The Lost Meaning of the Ark

For the week of February 9, 2019 /4 Adar 5779

Stylized title: The Lost Meaning of the Ark

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 in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. (Shemot/Exodus 25:16)

You probably have heard of the Ark of the Covenant, if not from the Torah, then in the series of movies, starring Harrison Ford. You may know that it was a gold-gilded chest that God commanded the Israelites to build in the wilderness. Eventually it was kept inside the inner sanctum of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and later the Temple. Inside it were special items: the tablets of the Ten Commandments; a sample of the manna, the special bread-like substance God provided during the years of wilderness wanderings; and Moses’ brother Aaron’s rod that budded, the miraculous symbol of God’s confirmation that his descendants were to be the cohanim (English: priests). But of these three, the primary meaning of the ark had to do with the Ten Commandments.

What do you think of when you think of the Ten Commandments? God’s ancient rules? While they certainly contain God’s directives for ancient Israel at least, if not beyond, understanding them as simply commands, directives, or principles misses the point. While in no way diminishing their life-benefitting power, they had a much greater function within the community of Israel.

The Ten Commandments, especially in tablet form, stood for the whole of the covenant that God established with Israel at Mt. Sinai following their rescue from bondage in Egypt. This is why a common descriptor for the ark was “aron ha-brit” (the Ark of the Covenant). The tablets were a tangible sign of the relationship God established with Israel as their Rescuer. The presence of the ark, containing the tablets, was an ongoing reminder of God’s commitment to his people and their obligations unto him in response.

Here’s something I didn’t realize until recently even though I have read the relevant passages so many times in the past. While “Ark of the Covenant” is the most common name for the ark, it is not the most common in the Books of Moses, especially in Shemot (Exodus) where it is first introduced. The earliest references to the ark are as “aron et ha-edut” (the “Ark of the Testimony”). While some may regard “testimony” here as another way to express “covenant,” which is perhaps why we refer to the Old and New Covenants as Old and New Testaments, that misses the point.

A testimony is a witness unto something. Witnesses in court give testimony. They say what they saw; they tell us what happened. Advertisements often provide testimonies as in “I used this product and it works exactly as claimed.” The tablets of the Ten Commandments were designed by God first and foremost as a testimony. What they state is essential, but that God stated them, that they are his testimony of his existence and his committed relationship to Israel, is what they are really all about.

The Ark of the Testimony was evidence of the reality of God and that he spoke to the people of Israel through Moses. The Ten Commandments were never to be reduced to a system of principals or to be regarded as a set of wise sayings. They are that, but they are so much more: they are the very communication of the one true God.

As the Ten Commandments testified to God’s reality, so should we. Our lives should be a testimony to who he is, what he has done, what he is doing, what he has said, and what he is saying. As God’s foundational demonstration of himself is a communication of himself and his will, so we too should reflect who he is and share his word with anyone and everyone. As far as we know the ark is lost, but we are not. Let us be the People of the Testimony.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Bridging the Abortion Divide

For the week of February 2, 2019 / 27 Shevat 5779Two road signs pointing in opposite directions: Have a baby/Abortion

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1-24:18
Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-26

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When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Shemot/Exodus 21:22-25)

On January 22, to coincide with the forty-sixth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision over abortion rights, the State of New York has further liberalized their abortion laws. The procedure will now be permitted (under certain circumstances) up until birth and will no longer be regulated by their criminal code. These measures have virtually brought the state in line with Canada’s decades-old approach to the procedure. Canada has no abortion-specific regulations, creating a legal vacuum that has been interpreted as absolute legalization through all nine months of pregnancy.

