Sing About It!

For the week of February 4, 2023 / 13 Shevat 5783

Message information over an image of a man performing in song

B’shalach
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4 – 5:31
Revised version of message posted the week of July 2, 2011 / 30 Sivan 5771

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Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD, saying, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Shemot/Exodus 15:1)

The Bible has several examples of songs that were written to commemorate significant events in the lives of the people. The main purpose of singing such songs was to help the community remember the character and power of God. The retelling of an event’s details helps us to get in touch with very specific elements of God’s character and power. It is one thing to proclaim that God is good and strong in general terms; it’s another to recount specific good things he did and exactly how he did them. While it is good to be aware of God’s characteristics in an abstract way, we connect with those abstract realities more effectively when we have actual examples to remember.

Retelling events through song has several other advantages over merely speaking or reading about them. The process of writing the song provides the opportunity for the writer or writers to carefully ponder the details of the event and their significance to others. This results in more than the cold recalling of facts, but also allows for the retention of the meaning of the event for generations to come. Songs are a lot easier to remember and have the tendency to get passed on to future generations. The poetic nature of songs, especially well-written ones, give future generations the opportunity to not only relive the original event, but ponder its significance all over again, while reflecting upon how past lessons can be applied to the present. Due to the nature of song, some of this happens unconsciously.

In most cultures throughout history song has held a very important place. Our own day is no exception. In fact, there may have never been a time when song has been as prevalent as it is today. But when I think of the content of most songs, very few are of the nature of those which we find in Scripture. Most contemporary songs (and there are exceptions) are about feelings and desires of the moment. These songs are highly emotional and subjective. This is not to say that there is no place for this kind of song – the Psalms include examples of such, though the perspective of the Psalms is very different from most contemporary songs. The tendency of much of today’s songs reveals the current state of most people, which is obsessed with self and the pursuit of pleasure. This tendency has spilled over into much of what may be considered as spiritually minded songs as well.

Another difference between songs in the Bible and songwriting today is the influence of commercialism and social media. If making money isn’t our motive, then at least we want to garner as much attention as possible. The result is that our songwriting motive has become more about self and popularity than God and our and future generation’s need to remember who he is and what he has done.

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we began to write and sing songs simply about the great works of God as they are happening in our lives today? Have you, your family, or community gone through some significant event the recounting of which would benefit generations to come? Perhaps you or your loved ones have survived an ordeal of some kind? Did God see you through financial hardship, serious illness or accident? Maybe you are part of a congregation that almost dissolved but has seen a remarkable rejuvenation. Maybe your community is recuperating from a natural disaster. Maybe something terrible has happened to you or your loved ones, and there are some important lessons that should never be forgotten. Whatever it might be, it deserves a song. It might be sad or happy or both, but it needs to be sung.

Since it is always important to be true to one’s own words, I recently recorded and posted to YouTube an updated version of a simple song I wrote in my first year as a believer. You can view it here:

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Why So Negative?

For the week of January 28, 2023 / 6 Shevat 5783

Message info along with a photo of of a man who just endured a self-caused explosion

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

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Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD.” (Shemot/Exodus 10:1-2)

I have been told on more than one occasion that I am too negative. You may think the glass is half-full, while I may not even see a glass! That’s an exaggeration, I hope. But I would be careful about drinking that water, since it might be poison. One of my roles at a high-tech firm some years ago was quality control. I don’t know if that was a good idea for someone like me. Not that I wasn’t good at it. I may have been too good as I would find all sorts of problems that the designers never dreamed of. I was a natural. Is it my fault that when I walk into a room, I immediately notice the one picture frame that’s a bit off? Not to mention wondering what that squeaky noise is. And do I smell something burning?

This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the positive. I love it when things work well. Perhaps it’s possible that the reason why I am so sensitive to the negative is because I love the good so much. Where I need to be most careful is in relating to people in the process. I need to choose when, how, and with whom to mention negatives. Sometimes negatives should be overlooked for the sake of relationships and various life priorities. But it may not surprise you to learn that I am concerned that overlooking the negative for some greater good is happening far too often in our day, as we are, in my opinion, not taking the negatives seriously enough.

