Facing Self

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

Man covering face with extended open hand in foreground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


The Impossible

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

Violent ocean surf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


What’s in a New Year?

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

Happy New Year as a world map in multiple languages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version