There are few issues in our ever increasingly polarized society that lack a genuine discussion as this one. Let me illustrate the divide through a personal example that isn’t about abortion. My wife and I recently significantly downsized. We moved from a home in which at one time all ten of our children lived. Over the past several years one, then another, then another has moved out on their own. Currently we only have our two youngest, teenagers, still living with us. It took us a while to understand how radically different life was with our tiny (to us) family. Moving to a new, smaller home presented us with various challenges, one being: what do we get rid of? It’s amazing how much stuff we humans can accumulate. You are probably not surprised that my wife and I had differing opinions on this. As far as I can tell, most of the time, we kept our thoughts to ourselves, but every now and then there was something significant enough to one of us or both that merited a discussion. The problem is that if there was a difference of opinion over this or that item, apart from the item being the topic of discussion, it was as if we weren’t talking about the same issue. At least not the same aspects of the issue. The person wanting to get rid of the item focused on how keeping the item was detrimental to them or the family: no room, doesn’t work anymore, expensive to maintain, outlived its use, and so on. The person wanting to keep it was focused on how precious and essential the item was: it means a lot to me, it was a gift, you never know when we might need it. Before you know it, it’s personal. Either party may accuse the other of not caring about them and their feelings positively or negatively toward the thing. But what about the thing itself and its ongoing place in our lives? Can’t two people intelligently discuss the actual pros and cons of keeping vs. getting rid of something? We tried and succeeded, I think.

Similarly with abortion most of time the two sides are not discussing (arguing!) the same issues. The pro-abortion side is focused on the woman, especially her right to not have the state or anyone else tell her what to do. Pro-lifers, on the other hand, are focused on the preborn child. The existence of a human life demands protection whatever state or condition the prospective mother may be in. For one side, it’s about the woman; for the other, it’s the baby.

But is this lack of true discussion really necessary? Can’t we approach this issue together with concern for both mother and child? In this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), concern over mother and baby are addressed together. Should a violent altercation that leads to premature birth result in further harm, the offending party must make amends. It isn’t clear if the harm is to the mother, the child, or both. Harm to either deserves justice.

Both the mother and the baby matter to God. Both should matter to us. However we resolve our differences regarding abortion, let’s keep all affected parties in mind.



For the week of January 26, 2019 / 20 Shevat 5779

The symbols "! > ?" superimposed on a blue sky with one cloud

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 18:1-20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5

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Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods… (Shemot/Exodus 18:11)

Last week I explained that in certain contexts knowing God doesn’t necessarily relate to having a personal relationship with him. For the Egyptians to know the God of Israel is to say that they experienced the reality of his character and ability as a result of the incident of the Red Sea.

Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, uses the same word “yada,” meaning “to know” differently. He didn’t experience God’s power first-hand as the Egyptians did. Instead he received it via Moses’ retelling of the events: “Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had come upon them in the way, and how the Lord had delivered them” (Shemot/Exodus 18:8). Yet simply hearing the stories of what happened had a greater impact on him than the impact of what the Egyptians experienced had had on them. Even though the Egyptians experienced the reality of God’s power as well as his favor towards the Israelites, it made no lasting difference in their lives. Jethro, on the other hand, truly learned something, the realization “that the Lord is greater than all gods.”

We don’t know how far Jethro went with this knowledge. He was a priest of Midian (see Shemot/Exodus 3:1). And yet following his realization, he brought offerings to God in fellowship with Aaron and the elders of Israel. This is followed by Moses receiving some helpful administrative advice from him. Then he returned home, which is the last we hear of him in the biblical record. Did he forsake the Midianite gods and establish an outpost of Truth outside of the community of Israel? We don’t know. He is regarded as the chief prophet of the Druze religion, but there is no biblical support for this.

Whatever the rest of his life looked like, we do have what he said. Through Moses he came to know that the God of Israel is greater than all gods. For readers of the Bible, this is the most basic of truths. The God of Israel is God alone. Nothing or no one compares. In fact, other gods are not really gods even though they may be called gods. In some cases, they are figments of people’s imaginations. In other cases, they are demonic or natural forces that are given god-like status. Jethro’s statement appears to reflect the common belief that other so-called gods did exist. Yet, none match the greatness of the God of Israel.

Do you agree with him? In keeping with biblical truth, you may reject the notion of other lessor gods. Still, there are other personal and impersonal forces at work in the world that you encounter every day of your life. You may or may not think of them as gods or any kind of entity whatsoever, but they seek to assert power over you. We call them circumstances and problems, or more positively, opportunities. Endless books have been written to help you overcome negative forces and leverage positive ones to prevent harm and achieve success. Based on how much time, energy, and money we spend engaging these forces, I wonder sometimes if we actually believe that God is truly greater.