God called Moses to confront a great negative. Pharaoh, king of Egypt, enslaved the people of Israel in order to prevent them from ever joining forces with an enemy army. God sent Moses and his brother Aaron to demand Israel’s release. Pharaoh’s refusal to heed God’s word resulted in another negative – a set of negatives – the ten plagues. The Hebrew words for plague, are better translated as “strike.” God pummeled Egypt over and over again until Pharaoh gave way. Even then, after Israel headed out, he attempted to bring them back, resulting in his army drowning in the sea. So much negative.

A previous job I had was that of a business college instructor. As I was starting out, I was informed by one of the veteran instructors that she preferred to correct students’ papers in green ink, since the traditional red was deemed to be too negative. At the time, as the new guy, I went along with it. But looking back, we weren’t highlighting the correct answers but pointing out the errors. We did that to show the students where they needed to improve in order to give them the best chance of succeeding in the workplace. I, like anyone else, don’t find pleasure in having my mistakes highlighted, but there’s a time to unambiguously point out mistakes.

Pharaoh was making a huge mistake. People were unjustly suffering due to his selfish motives. He could have simply acquiesced to God’s demand and saved himself and his people from needless suffering, but he didn’t. According to the design of the world which God made, Pharaoh’s arrogance was destined to lead to terrible consequences unless he changed course. Welcome to Planet Earth, Pharaoh.

Welcome to Planet Earth, everyone! How much longer can society pursue its current course before God’s judgment is poured out? Pharaoh and company went years and years thinking they could get away with treating their fellow human beings as a commodity. But it was only a matter of time before God would say, “Enough is enough.” The same is true for our day. We mistake God’s patience for either his non-existence or his disinterest. Worse, many in the name of faith in Messiah, put a positive spin on his intentions, ascribing to God love for humans not that different from that of a child for his puppy. God indeed yearns for us to know his goodness for all eternity. He longs to rescue us from our misguided and selfish behavior. Yet, he will only wait so long before millions will finally and permanently suffer the consequences.

Am I being too negative? Then I guess a physician diagnosing cancer is also too negative. It is not positive spin on my part (I wouldn’t do that!) to say the cancer diagnosis is an expression of goodness despite its negativity. Heeding the negative appropriately is the pathway to an enduring positive outcome. Unless we begin to see the negatives for what they are, we will not experience the positives in the way God desires for us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Dynamics of Arrogance

For the week of January 21, 2023 / 28 Tevet 5783

Message info over a photo of the Nile River bordered top and bottom with colored maple leaves

Va-era
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21

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Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will bring a sword upon you, and will cut off from you man and beast, and the land of Egypt shall be a desolation and a waste. Then they will know that I am the LORD. “Because you said, ‘The Nile is mine, and I made it,’ therefore, behold, I am against you and against your streams, and I will make the land of Egypt an utter waste and desolation, from Migdol to Syene, as far as the border of Cush. (Ezekiel 29:8-10)

This week’s haftarah (excerpt from the Hebrew prophets) was most likely selected due to its references to Egypt and, particularly, Pharaoh, Egypt’s king. Both are concerned with God’s judgment on Pharaoh and his land even though the circumstances addressed by Ezekiel are very different from those faced by Moses. In Moses’ day, Israel had witnessed God’s heavy hand of judgment upon Pharaoh for refusing to heed God’s demand to let his people go. Centuries later Ezekiel prophesied an even greater devastation upon Egypt. It isn’t clear if the “desolation and waste” mentioned in the verses I quoted occurred around that time or if it is yet in the future. That doesn’t concern me as much as the reason stated by God for his harsh judgment.

Pharaoh’s arrogance in Ezekiel’s day is captured by God’s rebuke of Pharaoh’s saying, “The Nile is mine, and I made it.” The Nile River played a most essential role in Egypt. The country’s agriculture and economy were dependent on the Nile. The Land of Israel had relatively little fresh water and was thus utterly dependent on rain for survival. If sufficient rain didn’t fall at the right time of year, drought and famine would be the result. The Nile, on the other hand, functioned as a reliable, continual water source for Egypt despite its being surrounded by desert.

