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


Being Earnest

For the week of November 24, 2018 / 15 Kislev 5779

Hand with the inscription HELP above it on gray background

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

Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. (Bereshit/Genesis 32:12; English: 32:11) 

A couple of weeks ago, I shared how praying with expectancy makes a difference (see Divine Inquiries). We shouldn’t be surprised when God doesn’t answer our half-hearted requests. In this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), we see this again but from a different angle.

It’s been about twenty years since Jacob ran away to Mesopotamia to escape the murderous threats of his twin brother, Esau. As he returns home, he hears that Esau is coming to meet him accompanied by his personal army. Understandably, Jacob is terrified. So he prays that God would deliver him. I can’t gauge his expectancy level, since it doesn’t appear that he even believes in God at this point. Praying to a God he doesn’t believe in? How can that be? Note how he begins his prayer. He addresses God by saying: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:10; English: 32:9). There is no question that he is speaking to the one true God. He also acknowledges the earlier interaction God had with him. However, he claims no personal connection to him. He refers to him as the God of his father and grandfather. It won’t be until later that he clearly attests to his own relationship to him (see Bereshit/Genesis 33:20). Yet his lack of connection to God doesn’t keep him from praying an earnest prayer.

In spite of Jacob’s lack of spiritual commitment, God answered his prayer. Esau was friendly; Jacob and company continued in safety. One might say that he had nothing to fear. Nowhere do we read that Esau was still out to get him and thus required a heavenly visitation of some sort to thwart his intentions. Even though God didn’t intercept Esau in the way Jacob was asking for, he answered his prayer nonetheless. He did so by engaging Jacob as he wrestled with him through the night. The transformed Jacob, now graced with the name Israel (“he who has striven with God”), may have made all the difference in the strife between him and his brother. Before encountering God, he was terrified, hiding behind droves of animals and his family on the other side of a river. Afterwards, he high tailed it to the front of the line and faced Esau directly, bowing to him seven times. Never before had Jacob faced a problem or an opportunity with such humility. We can’t say for sure, but this new heart attitude may have saved his life.

Regardless, God protected him as requested. Why would God answer a prayer of someone who wasn’t ready to be associated with him; when Jacob wasn’t yet willing to say, “my God”? Some may claim that it was because he was chosen from birth. But this makes a mockery out of the story and the prayer. Fatalistic interpretations of Scripture undermine the dynamics of the Bible stories. There is no explicate mention here or elsewhere that what was going to happen was simply going to happen.  No angel appears to Jacob or anyone else, saying, “Everything is destined to happen as planned. So, chill.”

It’s not that Jacob’s chosenness was irrelevant. Everything Jacob had done in life to this point was setting him up for this. God was after him, and Jacob had nowhere else to run. But why did God answer his prayer? Because it was the honest desperate plea of a man who had come to the end of himself.

His mother prayed expectantly. Jacob prayed desperately. Each of these two cried out with their whole hearts to the universe’s only true source of help. Each of these two had serious issues in their lives. But their earnest prayers made all the difference when it counted most.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


A Promise Is a Promise

For the week of November 17, 2018 / 9 Kislev 5779

Sunset over Jezreel, Israel with Bible verse: The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring." (Bereshit/Genesis 28:13)

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (English 12:12 – 14:9)

And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:13)

I prepared this message on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi-inspired riot that occurred on November 9 and 10, 1938, which has come to mark the beginning of the Holocaust. During these two days, hundreds of Jewish people were killed, synagogues and Jewish businesses destroyed, and 30,000 Jewish men sent to concentration camps.

The Holocaust was the climax of almost two thousand years of anti-Jewish sentiment. While the European Jewish experience did have some bright spots, they were overshadowed by oppressive church laws, discriminatory social structures, forced conversions, suspicion, bizarre superstitious tales, expulsion, and death. Nazi policy towards the Jewish people, though bereft of any semblance of authentic Christianity, implemented the vile anti-Semitism that permeated Christendom for almost two thousand years.

While the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Holocaust had precedence in prior centuries, its violent expression via the systematic killing of millions of men, women, and children had never been seen before. It’s no coincidence that it occurred on the precipice of one of history’s greatest wonders, the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland. The Jewish people struggled for survival ever since being exiled following the Temple’s destruction by the Romans in the year 70. For almost twenty centuries the prospect of a grand scale return to the Land of Israel was nothing more than a dream and a prayer. By the nineteenth century the dream was just about forgotten, and few believed the prayer would be answered, if they were praying it all. Then unexpected changes in the world and people’s hearts (Jewish and non-Jewish) made the possibility of the prayer being answered to be more than a dream.