Depersonalizing the myriad of forces in the world doesn’t necessarily reduce their control over our lives. We need to ask the question: who or what concerns us the most in life? Is it money, relationships, your job situation? Maybe it’s yourself. As I have struggled to truly know God for who he is, I have often lamented over myself as being my greatest problem. That might even sound biblical to you. Don’t we have to put off our old nature, for example? Yes, but when we think that the remnants of ungodliness (or however we may express our issues) have the upper hand, then do we not deny Jethro’s assertion that God is greater?

Whether it be our own selves or any other forces, when we assert that they have more power and influence than the good and loving God of the Bible, then we don’t only ascribe god-like status to them, we elevate them above the One whom we claim to worship. And speaking of worship, focusing on these forces in the way we do, whether cowering under their threats or overly investing in them for our benefit, that’s worship.

We don’t know what Jethro did with his realization “that the Lord is greater than all gods.” Perhaps, he had a wonderful spiritual experience with Moses and company, and then after going home, it was business as usual. But what about you and me? If we know that God is greater than every other force in life, will it be business as usual? The same old patterns, the same old fears, the same old tactics? Or are we going to make the appropriate adjustments and live life based on the truth that God is greater than all gods?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


What Do You Know?

For the week of January 19, 2019 / 13 Shevat 5779

A man not knowing what to do

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. For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” And they did so. (Shemot/Exodus 14:1-4)

Three times in Shemot (the book of Exodus), God says through Moses that one of the results of his freeing the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt is that the Egyptians will know who he really is. This may sound as if God was predicting that he would not only convince them that he alone is God, but that they would reject their false gods and turn to him. Witnessing his power through the plagues and the parting of the sea along with the drowning of the Egyptian army would bring about a change of heart and mind.

The problem with this is that there is no indication in Scripture or history that the exodus from Egypt had any such effect upon the Egyptians. It appears that individual Egyptians may have turned to the God of Israel, but there was no grand scale change in the religious and spiritual life of the nation. Perhaps these events didn’t have the predicted impact. Or maybe it did after all.

Saying: “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord,” is not implying that they were to necessarily experience internal, lasting life change. “To know” doesn’t mean to be convinced of something as if these events were solely designed to teach them a theological lesson. That they were given such an opportunity to experience radical spiritual transformation is clear, but nothing needed to happen within the psyche of Egypt to accomplish God’s expressed purpose of them knowing what he wanted them to know. The only thing that needed to happen happened: due to Pharaoh’s obstinance, the Egyptians experienced the presence and power of God.

The Egyptians’ unwillingness to accept the truth of Israel’s God doesn’t mean they didn’t genuinely know it for what it is. Few people in history have been given such an opportunity to see God’s power on display in this way. Their reluctance to give credit where credit was due is not a reflection of their experience of him.

Even though few people have experienced what the Egyptians did, throughout time, all over the world, God’s power has been on display. Everyday people experience God. From his generous goodness to his harsh judgements he makes himself known, not to mention how the natural world proclaims his creativity for all to see.

It’s in this sense the Egyptians got to know God. Pharaoh knew better than to resist God’s word through Moses over and over again. His destructive stubbornness had nothing to do with lack of knowledge. He simply preferred to be selfish rather than submit to the obvious truth.

The rest of the world is no different. Refusal to submit to the God of Israel has little to do with lack of knowledge. That’s why we needn’t try to prove his existence. His evidence is everywhere. We simply need to point it out as we call people to a personal relationship with him through the Messiah.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Do You Know God’s Name?