The presence of such a water resource would naturally lead the Egyptians to have a great sense of security. They were aware of their special possession especially in contrast to the intense water needs of their neighbors. It is understandable that such a culture would regard themselves as specially favored by their gods. One might think that the events of Moses’ time would have cured them of such a perspective but evidently not. In fact, not only would Egypt take pride in their gods, Pharaoh also eventually regarded himself in divine terms, identifying, or more correctly, overidentifying with his gods to the extent that he took credit for creating the Nile. I would expect most moderns to react to such a claim as rooted in a misguided worldview of foolish superstitions. However it was that Pharaoh came to assert such a claim, God deemed it worthy of devastating consequences.

How did Pharaoh come to think of himself in this way? Did he really and truly believe he made the Nile? Perhaps it was common in his culture to regard the king as the incarnation of a deity. Perhaps there are countries today that still think this way, but could you imagine in Canada where I live, for example, having a special ceremony where a priest or holy man waves his hand over our Prime Minister to transform him from a normal human being like the rest of us into the personification of some god or other? From that point on, whatever he says is the god’s word, while everyone else must obey or be killed. When he walks by, his people must bow in deference as he proclaims, “The maple syrup is mine, and I made it!”

I trust you’re chuckling. But think again. While world leaders generally don’t speak in such deified terms, they and those who support them are increasingly regarding themselves as the great benefactors of their people. I cannot remember how many times in the past three years our Prime Minister has said that it is his responsibility to keep Canadians safe, warming the hearts of an apparent majority of the population. Without getting into the technicalities of our parliamentary system, when did that become his responsibility? When a country’s leader begins to assume the role of ultimate parent, assuming he or she has the authority and power to determine what constitutes safe and healthy behavior, it isn’t long before they have taken the role of God.

This kind of arrogance, with or without replicating Pharaoh’s type of wording, is becoming more and more common among all sorts of authorities in traditional democracies. As God himself is neglected by a growing number of people, human authority naturally takes his place. Such a course will not end well.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Enduring Futility

For the week of January 14, 2023 / 21 Tevet 5783

Message info along with a leaky water bucket

Shemot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13, 29:22-23

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So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. (Shemot/Exodus 1:13-14)

The embryonic nation of Israel was preserved via God’s providence by migrating to Egypt through the unusual and painful circumstances that led to Joseph’s rise to prominence there. For some time, not sure exactly how long, the growing nation prospered in their temporary home. Eventually, an Egyptian king arose who became suspicious of them. He was concerned Israel would one day ally themselves with Egypt’s enemies, leading to Egypt’s demise. In an attempt to undermine such a possibility, the king imposed an oppressive policy to enslave Israel. As this failed to weaken the growing Hebrew nation, life for Israel got a lot worse before it got better, as the king decreed the murder of the Hebrew baby boys at birth.

From what we can tell, Israel suffered a long time, hundreds of years in fact, as slaves in Egypt before God sent Moses and his brother to rescue them. That this was foretold to Abraham (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:12-16) is little consolation for what must have been an unbearable situation. Later biblical history informs us that the vast majority of Israel’s suffering was due to its failure to live up to its covenantal obligations. There are several occasions when repentance brought almost immediate relief. But that’s not the case here. There is no indication whatsoever that Israel’s suffering was due to anything on their part, good or bad, except for their simply being there, a situation that had been originally determined by God for their welfare.

As I was preparing this message, I struggled to find meaning through Israel’s centuries-long oppression in Egypt. I was on the brink of deeming this period as utterly futile. I hate futility. I get very unsettled when I lose grasp of meaning. I don’t think I am alone. Even materialistic naturalists (those who believe the universe came into existence through nothing more than energy and matter plus chance), who reject that there is any objective meaning to life, can’t seem to live like that and so seek to find meaning anyway they can. Then, there’s the typical, “Everything is for a reason,” line that seems to make people feel better even if the mysterious reason is beyond comprehension.

In the case of Israel in Egypt, I do believe there is a futility aspect to it at least for the individuals who lived through it. There were innumerable Israelites, who were born into, lived through, and died in that most oppressive state. Perhaps the expectation of returning one day to the Promised Land provided some relief. We don’t know. We also don’t know how faith in the God of their fathers encouraged them day by day. If the behavior of the wilderness generation later on is any clue to the depths of their faith, then it was pretty shallow. I will come back to the futility in a moment.

