Imagine That

For the week of September 30, 2023 / 15 Tishri 5784

Message info over a photo of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing the UN General Assembly, September 2023

Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 22:26 – 23:24; B’midbar/Numbers 29:12-16
Haftarah: Zechariah 14:1-21

On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. (Zechariah 14:4)

My wife and I watched Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech to the UN General Assembly. A couple of things stood out to me. There are so many remarkable things about the Land of Israel. One is its strategic location. As Netanyahu said: “You see, the Land of Israel is situated on the crossroads between Africa, Asia, and Europe. And for centuries, my country was repeatedly invaded by empires passing through it in their campaigns of plunder and conquest elsewhere.” Geographically, Israel is a land bridge. Whoever held that relatively small section of land was able to exercise inordinate control of the vast region. However, the Prime Minister was offering Israel’s strategic location, not, as in days of old, for empire, but as a blessing to many. He continued, “But today, as we tear down walls of enmity, Israel can become a bridge of peace and prosperity between these continents.” Such a prospect is certainly in keeping with the very essence of Israel’s Abrahamic call to be a blessing to the nations (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3). I will come back to this shortly.

The other issue that caught my attention was what he had to say about AI (Artificial Intelligence). He began with a warning:

The perils are great and they are before us: the disruption of democracy, the manipulation of minds, the decimation of jobs, the proliferation of crime and the hacking of all the systems that facilitate modern life. Yet even more disturbing is the potential eruption of AI-driven wars that could achieve an unimaginable scale. Behind this perhaps looms an even greater threat, once the stuff of science fiction: that self-taught machines could eventually control humans instead of the other way around.

He then called for the nations of the world to come together to ensure we don’t end up with what he called “an AI dystopia.” I thought that was the end of that subject. Given his great concern, surely the responsible thing would be for the nations of the world to put the brakes on AI, but no. Netanyahu returns to his earlier optimistic tone. Here’s a taste:

We have so much to gain. Imagine the blessings of finally cracking the genetic code, extending human life by decades, and dramatically reducing the ravages of old age. Imagine healthcare tailored to each individual’s genetic composition and predictive medicine that prevents diseases long before they occur.

As he continues with his list of the wonderful potential benefits of AI, he says something of a depth of irony that I am guessing he didn’t catch. With a hint of a smile, he said, “I know this sounds like a John Lennon song,” clearly referring to the song “Imagine.” I am aware that when people think of “Imagine,” they think of it as an anthem of world peace. Here’s the chorus:

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Not too far from a biblical view of the future, right? But what about the verses? Here are some sample lines:

Imagine there’s no heaven…
Imagine all the people living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries…And no religion too
Imagine no possessions

This is exactly the world that many people are hoping for, believing that herein lies the path to true peace. I won’t take the time to expound upon each one but notice that the first line of the song is “Imagine there’s no heaven.” This is in keeping with another Lennon song from that period, though not as well known, entitled “God,” in which he sang:

God is a concept by which we measure our pain

This song lists all sort of things Lennon didn’t believe in, including magic, the Bible, Hitler, and Jesus. It concludes with nothing but himself and his wife:

I just believe in me
Yoko and me
And that’s reality

I am not for a moment, implying that the Israeli Prime Minister’s reference to “Imagine” means he believed in Lennon’s twisted utopia. In fact, I agree with him that the nations of the world need to take the negative potential of AI seriously and do their best to ensure it’s used for good. Similarly, I pray that his peace initiatives succeed and result in great benefit to as many people as possible. Yet, whatever he may think of the lyrics to “Imagine,” his optimism is naïve at best and seriously misguided at worst.

Netanyahu’s speech (commenting on what he said, as I don’t actually know what he thinks) falls into the age-old humanistic trap, that somehow, if we only get our act together, the world would be paradise. Not only will that not happen, the more we think we can do this on our own, the greater the probability of impending doom.

God’s answer to war, poverty, disease, and death is clearly outlined in this week’s special Haftarah portion for Sukkot (Festival of Booths): the return of the Messiah to Jerusalem. Imagine that!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Justice Is Alive

For the week of September 23, 2023 / 8 Tishri 5784

Message info over a golden burst background

Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English: 14:1-9); Micah 7:18-20, Joel 2:15-17
Originally posted the week of September 26, 2015 / 13 Tishri 5776

For I will proclaim the name of the LORD; ascribe greatness to our God! The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:3-4)

When I first read this passage in this translation, I found it jarring, because I was used to hearing, “all his ways are just.” If you look at a list of various other English translations (, you will see an assortment of words used, such as fair, right, righteous, just, judgement and the one used here, justice. The Hebrew word is “mishpat,” which indeed means justice, which is a noun, but in English it doesn’t sound right. The phrase more naturally lends itself to using an adjective, the way I am used to hearing it. But to make the text read, “God’s ways are just,” gives the impression that his ways simply possess a just quality to them. While that is true, what mishpat expresses here is much more than that. Regardless of the sound English prefers, God ways are in and of themselves justice.

Let me try to explain. If I said “smoking is harmful,” harmful being an adjective, then I am saying that smoking has a destructive quality. How it causes harm depends on how people relate to it (smoking or breathing second-hand smoke, for example). But if I say instead “smoking is harm” (which sounds strange, of course), I am claiming that smoking’s harmful quality is essential to its essence, and that its existence in and of itself brings about harm regardless of how people use it or relate to it. Whether or not smoking is truly that I will leave to anti-smoking advocates to decide.