For the week of January 5, 2019 / 28 Tevet 5779

The words WHAT'S YOUR NAME? written on an chalk board

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21
Originally published: For the week of January 21, 2012 / 26 Tevet 5772

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God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them.” (Shemot / Exodus 6:2-3)

The statement I just read often troubles readers of the Torah. When God appeared to Moses he told him that he did not make himself known to the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, by the name (in Hebrew) yod, hei, vav, hei (corresponding English letters: YHVH), often translated in English as LORD with full caps. This is sometimes written out as “Yahveh,” or “Yahweh.” This is where we get the mispronounced name “Jehovah”. This name is derived from the Hebrew verb for “to be” and signifies God as the eternal Being, the self-existing one from whom all existence is derived. The reason why we don’t use Yahveh or something close is that in Jewish tradition, God’s name was considered so sacred that its use was reserved for very special occasions and even then by certain people. Since Hebrew is a consonantal language, meaning only the consonants are written out, the vowels for each word were to be remembered through oral tradition. In the biblical text the vowel sounds are noted through special markings. But these markings were added many years after the text was written down and were known only by tradition. The vowel markings for YHVH are most likely taken from the word “adonai”, meaning “Lord.” Using these markings was to signal the reader to say “adonai” whenever encountering YHVH in the text.

Be that as it may, our passage sounds as if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob didn’t know God by this name at all, but rather by “el shaddai” (commonly in English: “God Almighty”) even though there are references to YHVH all through the stories of the patriarchs, including in quotes of the forefathers themselves.

There are two possible solutions to this issue. First, the use of YHVH in the earlier biblical period was introduced some time later by Moses or other editors of the Torah. According to this view, the forefathers had never once heard this name for God, but the stories are written using what later became the most widely used name for God. The problem with this explanation is that it runs counter to the usual care of the biblical writers to preserve correct uses of terms within their original time periods.

A better explanation is based on understanding that the way names in the Bible are used is primarily to describe something about the one named, rather than a simple designation. People in many cultures today tend to name children with particular names because they like the sound. An exception to that is naming someone after someone else. But even in that case the name simply functions as a designator, similar to how a serial number functions in order to differentiate individuals from one another. In Biblical times people are often named in such a way as to denote something about the person or in reference to an event of some kind. A person’s name tells a story about the person or something about the context in which they live. Moses’ name serves as an example of this in that it refers to his being taken from the water when he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter. God’s name as revealed to Moses is far more about the meaning of that name than its sound. It is possible that the forefathers were aware of this name even though they never experienced its full meaning.

Up until the time of God’s deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt, his activity with people was for the most part intimate and personal only. While he did create the universe, instigated the flood, and confused the languages at Babel, his work was limited to words of promise, warning, and guidance. It is with Moses and the exodus that we see the powerful hand of God at work favoring his covenant people. Through the plagues God judges Egypt, its leadership and its gods while revealing his loyalty to his chosen people. He doesn’t sit idly by, simply offering words of encouragement. Instead he powerfully fights their battles by manipulating the forces of nature and twisting Pharaoh’s arm in order to accomplish his purpose.

This demonstrated to his people and the world that God was not limited in any way. The power of the God of Israel extended far beyond their own community into every aspect of creation. What Israel knew about God through the stories of creation, the flood, and Babel, became personally relevant to them as a people. Their relationship to God was not to be something of myth and legend, designed only to encourage them in difficult times, but they could count on God to fight for them in the midst of greatest difficulty.

There are people today that think it is essential to use God’s actual name, thinking that something special would happen or that God would be more pleased with us if we did. But what God desires for us is that we would know his name in the way that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not. He is not far off, existing simply to warm our hearts through gentle reminders of intangible thoughts. But rather he is a God of action who wishes to powerfully break through into our lives in order to reveal his tangible reality to and through us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


The Foundation of Anti-Semitism

For the week of December 29, 2018 / 21 Tevet 5779

Illustration of blue Star of David with two strands of barbed wire across
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13, 29:22-23
Originally posted: For the week of January 17, 2009 / 21 Tevet 5769

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Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” (Shemot / Exodus 1:8-10)

The first recorded expression of anti-Semitism is perhaps the Egyptian oppression of the people of Israel prior to the Exodus. At first glance Pharaoh’s fear of the Israelites’ potential threat may sound reasonable. What was Pharaoh’s guarantee that they would not turn on the Egyptians one day? But why assume the worst, especially when relations between these two peoples were good for so many years? There is no reason to think that Egypt was in danger at that time. The slim chance that Israel would support Egypt’s enemies became in Pharaoh’s mind an enormous and immediate threat that required extreme and aggressive action by way of methodological oppression through enslavement. Pharaoh’s unreasonable fear led to a completely warped view of the people of Israel.