From a big-picture viewpoint, Israel’s experience in Egypt wasn’t futile. God used their hardships there as a pressure cooker to develop Israel as a nation. Note that Israel didn’t come into being through the normal processes experienced by other people groups, but rather by God’s particular design. The Promised Land, likely due to its geographical peculiarities as a land bridge connecting Africa, Asia, and Europe, was home to a wide variety of people groups and influences. It’s possible that the clan that arose from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, would not have been able to become the substantial nation it did without the Egypt years. Also, if the political establishment in Egypt would have remained friendly to Israel, they may have been absorbed into the Egyptian people and would have not wanted to leave. The antagonism they experienced served to ensure their distinctiveness and their acquiring the Promised Land. Moreover, Israel’s experience in Egypt serves to illustrate the oppression all people are under. This sets up the great redemption God desires for all people through the Messiah.

All that might satisfy our yearning for meaning. It makes us feel better when reading about their hardships to see that there was a grand purpose behind it all. But what about them? They wouldn’t have been aware of any of this. The best they could have done was endure. In fact, some may have preferred an early death rather than continuing to go through such painful futility.

And that might be exactly how you are feeling right now. Like the Israelites, we may not know the grand purposes we are serving. Moreover, I am not convinced that everything that happens is for some precise intentional reason. And yet, we do know that according to the New Covenant Writings, based on stories like Israel in Egypt, that God uses everything for the good of his people (see Romans 8:28). This may not completely alleviate the pain we feel when confronted by apparent futility, but, if we let it, it will help see us through.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Be Not Ashamed

For the week of December 24, 2022 / 30 Kislev 5783

Message info over a Hanukkah menorah and a man in disgust pointing at a Bible

Miketz/Rosh Hodesh/Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17; B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15; 7:42-53
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English 2:10 – 4:7); Isaiah 66:1-24; 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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Then he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts. (Zechariah 4:6)

Note: the following are some “final reflections” at the end of an extensive Hanukkah presentation I did recently, where I cover Hanukkah’s historical background, contemporary customs, and some important lessons we can learn. View video here.

In the days leading to Hanukkah, the Hellenistic (Greek) authorities, among other things, forbade the study of Torah. Will we see the Bible banned in our day? We might, but that’s not necessary, due to how much it has been shamed.

Over time we have been told that the biblical world is so different from ours that it’s become more and more difficult to see how what the Bible teaches can be relevant to today’s world. Many have become convinced that it was written at a time when misogynistic, “homophobian” racists walked the earth, and therefore the issues the Bible addresses have nothing to do with our supposedly far more enlightened world. We sit in judgement over the real and imagined sins of the past, while we congratulate ourselves for our superior morality. What then does the Bible have to teach us? We may seek to mine the Bible for encouragement and hope—we want to bolster our faith after all—but when it comes to life’s particulars: marriage and family, sexuality, business, politics, leisure, entertainment, what constitutes legitimate congregational life, and so on, many of us have left the Bible—the whole Bible—far, far behind.

Sure, we’re diehard fans of Yeshua (Jesus), but have become detached from the very written word that defined his person, his life, and his mission—a mission that has been extended to his followers, the God-given mandate to disciple the nations—a mandate entrusted to us by the Most High to instruct the world in his good and life-infused ways. Yet, when we get into the nitty gritty of Scripture, especially when it comes to Yeshua’s own Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, the same Scriptures Paul said were not only breathed out by God but are also “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” that God’s people may be “complete, equipped for every good work”—when it comes to the fulness of those Scriptures, many of us have become what we might call “neo-Marcionites.”

Marcionism was an ancient gnostic heresy that, not only claimed that the Old Testament god was different from the New Testament god, but that the Old Testament is archaic and oppressive; replaced by a new and improved Covenant, a version of which neither Paul nor Yeshua would recognize. Instead of standing confident in his written Word, his entire written Word, we are often apologetic and ashamed of God’s ancient but enduring truth that is as relevant today as it was when it was first written.

