Roots of Relational Difficulties

For the week of January 4, 2020 / 7 Tevet 5780

Father and son turned away from one another

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28
Originally posted the week of January 3, 2009 / 7 Tevet 5769

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Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father. (Bereshit/Genesis 44:33-34)

The story of Joseph is one of the longer and more involved narratives in the Bible. It is a wonderful story of God’s providential hand at work in the midst of human jealousy and hatred. Every time I read it, one of the things I wonder about is what was Joseph really up to in how he dealt with his brothers during their two excursions to Egypt to buy food?

I don’t think that he was just giving them a hard time in order to get back at them for what they had done to him. If that was his motive, he could have done so much more to hurt them and would not have been so generous to them. Yet he did seem to be up to something or else he would have revealed himself to them on their first visit instead of putting them through all he did. It is reasonable to assume that he could have been struggling with his own feelings, but it looks as if he was waiting for something particular to happen before he revealed himself to them. That something may be the very thing that did happen.

Some background: Joseph and his eleven brothers were the offspring of Jacob and four women: Jacob’s wives Rachel and Leah and their respective servants Bilah and Zilpah. Joseph and Benjamin were Rachel’s two sons and had a special place in Jacob’s heart. We don’t need to get into why that was right now. Suffice it to say that Joseph and Benjamin were uniquely precious to Jacob – something of which the whole family was well aware.

Joseph’s brothers hated him because of their father’s preferential treatment of him. Joseph’s dreams which predicted his special position over his family further infuriated them. They hated Joseph so much that they sold him into slavery and deceived their father, telling him Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Their father was devastated by this news, which shouldn’t have been a surprise given his well-known feelings toward Joseph. But note that the brothers couldn’t care less about their father’s feelings. So much had their hatred blinded them.

We pick up the story many years later as Joseph is overseeing Egypt’s supplying food for the surrounding region during a severe and extended famine. His brothers are on their second excursion to Egypt in the hope of buying food. Joseph pretends to treat them with great suspicion, which results in Benjamin being taken to be Joseph’s servant. When their brother Judah offers himself in Benjamin’s place, Joseph breaks down and reveals himself to his brothers. But what was it about Judah’s offer that touched Joseph’s heart? It could have been Judah’s willingness to selflessly give himself for Benjamin’s sake, but his words indicate something else. What Judah said just before Joseph broke down was, “For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father.” (Bereshit / Genesis 44:34; ESV). In other words, Judah couldn’t bear what the news of Benjamin’s plight would do to his father. Could it be that what Joseph was looking for from his brothers was a change of heart – not so much toward himself – but toward their father? Could it be that the wrongs done to Joseph were actually a result of the more serious wrong of their lack of honor toward and care of their father?

Whatever issues the brothers had with Joseph, if they had loved their father the way they should, they would have controlled their feelings toward Joseph. Don’t get hung up on the fact that God used their evil actions toward Joseph for good. That God makes good come out of evil is no excuse for human misbehavior.

I don’t know if the brothers ever consciously understood that the abuse of Joseph was rooted in their disregard for their father. In the same way I wonder how much of our relational difficulties actually have to do with issues relating to our own fathers, but we don’t know it. God may want to use those difficulties to get us to deal with our relationships with our fathers. And in some cases getting our hearts right with our earthly fathers will also make a huge difference in our relationship to God.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Something Worth Fighting For

For the week of December 28, 2019 / 30 Kislev 5780

Photo background: Lake Tekapo and the Mount John's Observatory in New-Zealand

Mi-Kez / 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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My favorite movie clip for Hanukkah is from Lord of the Rings. Frodo, the unlikely hero of this popular epic is becoming more and more overwhelmed by the evil power of the ring he is seeking to destroy. At this point he is about to be captured or killed by one of the Dark Lord’s emissaries, thus bringing his quest to a most disastrous end. At the last moment Frodo’s loyal companion, Sam, rescues him. But Frodo, having temporarily lost his senses, is ready to stab his friend. Here is the ensuing dialogue (I highly suggest listening to the audio version, which includes the clip from the film):

Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.

Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo; the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was, when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding on to, Sam?

Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

“There is some good in the world…and it’s worth fighting for.” What a noble statement. But as I was getting ready to repost this for Hanukkah, I realized that there is an assumption behind Sam’s words. In order for there to be a good worth fighting for, there needs to be such a thing as good.

Good, as Sam understands it, is not about our side versus their side. Sam’s statement isn’t one of staying true to their team or their cause. The undergirding worldview of this humble character (in the mind of the author, of course) is there is such a thing as objective good and objective evil.