The root cause of Pharaoh’s unreasonable behavior is made clear in the Torah’s telling of this story: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Shemot/Exodus 1:8). Pharaoh’s warped view of the people of Israel stemmed from his disregard of what Joseph represented. The reason that the people of Israel lived in Egypt was because of Joseph’s special role many years before. Inspired by God, Joseph foretold of a coming famine and counselled the Pharaoh of his day to adequately prepare for it. Recognizing Joseph’s wisdom for what it was, Pharaoh appointed him administrator of both the preparation for the coming famine and the distribution of food during it. When Joseph was eventually reconciled to his family, Pharaoh invited the whole clan to settle in Egypt, where they prospered.

Disregarding this history severed the good relationship enjoyed by Egyptians and Israelites for generations. The presence of the Israelites in Egypt was no longer regarded for what it was: a reminder of God’s blessing upon Egypt. Israel’s presence in Egypt was unusual. It was something that could only be properly understood by acknowledging the hand of God. Failing to understand this led to Pharaoh’s suspicion and fear.

Israel’s experience in Egypt foreshadows its entire history. Disregarding God’s role in that history is the very foundation of anti-Semitism. Failure to recognize God’s hand upon Israel results in the kind of insane abuse encountered in Egypt so long ago. Israel’s place in the world will always seem strange when God is not taken into account.

Whether people are aware of it or not, the presence of Israel in the world forces us to deal with God’s reality. That is why reactions to Israel and its affairs are so extreme. Through Israel, God exposes our hearts. How we view Israel exposes aspects of our relationship to the God of Israel. Israel’s unique place in the world is not random, nor is it due to political intrigue, economic manipulation or military might. Just like their presence in Egypt long ago, Israel’s existence today is due to God’s providential hand.

This is not to say that Israel and the Jewish people are beyond criticism and correction. Israel, like all nations, should be accountable to those who uphold God’s justice and righteousness. But this must be done with respect and humility. Not because Israel is better than any other nation, but because of God’s vested interest in Israel, for not only does Israel have a special place in the plans and purposes of God, in its prosperity and security is blessing for the entire world.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Beating Bitterness

For the week of December 22, 2018 / 14 Tevet 5779

Scuffed up baseball

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 2:1-12
Originally posted January 3, 2015 / 12 Tevet 5775

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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)

Joseph was the object of his own brothers’ extreme jealousy, resulting in their selling him to slave traders and tricking their father into thinking he was killed by wild animals. While God gave him favor in the sight of his Egyptian master, his plight went from bad to worse. Even though he stayed true to God by resisting the advances of his master’s wife, she falsely accused him of abusing her, resulting in his spending years in a dungeon. Eventually his God-given gift of dream interpretation catapulted him to second in command in Egypt. While I think many, if not most of us, would have harbored bitterness in our hearts toward everyone who sought our harm, Joseph did not. Even when things work out well for people, good times don’t necessarily heal bitter hearts. Instead, bitterness has a way of skewing how we look at life – the good as well as the bad. The comfort that Joseph was able to experience is only possible for someone who refused to be bitter. We know this is the case with Joseph, because of how he dealt with his brothers later on, when they came to Egypt in the hope of buying food during the famine.

Joseph’s life vividly reminds us of how important it is to avoid bitterness. I have seen how destructive bitterness can be, including the control it has over people who allow it to grow inside them. Bitterness can lead to compulsive obsessive anger as well as to personal isolation. If Joseph had handled life differently, God would have used other means to preserve Israel in order to accomplish his purposes through them, but Joseph may not have been part of it.

I want to be like Joseph, but I haven’t been able to figure out how he did it. The ultimate answer is God’s “hesed,” his steadfast love. But that doesn’t mean that Joseph was carried along by God unconsciously. His relationship with God expressed itself in very specific ways. We have glimpses of his behavior, but that hasn’t been sufficient to enable me to understand what was really going on in his heart. But I have just read a book that may shed some light on this issue.