But then as if awakened in the middle of the night, the reality of Hitler’s “Final Solution” threatened to destroy the dream once and for all. Not only would Zionist hopes be dashed, the end of the Jewish people themselves was at hand. But thankfully, it was not to be. In fact, it is reasonable to think that what was meant for evil was used by God for good in the establishment of the State of Israel in less than three years after the war’s end.

In spite of such great devastation, from the onset the Nazis were doomed to fail. Without in any way diminishing the pain of this tragedy that continues to linger in the hearts and minds of so many, it was only a matter of time before these latest of Israel’s enemies would suffer defeat. While honoring all those who gave themselves in the fight against this evil, many paying with their very lives, the Nazis and their allies were doomed to fail. They would fail because of the word of God.

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading) is one of several places where God declared to the Jewish people through their earliest ancestors his intention to give them what would eventually become known as “Eretz Yisrael,” the Land of Israel. Prior to 1948 many thought, as many still do today, that the Jews are unworthy of the Promised Land. Readers of the Bible should know better than to even entertain such a notion. When Jacob, whose name was later changed to Israel, received this promise, he hadn’t yet committed himself to the God of his father Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham. He was running for his life after stealing his father’s blessing away from his now vengeful twin brother. Where Jacob was at spiritually did not nullify God’s promise, however. This is what God had determined, and that was that.

Some Bible readers point to the conditional aspects of the Sinai covenant as given through Moses as the basis of Israel’s loss of their land claim. But you need to read the whole book before making conclusions. For example, Paul in the New Covenant Writings states:

The law (i.e. “Torah”), which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise (Galatians 3:17-18).

The conditions of Sinai do not nullify the earlier promise to Abraham, which were reiterated to Isaac and Jacob. And a promise is a promise, especially when it is from the mouth of God.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Divine Inquiries

For the week of November 10, 2018 / 2 Kislev 5779

Man with open arms imploring God

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

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. (Bereshit/Genesis 25:22)

Something wasn’t right. Rebekah was in physical turmoil. After being married for twenty years without conceiving, she finally got pregnant. As the Torah tells it this was an answer to her husband’s prayers. Miracle pregnancies were becoming a tradition in this family as her mother-in-law had Isaac when she was ninety. Still, most mothers-to-be would get anxious when the rumbly-tumblies in their tummies are harsher than normal, not to mention that, for Rebekah, getting pregnant was no easy feat. Whether it was the discomfort alone or that she was afraid she was miscarrying, it was sufficient to send her to inquire of the Master of the Universe.

The Hebrew word translated “inquire” is “darash,” and it paints a picture of her going to God with the expectation of getting an answer. I wonder if that’s how most people think of prayer. You judge if I am wrongly judging, but my guess is that the vast majority of prayers prayed involve zero expectation. Most prayers are prayed out of obligation: obligation to religious duty, obligation to parents, obligation to peers, even obligation to self. A smaller percentage arises from sincere desire from people who for one reason or other truly want to pray. They may really want to take the time to talk to God. But do we expect him to respond? Some prayers, of course, aren’t requests, including expressions of worship or thanks. But many prayers are. And yet, how often do we throw up our requests to heaven, more or less satisfied with our utterances, and move on with life?

Access to information today has never been easier. Instant search results are so common that it’s difficult to remember what it was like before broadband Internet and Google. Now almost anything we need to know is at our fingertips or in response to our voice. I once successfully used Google to help me find my car in a very large parking lot when I was out of town. Whether it’s how to get a stain out of a particular material or finding the facts about a strange skin rash, we search the Net with the can-do attitude of “It’s got to be here somewhere!” And yet when we “inquire of the Lord,” we don’t expect much.

Not to be glib, but Rebekah related to God a lot more like today’s Internet. She went to him expecting answers. While the Bible in no way implies that there’s a push-button dynamic to prayer, it expects us to expect answers from God. Here’s what the Messiah taught. Familiar words to many, but listen to what he is saying:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11).

Don’t get distracted by the important sub-topic of unanswered prayer. However you grapple with that, any conclusion that contradicts the Messiah’s teaching here is wrong. Which is why later on we read: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). James accepted Yeshua’s teaching on prayer. James knew the story of Rebekah. The Master of the Universe delights to answer our inquiries.

Now for the big question: How much of our lack of hearing from God is due to lack of expectancy? What are we not hearing because we are not being earnest enough? Why should he respond to half-hearted disinterest? This is not to say that we can manipulate our Father in Heaven into answering prayer. What I am saying is let’s at least start by accepting that he “gives generously to all without reproach.” Praying believing that he answers will certainly result in far more answers than praying believing that he won’t.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version