But it needn’t stay this way. Like the Maccabees, we need to say, “enough is enough.” We need to take up the spiritual sword of God’s word. We need to ask God to teach us how to effectively wield it in our day. But first, we need to ask him to pierce our own hearts with it afresh, allowing ourselves to be taught by him—without shame and without fear—as he fills us with his words of life to, not only nourish ourselves, but to enable us to provide light to an ever increasingly dark world.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Time To Engage

For the week of December 17, 2022 / 23 Kislev 5783

Message information

Vayeshev
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6 – 3:8
Updated version of message posted the week of December 21, 2019 / 23 Kislev 5780

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Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. (Bereshit/Genesis 37:5-8)

Sometimes I ponder the circumstances that led to two of my most important life experiences: my coming to know the Messiah and connecting with the young lady who would become my wife. What this has to do with Joseph and this week’s parsha will become clear eventually. So many unusual twists and turns brought me to hear about Yeshua for the first time in September 1976, including my parents’ breakup, and my own issues with my father, which opened me to accept my mother’s desire to move to Florida from Montreal in tenth grade. But when the better life we sought didn’t pan out, we returned six months later. The instability of that time fueled by my own distraction led to my repeating my senior year of high school, which gave me a new circle of friends. One such friend would later have a boyfriend from California, who upon visiting Montreal shared Yeshua with me.

All this helped set up my sort-of first-time meeting with my bride to be, Robin. I say “sort-of” because as children, we both had been in the same Yiddish school class, three days each week following public school. After my coming to know the Lord, I happened to be in a Bible study where her name was mentioned in a prayer request – that’s how I found out that she too was a new believer. A few months later her name came up again when I overheard her being invited to an event I was involved in, which led to our meeting as believers for the first time.

I could use these details to talk about the working of God’s guiding hand in our lives. So many of the circumstances of what led to my crucial life changes were out of my control. Life can feel like the living out of a script at times. But this is not my point here; nor is it what I want to demonstrate from Joseph’s life. In each of my examples, there is one influence I left out: me. On the morning of the afternoon I received Yeshua, I was sitting in my room wondering what to do that day. I had become friends with another friend’s cousin who had been visiting from out of town and was returning home later that afternoon. The friend was part of the new circle I mentioned earlier. I had already said “good-bye” to the cousin, but on a whim I decided to phone to see if I could hang out with him one more time before he left for the airport. I could have easily dismissed the thought of calling, not wanting to intrude. But I didn’t. So, I called. I went over, not knowing I would soon interact with the person from California who would share with me the message that would completely transform my life forever.

As for the day I met Robin, what I had overheard was two girls hovering around the phone (which was on the wall in those days), discussing their attempt to coax her to come to the event that night. She had told them she was too tired. I don’t remember how I discovered it was she with whom they had been talking. But when I did, I asked them to get her back on the phone. She, being intrigued by the possibility of meeting another Jewish believer, came after all. We quickly developed a friendship that would become a lot more than that over the next few years (we’ll leave those details for another time).

I don’t bring up my involvement in relation to these events to take any credit. Obviously, each of these are way too complex for that, but what would have happened if I hadn’t phoned the cousin or asked the girls to call Robin back? We’ll never know, of course. Just like we’ll never know what would have happened if Joseph hadn’t told his dreams to his brothers.

I am conflicted about Joseph. Was he a purely innocent victim to his brothers’ murderous jealousy fueled by his father’s nearsighted favoritism? Or was he a spoiled younger brother taking advantage of his father’s favor? Perhaps he was overly naïve, clueless to how his brothers would react to his dreams. His story doesn’t include the level of commentary necessary to draw firm conclusions. All we know is that he freely spoke about his dreams. Unlike my stories, however, Joseph’s involvement led to some extremely painful experiences. But in the end the fledgling nation of Israel and the whole region of the world in which they lived were rescued through his superior administrative ability working within the Egyptian government. All this came about through the remarkable twists and turns spurred by his sharing of his dreams.