So when Moses says God’s way are mishpat, it is not only because his ways have a just quality to them, but that his ways are in and of themselves justice. It is not as if they are shown to be just only when they are followed as when we follow good advice. Rather God’s ways establish justice by their very existence alone.

How this works becomes clearer when we understand that God is personally invested in his word. By his power his ways are actively at work in the world, confronting evil and leading people in the path of righteousness. No wonder the writer of the New Covenant book of Hebrews states, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

One might argue that the word of God cannot function on its own, but rather requires someone somewhere to communicate it. While this is normally the case, from personal conversation to preaching to writing to broadcasting, we need to realize that the power of justice in God’s ways as communicated through these methods is far more dependent on God than we may think. It is God who uses people to communicate his word, and it is God who makes his communicated word effective.

Let me illustrate with a true story. I had been thinking and praying about this concept, when a young family friend posted online an experience she had. I share it with her permission:

Late this evening I was busing home, and I was very tired. So tired in fact, that I fell asleep. However, I was woken with a start when someone tapped on my shoulder to ask me about abortion. She had noticed the pro-life shirt I was wearing. She said “I’m pro-choice. Always have been and always will be. And you can’t change my mind.” I replied, “Guess what? I am also pro-choice, but not when it comes to taking the life of an innocent human being.” She then went on to say that she didn’t think that they were human until the point of birth. So we talked about when human life begins, and she finally agreed that they were human from conception. But she still said, “What if the mother can’t afford to keep the child? Wouldn’t it be better for her to just have an abortion in that case?” I replied “What if the mother of a toddler lost her job and could no longer afford to raise the child, would it then be ok for her to kill the toddler?” The woman right away shook her head and said, “No.” Then a light dawned on her and she said, “I never thought of it that way before. You’re right, killing a pre-born child is no different than killing a born child. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain all of this to me.”

Our friend was sleeping when the ways of God provoked the other person to wake her up, resulting in repentance. The other party was in collusion with death and destruction. God’s word, which appeared to be just lying there doing nothing was actually living and active as it pierced the heart of that up-till-then confused soul.

Mishpat, justice, is a living force, given to the world as a gift of God through the revelation of Scripture. And as it is living and active, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Perhaps it’s time to embrace it.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


World of Promises

For the week of September16, 2023 / 1 Tishri 5784

Message info over a photo of Planet Earth from Space

Rosh Hashanah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 21:1-34; B’midbar/Numbers 29:1-6
Haftarah: 1 Shmuel/Samuel 1:1 – 2:10

The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. (Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-2)

This week’s Torah reading is special for Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, which is derived from the biblical Feast of the Blowing of the Shofar (see Vayikra/Leviticus 23:23-25). The Torah reading begins with the wonderous birth of Isaac in fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah.

Has it ever occurred to you that we live in a world of promises? Most of the time we are not aware how promises are pillars of human interaction. Promises make up so much of our lives. As I am writing this, it’s with an understanding that the computer I am using is going to work promised, be it the hardware or the software. And that’s just the beginning. Since my plan is to share this with the world via the extremely complex system known as the Internet, there are innumerable pieces of technology and human involvement committed to perform as promised. I am depending on those promises. I depend on the promises my fellow drivers make when they get their drivers’ licenses to not purposely harm me. I expect that businesses will be true to their word when I purchase their products. If I buy a carton of milk, I expect the promised milk to be in the carton. So many promises do we take for granted!

Most employment and work contracts contain all sorts of promises made by all parties involved. I promise to do a particular type and quality of work for a certain number of hours. You promise to pay me a certain amount of money to be given to me at set time intervals.

We depend on the promises given to us via travel and event schedules. You couldn’t plan a trip, be it locally or internationally, if buses, trains, and planes would only be available when travel companies might feel like it.

I am guessing that while you have been reading or listening to this, you have thought about the great number of broken promises you have endured in your life: companies that didn’t deliver the goods, undependable employees, the show you were looking forward to cancelling last minute, buses that don’t show up, and so on. The reason why this is so irksome is because we are promise oriented beings. We expect promises and we expect them to be kept.

We live in a promise-oriented world because it was created by a promise-oriented God. Promise is embedded in the very system of life. Even more than our dependance on the promises we make to each other, we depend on the systems of life, subconsciously most of the time. We don’t worry that gravity or buoyancy will not come through for us. That’s because the God of promise designed, implemented, and oversees these systems. Even people who believe that the universe is the result of random impersonal chance, relate to life as if it is designed in the dependable way I just described.

They do so until they want otherwise. More and more people are attempting to deny the innate dependability of God’s creation. It doesn’t matter to them that men and women are created a certain way, for example. It doesn’t seem to matter to that treating ourselves or others contrary to design will inevitably end in disaster. Desire, not design, is paramount.

It’s no wonder that along with rejecting the way the promise-oriented God made the world, more and more have human promises become less and less reliable. We still promise but do so in order to manipulate others not commit ourselves to promised outcomes. Politicians have been doing that for a long time. Perhaps we have all become political now, treating our word like it’s nothing.

This is not new, of course. When Messiah came into the world, he said: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:37). Being true to our word should be normal. We are to be promise-oriented people because we have been made in the image of a promise-oriented God.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version