What is obvious in Lord of the Rings is quite fuzzy in our day. Many doubt that such objectivity exists while others who may suspect it does resist making any conclusive determinations about it. Good has become a matter of personal preference.

This version of good is actually an expression of the lure of the misguided influence that Tolkien exposes in his popular trilogy. Self, self-seeking, tribal loyalty for its own sake, blind commitment to ideology, groupthink, are all forms of the Shadow, the evil influence overtaking the world of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings and overtaking our world today.

Thankfully, there is objective good, because the good and only God created the universe. Good isn’t good simply because God says so, but rather because he designed it that way.

The Maccabees were not fighting for a personal cause. They, as many were doing in their day, could have easily gone along with the crowd, keeping with the times in which they lived, one of progress and tolerance. But the Maccabees knew what was at stake—God’s plan for Israel—that would eventually culminate with the restoration of the entire creation—was in jeopardy and they were not going to just let it happen. Instead they knew that, in spite of the increasing shadow overtaking Israel, they would resist; they would fight. With God’s help, they won the miraculous victory we commemorate this week.

What was true for the Maccabees is no less true for us today: there is good in the world and it’s worth fighting for!



For the week of December 21, 2019 / 23 Kislev 5780

Finger about to press a play button

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

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Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. (Bereshit/Genesis 37:5)

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 of whom 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 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 coming to know the Lord, I happened to be in a Bible study where she was mentioned in a prayer request, which is how I found out 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. We will be celebrating forty years married this May!

Some people of faith use stories like these to talk about God’s guiding hand in our lives. So many of the circumstances of these 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 an 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 in the 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 decided to phone to see if I could hang out with him before he left for the airport. I could have easily dismissed the thought of calling, not wanting to intrude. But I didn’t. I called. I went over, not knowing I would soon interact with the boyfriend from California who would share with me the message that would change my life forever.

The day I met Robin I had overheard two girls hovering around the phone (which was on the wall in those days) and learned that they were trying to coax her to come to the event that night. Too tired, she said, “No.” I can’t remember how I found out 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.

I don’t bring up my contribution to these events to take credit. Obviously, each are way too complex for that, but what would have happened if I wouldn’t have called 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 have been in two or more minds with regard to Joseph. Was he a purely innocent victim to his brothers’ murderous jealousy fueled by his father’s nearsighted favoritism? Was he a spoiled younger brother taking advantage of his father’s favor? Was he overly naïve, clueless of how his brothers would react to his dreams? His story doesn’t include the kind of commentary required to draw firm conclusions. All we know is that he was open about his dreams. Unlike my stories, Joseph’s involvement led to some very painful experiences. But in the end the fledgling nation of Israel and that whole region of the world were rescued through his superior administrative prowess in the Egyptian government. This all came 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



For the week of December 14, 2019 / 16 Kislev 5780

Two wrestlers about to engage (in silhouette)

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12
Originally posted the week of November 28, 2015 / 16 Kislev 5776 (revised)

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Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:26-28)

Upon Jacob’s return to the land of his birth, he heard that his twin brother Esau, along with four hundred men, were on their way to meet him. Jacob was pretty freaked out, for it was fear of his brother’s murderous threats that caused him to run away twenty years earlier. So true to his self-focused manipulative self, he devised a scheme in an attempt to placate Esau while also maximizing his personal security. While spending the night alone after placing his large family, entourage, and a river between himself and his dreaded brother, a mysterious individual who we eventually learn is God, begins to wrestle with him. How fitting for a person like Jacob who has been wrestling his whole life. From what we know about God from the rest of Scripture, this story makes no sense. Talk about unfair advantage! The God of the Bible is no humanly derived concept, whose characteristics are based on human traits, good or bad. He is the Creator God, the Master of the Universe, who knows no equal. And yet they wrestle all night. Eventually God, would you believe, requests that Jacob let him go, which he won’t do until God blesses him – O Jacob, you always need to get your way, don’t you? But God grants his demand, even while injuring his hip that leaves him with a limp. The result is a new humility in Jacob and a true personal relationship with the God of his fathers (see Bereshit/Genesis 32:20).

Perhaps the most astounding aspect of all this is what God said to Jacob in response to his demand of blessing: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:28). Do you hear what God is saying? The blessing, summarized in his new name Israel, was due to his having striven and prevailed with people and God. Prevailed. Not just against people, but God. Not endured, which would be impressive, but prevailed. Not survived, which would be pretty good. But prevailed – as in he, a human being overcame God. God got through to Jacob, not by overcoming him, which he could have easily done by breaking him spiritually and physically – not in spite of his tenacity, but because of it.