I wonder how much life we are missing out on due to our lack of engagement. Are we paying sufficient attention to what’s going on around us? How many of us are far too tentative, much too passive, and too hesitant in responding to life’s circumstances. We don’t speak up or get involved because we are too cautious. We can’t necessarily set up the events of our lives, but unless we engage the opportunities placed before us, we will never fully live.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Transformed

For the week of December 10, 2022 / 16 Kislev 5783

Message info over an image of a woman transformed from troubled to victorious

Vayishlach
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43 (English: 32:3 – 36:43)
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12

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And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two female servants. And he put the servants with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. (Bereshit/Genesis 33:1-3)

Jacob was terrified of his brother Esau. And not for no reason. About twenty years before, instigated by their mother, Jacob tricked their father Isaac into giving the blessing of the firstborn to him instead of his older twin. By customary rights, Esau should have been the one to carry forth the bulk of the inheritance, which in this case, would have included the promises of God first given to their grandfather Abraham.

Some people might get hung up by the fact that God had already foretold that Jacob would take the primary place in the family (see Bereshit/Genesis 25:23). But God’s plans for the two boys in no way justifies the underhanded method employed by Jacob and Rebekah. We also may think it strange that something of such importance not only would be handled this way, but couldn’t Isaac simply have nullified the stolen blessing? Perhaps, but he didn’t. Whether we can appreciate the cultural values of their day or not, what happened happened. And what happened understandably infuriated Esau to the extent that he vowed to kill his brother.

Again, at his mother’s urging, Jacob did what many of us would have done in similar circumstances; he ran away. Perhaps if he would have given thought to the meaning of the blessing, he may have risked staying, trusting that God would work it out. The problem is he didn’t believe in God yet. This is clear by his response to God’s words to him in Bethel on his way to Mesopotamia. Notice the “if”: “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:20-21). Not only didn’t Jacob yet have a personal relationship with the God of his father and grandfather, he also hadn’t fully grasped the fulness of the blessing he stole.

Jacob went off to Haran in Mesopotamia with some sense that he would one day return to the land of his birth. However, it isn’t clear whether he would have, or if he only did so due to how unmanageable the situation with his uncle Laban had become. Be that as it may, as he struggled with this, God spoke to him again, telling him to return home (see Bereshit/Genesis 31:13). Without the insight of Scripture, we might assume that he was spiritualizing his leaving yet another difficult situation. But this indeed was God’s direction. To Jacob’s credit, he did it despite what lay ahead.

As he headed back home, he faced his greatest fear, Esau, but did so in his usual manner of trying to manipulate the situation in order to try to appease his brother. He even put his own family at risk so as to better protect himself.

Then, it was time. Jacob had struggled with others his whole life. Now he was to undergo a struggle like none other as God wrestles with him all night. True to form Jacob doesn’t give up, a tenacity that God commends. Jacob as a result is given a new name to redefine his life along with a limp to remind him of that night. He emerges transformed. Hours earlier he was overwhelmed by fear, doing what he always had done, as he attempted to manipulate the situation to his advantage. Now, he was different as he went to meet his brother, limping as he did so, and discovered that his brother’s anger had abated.

I imagine he may have discovered his brother’s changed attitude regardless. However, we don’t know how Jacob’s anxiety may have irritated the situation. What we do know is that he was a completely changed man able to move forward in what God had for him without the controlling fear.

I don’t know how God wants to work such dramatic change in you and me, but, as followers of the Messiah, he will. A key New Covenant promise is that he would put his Torah in the hearts of his people (see Jeremiah 31:33). Core to the working of the Messiah in our lives is his transformative work of placing God’s ways, perspective, and desires into the center of our beings. He may or may not do so through a dramatic encounter such as what Jacob experienced that night but do it he will.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The House of God

For the week of December 3, 2022 / 9 Kislev 5783

Message info over an ethereal staircase in the sky

Vayetzei
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (English 12:12 – 14:9)
Originally posted December 9, 2000 / 12 Kislev 5761
Revised version from the book Torah Light: Insights from the Books of Moses

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Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:16–17)

Jacob had a vision of God in a dream. He’d never had an experience like this before. When he awoke, he surmised that there was something special about the place he was in, referring to it as the house of God, the gate of heaven. We don’t know if his conclusion about the place was accurate or if it was nothing more than his own interpretation of the experience.