You may be surprised to learn that the book is called The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America by Joe Posnanski. O’Neil was a most unusual man. He died in 2006 at the age of 94. He was a baseball player, manager, coach, and scout. He was also an African American whose career as a player occurred before Blacks were allowed to play in the Major Leagues. Due to the racial discrimination of those days, special “Negro Leagues” were created so people like O’Neil could play “The National Pastime,” as Baseball was called in the United States. Following retirement O’Neil became an ambassador for the Negro Leagues to ensure their place in history and to help raise out of obscurity some of the greatest ball players of all time.

Buck O'NeilIt is difficult for many of us to fully understand the injustices Buck O’Neil endured and witnessed. And yet, like Joseph, he didn’t allow bitterness to take hold. As I was completing the book, what helped him be that way became clear to me. It may have been the same thing that helped Joseph as well. First, Buck O’Neil didn’t let others define life for him. He would never accept how others justified their bitterness. More importantly, he didn’t let his own circumstances define his life. Instead of wallowing in disappointment and hurt, he determined that he would focus on the positive and seek to be a blessing. Even in the face of great difficulty, he decided that life was a good thing and should always be cherished as such. More than that, he purposely helped others to do the same. He wasn’t always successful, but often was. I can’t say for sure what made him this way, except that he recognized how destructive bitterness was and made a concerted effort to avoid it at all costs.

Buck O’Neil’s life helps me to see Joseph more clearly, who also rose above his circumstances, not allowing them to define his life. While not denying the ill intent of his brothers and others, he really believed that God retained ultimate control of his life.

Buck O’Neil puts me to shame as does Joseph. But I will continue to pray that God helps me to look at life with their perspective, because while I might feel the pull of bitterness at times, their example is the right one; one most worthy to follow.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


It’s Alright To Cry

For the week of December 15, 2018 / 7 Tevet 5779

Adult son crying on his father's shoulder

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28

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And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. (Bereshit/Genesis 45:2)

Sometime in my late teens I stopped crying. I don’t mean that up until then I was crying nonstop. It was as if I had lost the ability to cry. All children cry. It’s our automatic, God-given survival device. As we get older, most of us learn to control the tears and express our needs and disappointments in other ways. In many cultures, males are often discouraged from crying at all. “Big boys don’t cry,” we’re told; so they stop, but that’s not why I did. My parents didn’t teach me such a thing. I remember seeing my father cry on more than one occasion, and there was no shame in that. Despite that, I distinctly remember by the time I was eighteen years old, I could feel an incessant need to cry lodged in my throat. It was awful.

My life was awful. My father had abandoned me and my mother a few years before. By this time, my mother was not well enough to work, forcing us to turn to government assistance. I had no direction in life, I was very superstitious, I thought success was measured by degrees of pleasure, and I was becoming more and more afraid of dying.

Everything about my life was out of sorts. I had no clear vision of what it should be or could be. Wrapped in a shroud of confusion and fear, I was stuck just like the lump in my throat. Then a few days before my nineteenth birthday, my life was transformed by my first encounter with the truth of Yeshua as Messiah. As I reached out to God that day, I had no idea I was embarking on a truly Great Adventure. Yet, still no tears, just smiles.

In those early months, I experienced a happiness I never dreamt of. I was ecstatic, and people could see it all over me. The next few months were exhilarating even though there were also new tensions and relationship strains due to the unusual path I was on. Still no tears.

A year after coming to faith, I left home for biblical studies. Leaving home brought with it renewed anxiety as I began to face some of my entrenched insecurities and fears. As I woke up one morning in my dorm room, I was fiercely struggling with I don’t really know what. I was not doing well and didn’t know what to do. I was alone since I didn’t have an early morning class that day. My roommate had a small (for those days) stereo and a few Gospel albums. I didn’t listen to a lot of music back then, as music had been one of my gods during my Bad Old Days. I don’t know why I put the album on. Then something happened as the singing started. The faucet finally opened. I was shocked as for the first time in I don’t know how long, I cried and cried. It felt so good! And while the lump would return from time to time, eventually so would the tears as God has allowed me to express myself in this way.