One of my favorite spiritual illustrations in literature is the transformation of Eustace in C.S. Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” one of the books in the Narnia series. Eustace is a brat, who ends up in the fantasy world of Narnia with two of his cousins. His arrogant and selfish behavior result eventually into his becoming a dragon, a dreadful state, which works to create in him a newfound humility. When he encounters the Messiah character, the lion Aslan, he is told to scrape off his dragon skin, only to discover that every layer he removes reveals another set of scales underneath. Eventually Aslan says that he himself would have to deal with Eustace’s condition. He tells him to lie down as he digs his claw deep into his dragon’s skin, thus restoring Eustace to newborn-like innocence. Such a beautiful portrayal of personal transformation at the hand of God, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. “Let go, and let God” as some may say.

What a beautiful picture and perhaps one that many may relate to, but not Jacob. Not that he transformed himself, but he was anything but passive in the process. Far from letting go, he held on for dear life. It wasn’t that God was finally able to bless him once he let God have his way. On the contrary, God blessed him because he insisted on his way. Jacob was no passive wimp who simply let people and God run over him. Never a victim under the control of others or a doormat for people to walk on, he had a deep sense of the important things in life, both earthly and heavenly, and went after them with everything he had. What made the difference for Jacob was that, while misguided and insecure, he was aiming for the right things. Somehow he knew his mysterious visitor had something he most desperately needed and held on until it was his own.

I wonder how many blessings we have missed out on because we have given up too soon. We confuse humility with passivity, and tenacity with arrogance. We may fear making mistakes along the way as if God is looking for perfection instead of faith. What Eustace learned is still true: unless God transforms us we will remain dragon-like. But perhaps the key to personal transformation requires a lot more tenacity on our part than we might think.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version



Get the Point?

For the week of December 7, 2019 / 9 Kislev 5780

Large 3D question mark standing on a hardwood floor, leaning against a wall

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

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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.” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:16)

I love how genuine biblical characters are. The so-called “heroes” of Scripture are presented to us with all their normal human imperfections and idiosyncrasies well intact. This is in keeping with the Bible as a reflection of reality. Through it we encounter God’s only authorized written insight into the universe as it really is.

One of my favorite Bible characters is Jacob. Like most people, he is not easy to understand. Son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, father of the twelve tribes of Israel, he was destined by God to be a key link in the chain of God’s plans and purposes. One of the things that I love about him is that faith in the God of his father and grandfather didn’t come easy to him. While he certainly accepted God’s existence, he didn’t want anything to do with him personally.

What he did want was first place in his relatively small family. Perhaps it was all for the double portion of inheritance that would customarily be the right of the firstborn, which he was not, having been the younger twin. He may not have understood the full ramifications of this given God’s promise of blessings given years earlier to Abraham.

Whatever he understood, his competition with his older brother, Esau, eventually got him into big trouble. At his mother’s urging, he took off for her hometown of Haran in Mesopotamia to avoid his brother’s murderous threats. As he began his journey, while still within the region of the Promised Land, he had a dream in which God confirmed that he would indeed be the bearer of the covenant. God also assured him that he would be with him and bring him back to the land. Jacob’s response implied that he had not yet committed his life to God (see Bereshit/Genesis 28:20-21)

His personal ambivalence towards the Creator in no way undermines the experience he had that day. Note that while he had no difficulty accepting God’s existence, he held off deciding whether to submit to him as master of his life.

Still, upon waking up, Jacob exclaimed: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” He goes on to say: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:17). He seems to have believed he had come upon some sort of portal, a special access point between heaven and earth. From my reading of the whole Bible, I don’t have any reason to conclude that such portals existed. What Jacob experienced was real in so far as God truly spoke to him, but whether what he saw was actually there is improbable. This is different from the story of Elisha the prophet and his servant where in answer to Elisha’s prayer the servant was able to see the present, though invisible, heavenly army that was supporting them (2 Melachim/ 2 Kings 6:8-19).

Jacob was more taken by the phenomenon than apprehending God’s intent through this experience. He made a fuss about the location but missed the point. God was pledging his presence and faithfulness to Jacob that he had first communicated to his father and grandfather. And yet Jacob put off entrusting himself to God until and only if God came through for him.

I wonder how often God does things in our lives, but we don’t get the message. We tell stories about unusual situations and strange coincidences which may convince us of God’s existence, but we don’t necessarily accept what it is that he is seeking to do through them. The way he shows up at times is often designed to teach us that he is with us even when we aren’t so aware of his presence. How much does he need to do before we get the point?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version