Jacob assumed that this was a special place. He gave a new name to the town, calling it Bet-el (English, Bethel)—meaning “House of God”—and set up a pillar there. He then made a pledge that if God would keep his promise to bring him back there, this same god would be his God.

Whatever the significance of the place, Jacob thought God was more in Bet-el than he would be in the land of his ancestors where he was going. It would take many years before he realized how real and how present God was. Jacob’s dream was meant to reveal to him that God was going to take care of him. But Jacob focused more on the experience than on the message.

Like Jacob, we sometimes have difficulty knowing God beyond our experiences of him. I know many of us have not experienced anything like Jacob did, but still God is often confined to our specific events, activities, and experiences. We like to focus more on the wonderful things that God does than to learn the lessons those things were designed to teach us.

The essence of idolatry is the substituting of something in place of the reality of God. It may or may not be a physical object that we can touch. It might be a memory or a concept through which we relate to God. These things may function in our lives as helps in knowing God, but the fact is they get in the way.

It sounds so spiritual to be like Jacob and get excited over an experience. But God remained someone who seemed far from him for a very long time. It would not be until later difficult circumstances that God would finally become personal to him.

Could it have been any different for Jacob? We don’t know. But it can be different for us. Instead of getting hyped over what God is doing (or not doing) in our lives, maybe we should listen to what God is saying to us. Let’s stop making monuments of our experiences (or lack thereof) and let God into our hearts right now.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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What’s Going on in There?

For the week of November 26, 2022 / 2 Kislev 5783

Message info along with the silhouette of a pregnant woman

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

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And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren. And the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” (Bereshit/Genesis 25:21-23)

Human life is a journey of discovery. From the beginnings of consciousness inside our mothers, we embark on a process of realization. As we encounter early sensations of feeling and the strangeness of muffled sounds, we eventually emerge from protective darkness into the brilliance of an illuminated environment. We quickly develop mentally and physically as we interpret our surroundings and try to make sense of a strange new world.

The wonders of being alive continue. Tragically for many, this process, overwhelming at times to be sure, ends far too soon. Not only at death, but for reasons deep in the psychology of self, midway through life as well. The ever-changing complexities of life and the sheer apparent infiniteness of potential experiences is far too difficult for some to absorb. They thus prefer the illusion of predictability and the false comfort that stems from closing oneself off from the meaning that arises from the unexpected.

I don’t know how much Isaac and Rebekah grasped of the great epic story they were part of. Isaac’s father Abraham surely told his son of his unusual encounters with the unseen God. Isaac, the miracle baby, endured the trauma of his father’s willingness to offer him as a sacrifice. He survived because God apparently changed his mind. He later married Rebekah due to a set of sweet providential circumstances. At least that’s how Abraham’s servant, tasked with finding his master a wife for his son, recounted the events.

Whatever was going on, it was essential for Rebekah to have children. For God’s promise to her father-in-law to come to pass, children were necessary, but it wasn’t happening—a plight I have been told happens to about twenty-five percent of all couples. While not possessing the modern techniques of our day, I am sure their culture offered a myriad of solutions for such a condition. We don’t know if they considered any of these. What we do know is that Isaac prayed to the God of his father. Not only that, but his prayer was answered. What a relief! And yet, Rebekah knew something was wrong. So, she, like her husband, prayed. From the language of the text, her request wasn’t so much about fixing her predicament, but a desire to know what was going on.

What was going on was a conflict on an international scale. Two nations were struggling within her womb. I don’t know what an ultrasound would have revealed besides two babies each within their own placenta, given they were fraternal twins. While science has opened to us a vast sphere of wonders, it cannot give access to meaning, purpose, and destiny; only God can. Rebekah’s openness to God by inquiring of him allowed her (and us) to discover the grand purposes of God hidden within her womb.

The lack of this type of inquiry among people today has narrowed the universe into a closed box of meaninglessness. Committing to view life exclusively through a materialistic lens of personal ambition and comfort has cut us off from the grand story that we are all a part of. How many people are carrying embryonic wonders (actual and metaphorical) of which they have no clue, because they refuse to inquire of the Master of the Universe as to what is going on within them.

