshua. In contrast to thirty-eight years earlier, the people will enter and conquer the promised land. In God’s providence he provided these events to more than prepare them for success in the future. They would also serve as reference points when facing greater challenges ahead (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:4; Tehillim/Psalms 136:17-22).

There was no explicit plan to inhabit the lands to the east of the Jordan River. At this stage in their journey Israel was simply continuing their travels. To get the right picture, remember that Israel numbered around two million. This was no family hiking vacation. That the residents of the region would have concerns about this foreign presence is reasonable. And so was Israel’s request for safe passage. It wasn’t until Israel was mortally threatened that battles ensued; battles they won, resulting in their permanently displacing the prior inhabitants.

These preliminary limited conquests function as prototypes for the far more comprehensive dispossession of the peoples of the land to the west of the Jordan. Few items in the Bible are viewed with as much disdain as these today. How could a good and loving God not only tolerate but encourage population dispossession and in some cases genocide? I sympathize with the various theological and philosophical gymnastics used to overcome the stigma of associating with such distasteful behavior. Yet attempting to distance God or ourselves from these events, while perhaps making God and the Bible more appealing, results in misrepresenting Scripture.

Similar disdain is expressed by many today in the Western world for our being products of European colonialization’s displacement of indigenous peoples. I see this as a psychological condition akin to survivor’s guilt. Survivor’s guilt is when a survivor of a tragedy has trouble coping with their continued existence while others who went through the same tragedy didn’t make it. They feel bad for surviving even though they may not have had anything to with it and certainly can’t reverse history. Similarly, what I am calling “displacement guilt,” is also due to tragedy experienced by others. Yet instead of being survivors of that tragedy, we are descendants of the perpetrators. As with survivor’s guilt, we can’t change the past.

Don’t get me wrong. Past injustices can and should be addressed, especially when the effects of the past are still controlling the present. However, we are not talking about righteous indignation, which channels itself into practical expressions of justice. Instead, displacement guilt rages uncontrollably over the past, harboring bitterness and resentment as we unsympathetically judge our own forebears. Thinking our harsh critique of the past should free us from inheriting responsibility, we nonetheless are burdened by guilt, since we continue to benefit – even enjoy – a lifestyle that deep down we believe was wrongly built on the backs of others.

Every one of us is the product of the events of history, including the brutal, at times unjust, and usually complex displacement of peoples. In the case of Israel, we know from Scripture that people such as the Amorites were displaced because they were extremely wicked (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:16). If it wasn’t for this particular displacement, then the world would be a lot worse than it is. God’s installation and development of Israel in the place of the Amorites and other wicked people groups at that time laid the foundation for much of the goodness that would one day be extended to the nations through the gospel.

Similar to Israel’s past, the current world configuration is largely the result of all sorts of conflict and strife. It’s too easy to sit in the present, pointing fingers at the past. Thinking we would have done differently from our forebears is proof of how extremely blind we have become to the reality of human nature. Life’s circumstances have changed; people have not.

As survivors of history we would do well to be students of history. If we don’t understand where we have come from, we won’t understand how we got here or understand where we are going. If anything, the Bible is painfully honest. It reminds us that history is full of brutality and conflict and that even the best of human endeavors have often resulted in disaster. But if you are reading this, then you are still here, and you can make a positive difference. To do that requires hope in God’s future, not bitterness towards the past.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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That’s Not Fair!

For the week of June 16, 2018 / 3 Tammuz 5778

Boy celebrating with checkered flag

Korach
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Haftarah: 1 Shmuel/1 Samuel 11:14 – 12:22

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They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (B’midbar/Numbers 16:3)

I was traumatized the other day – maybe I should say “triggered.” My wife, our two youngest children, and I along with several other homeschooling families participated in an annual track and field day. We have been homeschoolers for a long time, beginning with our youngest child (we have ten in all) in the mid-1980s. Having lived in different parts of four of Canada’s largest cities and being committed to tailoring each child’s schooling as best we could to their individual needs and abilities, our education experience has been quite varied. From time to time we have been involved in formal and informal co-ops, where we would connect with other families to provide subjects and/or activities to complement what we were doing at home. This school year, we enrolled our two youngest (the only children still living at home) in a once-a-week formal co-op. For many years in the region where this occurs, parents have been putting on an annual field day.

That’s all to say that it has been a long time since I have attended, not to mention been involved, in such an event. I remember similar days from my own school years. Just like this one, they tend to be a mix of classic track events, such as running races of various distances, standing and running long jumps, etc. and fun ones, such as the three-legged race. It was a most pleasant event for the most part, except for what triggered me.

Before I get to the truly painful part, I was first taken aback by the giving of ribbons for first through fifth place. When did they add fourth and fifth place? Will this generation be lobbying the International Olympic Committee for more medal categories? I wonder what they would be made of? Would you believe in 2012 a man from England took it upon himself to have pewter medals made and sent to fourth place finishers of the Summer Games in London? But my relatively minor state of shock over extending winning ribbons beyond third place didn’t prepare me for the BIG TRIGGER. As I was watching one of the races of the younger children (six-year-olds, perhaps), it was so obvious that some children were genetically superior than the others. It wasn’t even close as this one child (note my purposeful gender-neutral language) ran with superhero speed (comparatively speaking).

I stood there with dropped jaw. It was incredulous that well-meaning parents (as I assume these were) would allow such disparity of ability to be flaunted before impressionable minors. This child (as were a few others) were clearly physically privileged. No wonder they had ribbons for fourth and fifth places. My daughter’s group only had five competitors, so that was fine, but others had more. I don’t know how the ribbon-less children were able to show their faces in public after such a shameful display of inequality. Speak of unfair!

Korah and company who challenged Moses in this week’s parsha understood this and they were even more irate as I was (whether I really was traumatized or not is up to debate. You decide if I am being satirical or still bitter over being such a loser at athletic events). I know the parallel isn’t exact. The inequality demonstrated at the field day had to do with athletic prowess, while Korah was angry over what he perceived to be prejudicial preference. Yet I don’t think the resentment principle at work in these two contexts are that different, especially when you take God into account.

Korah, like Moses, was of the tribe of Levi. They were appointed by God to serve the priesthood, while God gave the priesthood itself to Moses’ brother Aaron and his descendants. Being specially set aside by God to be Levites was not enough for Korah as he wanted the priesthood as well. While he accused Moses of favoritism, in reality his resentment was targeting God himself.

Life isn’t fair. Not everyone gets to be a priest. Nor is everyone graced with the same abilities. Not everyone is born into the same life situation. Not everyone experiences the same challenges and/or opportunities. Not everyone handles their challenges and opportunities the same way. Life’s not fair.

What are we to do about it? Hand out ribbons for tenth place? Don’t hand our ribbons at all? Don’t have competitions? Some may think so, especially if equality of outcome is a high value.

But is that what we want, really? More importantly, is that what God wants? With all the attention given to diversity in our day, do we know how to truly celebrate actual diversity? We are all so different. And to a great extent, it’s by God’s design. It may not be fair, but it is only when we commit ourselves to utilizing our God-given differences to their maximum potential, free of resentment, that each and every one of us can discover what we were created for.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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