It’s hard to say for sure what it was about that moment that released all that pent-up emotion. I can guess, because I have had similar experiences since. It hasn’t always been with a song, but when I get a glimpse of the essence of life’s reality, it’s as if in that moment I see things as they really are, that amidst the confusion and chaos of life – my life – God really is my security, and everything will be okay after all. When that truth hits me, I am undone as all the tension of the insecurity I feel from the instability and pressures around me is released in an emotional torrent.

Perhaps that is something akin to what Joseph experienced when he was finally reconciled with his brothers. We can’t overestimate the emotional turmoil he must have carried all those years. We shouldn’t assume his rise to power in Egypt completely soothed the confusion, anger, and sadness he carried for so long. The emotions must have built to volcanic proportions during the process of revealing himself. For his own reasons, he shrewdly dealt with them as they travelled back and forth to Egypt for food all the while not knowing he was their brother. Then when he deemed the time was right, all that pent-up emotion flowed so freely that everyone around knew he was weeping.

I am aware that there are many people, men included, who cry like freely flowing fountains. You probably have no trouble relating to Joseph. You might be crying right now. Then there’s the others. Maybe you have an incessant lump in your throat as I had. Perhaps you have buried your emotions for so long that you can’t feel them anymore. I don’t know what it will take to release all you have been carrying inside. I just wanted to tell you: it’s alright to cry.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Mountain Movers

For the week of December 8, 2018 / 30 Kislev 5779

Man facing mountain range

Mikez & Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17 & B’midbar/Numbers 7:42-47; 28:9-15
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)

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Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of “Grace, grace to it!” (Zechariah 4:7)

A key, if not the core, aspect of Hanukkah is captured in this special Haftarah reading for the Shabbat that coincides with the festival (Hanukkah this year began the evening of December 2). The time period in which the prophet Zechariah lived is not normally given that much attention. Yet, not only is it an important chapter of Israel’s history, it provides the background for the events to follow, including the Maccabean revolt and the coming of the Messiah.

The return from Babylon never lived up to expectations. The Hebrew prophets envisioned a grand reestablishment of the kingdom of Israel, with a joyful and fruitful population and a glorious temple to which the nations would stream. Not only that, it would coincide with God’s blessing overflowing from Israel to the uttermost parts of the globe. Instead, a majority never returned, the rebuilt temple was pale in comparison to the original, and the worst of it was that, except for a brief time following the Maccabean revolt, Israel was ruled by foreigners (the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans), a sure sign of God’s disfavor. The fulness of the prophetic expectation would have to wait.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah document aspects of the return. It was no easy time and very discouraging. Zechariah, along with the prophet Haggai, were tasked with helping the people to not give up and fulfill their priority mission, the rebuilding of the temple. Zechariah had a particular word for Zerubbabel the governor.

I don’t know how aware the Maccabees were of Zechariah’s message to Zerubbabel, but somehow, they took it to heart. It’s a message that has been embraced by most courageous and faithful followers of Israel’s God. It’s what Yeshua told his disciples they would be able to do if they would possess even the most minuscule amount of genuine trust. Zechariah’s message is that when God is with us in what he gives us to do, no challenge is too difficult, no obstacle too great. Success is not dependent upon our physical capabilities, intelligence, or resources. When God is with us, he makes the impossible possible.

We read about miracles and the wondrous exploits of biblical characters, and don’t always catch how they must have felt standing before insurmountable challenges. When faced with difficulties, we may see ourselves as failures: “If only I do better or work harder, then maybe I can do it. And if I can’t certainly someone somewhere can.” But then there’s the truly impossible. That’s what Zerubbabel was facing. He wasn’t called to climb a mountain, he had to remove it. That’s the impossible. And that’s overwhelmingly discouraging. And that’s why he needed God’s word through the prophet: It’s coming down!

As Yeshua said: “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you’” (Matthew 17:20). From Abraham, called to be a great nation in spite of being old and childless; to Moses, mandated to confront the world power of his day; to David, standing before the giant; to the small Maccabean army taking on the mighty Greeks; to Yeshua, conquering death itself, mountains have been moving.