In our day, the discomfort Rebekah experienced could be easily resolved by surgically terminating her babies. But whether or not such tools were at her disposal, she knew that what she was carrying in her body was ultimately not about her. Her ability to see beyond herself led to the insight that God gave her. Thankfully, her focus wasn’t on herself, but instead, she reached out to the only one who could provide the insight she desired.

What are we missing due to our self-focus and narrow materialistic view of life? There may be far more to the turmoil churning inside of us. What do you think would happen if we opened ourselves up to the God of Rebekah and received his insight into what is really going on in us?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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When It’s Not You

For the week of November 19, 2022 / 25 Heshvan 5783

Message information over an image of a man blaming a woman, pointing at her

Hayyei Sarah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 23:1-25:18
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/2 Kings 1:1-31
Originally posted the week of November 11, 2017 / 22 Heshvan 5778

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Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. Jokshan fathered Sheba and Dedan. (Bereshit/Genesis 25:1-3)

Abraham is depicted in the Bible as the model of faith. It was him of whom we read, “He believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Bereshit/Genesis 15:6). It was his trust in God (faith is trust) that established his right relationship with God. What did he trust God for? The seemingly impossible prospect of innumerable offspring (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:5). Why was this a seemingly impossible prospect? He and his wife, Sarah, were childless and already advanced in years. They astonishingly have the child of promise when Abraham is one hundred years old and Sarah is ninety.

In this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), Sarah dies, and sometime later Abraham remarries. Obviously, he is way over a hundred by now, but ends up having a whack of kids through his second wife, Keturah. Not bad for an old man, eh? But wait a second! I thought Abraham couldn’t conceive. Perhaps God healed whatever his condition was, so that he could have Isaac, the promised one. But that’s not right. Years before, after waiting and waiting and still no child, Sarah suggested going the surrogate mother route through her servant Hagar (see Genesis 16). Can’t say for sure, but looks like Hagar conceived pretty quickly. You know what that means, don’t you? The problem wasn’t with Abraham. It was Sarah who couldn’t conceive, at least not until God intervened.

If I am right, then Abraham’s faith challenge was not his own inability, but his wife’s. Did he understand that? He must have. They knew how conception worked. The Bible tells us many times something to the effect of so-and-so lay with her, and she conceived. Abraham knew he could produce kids. And he knew Sarah couldn’t. And yet he stuck with her until the end. He was open to the surrogacy solution, and appeared to believe that that was part of God’s plan until told differently. He thought it was funny when it became clear that his wife would finally conceive. Isaac, meaning laughter, would be identified with this act of heavenly humor forever. It was funny, but he went for it, lying with his long-time committed spouse at least one more time.

While many of the challenges to our fulfilling God’s will are due to our own weaknesses, struggles, and so on, we often find ourselves, like Abraham, frustrated by issues arising from others. Being confronted by actual enemies is one thing, but being constrained by those closest to us is another. How many people have started off on some Great Adventure and have been thwarted in pursuing what are clearly God-given goals, hitting a rock wall because of a loved one? Household obligations may dictate holding off on all sorts of noble, inspired objectives.

Abraham’s willingness to alleviate his situation only stemmed as far as surrogacy within the confines of his understanding of the cultural norms of the day. But that didn’t resolve the matter. Note that he never took a second wife. Maybe God kept him from that temptation by taking him to a hostile, alien land. We don’t know. What we do know is that God wasn’t put off by the length of time or Sarah’s infertility and that Abraham was willing to cooperate with the details of God’s plan as they were revealed to him.

There may be times when we unnecessarily accept obstacles to God’s plans for our lives. We may assume a false sense of responsibility towards family, friends, or business. We may have misguided financial expectations. But at other times, we need to resist skirting God-given limitations, trusting he knows what he is doing and will bring to pass whatever he wants in his time and in his way.

Sometime later, God would say to Isaac, concerning his dad: “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Bereshit/Genesis 26:5). The exemplary nature of Abraham’s faith is not confined to a few highlighted moments, but includes a lifestyle, imperfect though it was, loyal to God. This is no less found in his faithfulness to Sarah in spite of her insufficiency. He knew that the God who called him to be a great nation had also determined that marriage be permanent. He accepted the challenge and became the father of all who truly believe.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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