I wonder how many impossible situations we have allowed to remain in our lives when God wants them gone. I am not saying we have superhuman ability to do the impossible at will. But when God calls us to face great intimidating challenges, perhaps we often give up too quickly.

Think of the mountains in your life right now. Make a list if necessary. Ask God to speak to you as you offer them one by one to him. You may just sense a tiny spark of faith with regard to one or more. If so, speak to the mountain and watch what happens.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

For more Hanukkah reflections, a children’s story, and activities, see the TorahBytes Hanukkah section.


Mental Blocks

For the week of December 1, 2018 / 23 Kislev 5779

Illustration depicting mental obstacles

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6 – 3:8

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But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. (Bereshit/Genesis 37:4)

A mental block is when you find yourself stuck in a psychological rut you can’t get out of. You have likely heard of writer’s block, when a normally prolific writer can’t seem to get their thoughts on paper (or screen). In the moment (or much longer) all creativity comes to a complete halt. What makes this so frustrating is the sense that the ability to write should be there. Of course, for the accomplished writer, it has been there until the block has the writer’s mind in its vice-like grip.

What makes something a mental block as opposed to normal inability is the reasonable expectation that we should be able to do the thing. If not for the presence of the known or unknown obstacle, the ability would manifest. Have you heard of “the yips”? It’s a real thing from the world of sports. An athlete has the yips when he or she can’t perform a normal (to them) routine or function. All-star pitcher Jon Lester had the yips. In baseball, when a runner is on first base, pitchers regularly throw to first base between pitches to prevent the runner from getting too much of a lead (a head start) should they attempt to run to second base (that’s called “stealing”) or if the batter hits the ball. This is a lot easier for left-handed pitchers, such as Lester, since in these situations they prepare to pitch facing the runner at first as opposed to right-handed pitchers who face the opposite way. The point is for an elite athlete who is paid many millions of dollars to throw a ball, this is one of the easiest things to do. But at some point, Lester stopped throwing to first. Something happened that so undermined his confidence in his ability to do this, that he could no longer do it. Eventually everyone knew he had the yips. But because Lester was such a good pitcher, his overall performance compensated for the unusually long leads runners were taking.

For Lester, being aware of what was going on inside his head was a huge help. Knowing he had a problem was the first step towards resolving it, whether by compensating for it or learning to overcome it completely. I wonder how many mental blocks we have that we don’t know about, where we have abilities that we are prevented from using because of a psychological obstacle.

Joseph’s brothers had a serious mental block, whereby they were not capable of speaking peaceably with him. This was not just a case of refusing to talk nicely to him; they didn’t have the ability to do so. We should be careful to distinguish between ability and will. We tend to refer to “we can’t do something” when the fact is we won’t do it, thus skirting personal responsibility for our actions. That said, there are indeed times we truly can’t, when the ability is not there or a legitimate obstacle within us or outside of us prevents us from doing whatever it might be. This was what was happening with Joseph’s brothers.

Their hatred didn’t come out of nowhere. It started with their resenting their father’s preferential treatment of Joseph, made worse by Joseph himself. Instead of dealing with their family dysfunction constructively they let their resentment fester until it boiled over. The resulting hatred was a mental block that controlled their behavior.

Their bad behavior was the symptom of their mental block. Since symptoms are the only things visible, we understandably focus on them. But the only way to change bad behavior is to get to the controlling factor. In their case, it was their resentment-fueled hatred.

We could go deeper. Their resentment was actually toward their father, who set this up in the first place by playing favorites. And ultimately their issue was with God, who allowed (or purposed) such a thing. The controlling of all controlling factors for any and all mental blocks is the state of our relationship with God. As long as we are alienated from him, we will be overcome with innumerable mental blocks constraining us from living the abundant life we were made for. Once that alienation is resolved through faith in Yeshua the Messiah, we have new potential to overcome our mental blocks. That’s just the beginning, however. It’s only as we cooperate with the light of God’s truth and learn to apply God’s power to our lives that we can be fully free.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version