Breaking Tradition

For the week of December 30, 2023 / 18 Tevet 5784

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Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Haftarah: 1 Melachim / 1 Kings 2:1-12

When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim:, it displeased him, and he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. (Bereshit/Genesis 48:17)

As another year draws to a close, I wonder if we will learn anything from the past few years. I don’t know about you, but my heart and mind are exploding from grappling with what’s been going on in the world. The COVID years were hard on everyone. For some, those were lost years that will never be recovered. Others discovered that their family and other relationship bonds weren’t as strong as they thought. Trust in authority was either solidified or broken. COVID was an eye opener for me as it was like a penetrating beam into the depths of my fear as well as a call to learn how to dig for truth and to resolve to live accordingly.

The Hamas attack on Israel of October 7 was another game changer. The world looks different to me as the contours of Scripture are more vivid than ever. I have always been grateful for how Scripture continually challenges my assumptions and draws me ever closer to God and his ways. But now, it seems so much more is at stake.

I was recently teaching about Jacob and Esau. An element of the dynamics between these rival twins reoccurs in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). After Jacob and his clan settle in Egypt, Joseph is now functioning as the primary son. Not much is said about this, except for all the drama that led to Joseph’s prominence. Joseph brings his own two sons to be blessed by their grandfather. Contrary to custom, Jacob crosses his arms and blesses the younger ahead of the older, which displeased Joseph. That Joseph didn’t more quickly go along with the firstborn switcheroo is almost humorous, given his unusual place in the family, not to mention all that happened with his father’s relationship to his older brother, Esau.

In ancient times, the firstborn had a priveledged position that went along with extra responsibilities within the family system. That was the background of Jacob’s striving and scheming vis a vis Esau and underscores Joseph’s reaction here. By custom, Esau was to receive the double portion of his father Isaac’s inheritance. The same was due to Manasseh, Joseph’s older son. But that wasn’t to be since Jacob gave the firstborn blessing to Ephriam instead.

It was while I was teaching on Jacob and Esau that it hit me. Who says that the firstborn was to get a double portion of the inheritance? There is a later directive in D’varim/Deuteronomy 21:15-17 that may be in response to what happened to Jacob and Esau, but that has more to do with the complexities of children born within a polygamous situation than to the actual custom of the firstborn.

When God determined that Jacob would have precedence over Esau, he was breaking custom, not his own rules. Joseph’s role among his brothers was also God assigned despite Reuben being the firstborn. It might be that Reuben lost his role as firstborn due to his own misguided behavior. But as for Jacob’s putting Ephraim ahead of Manasseh, there was no God-ordained reason to do prevent that. Only custom.

And yet, we humans are so committed to custom. We do what we do because other people do it. The longer they have done it, the more authoritative the custom. And while we live in a day when a great many customs have fallen by the wayside, it’s only because a significant number of people have created new customs. We do what we do because other people do it. Not because it’s right, but because we perceive it’s simply what’s done.

In the Jewish and Christian worlds, custom, or “tradition,” is a great controlling factor. But should it be? It seems to me that those who regard Scripture as their supreme authority are far more controlled by custom than they think. How many times have we reacted to a metaphorical crossing of the arms, like what Jacob did, thinking we were defending God’s Word when it was only custom that was at stake.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to custom until it takes the place of Bible. But I wonder how often our assumptions are ill informed, not realizing that we do what we do for no other reason than we do it.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Roots of Relational Difficulties

For the week of December 23, 2023 / 11 Tevet 5784

Message info over a photo of a father and son with their backs to each otherVayigash
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 Bilhah 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 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 VersionFacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Better Late Than Never

For the week of December 16, 2023 / 4 Tevet 5784

Message info over a partial clock face

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 3:15 – 4:1

Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my offenses today.” (Bereshit/Genesis 41:9)

This message can literally change, not only your life, but the world! Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. In fact, when this very thing happens, write me and tell me about it. Here goes…!

First, let’s set the scene. Pharoah, king of Egypt, had two disturbing dreams. They were of the kind that obviously meant something, but what they meant wasn’t clear. It bothered Pharoah to the point that he sent for “all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men” (Bereshit/Genesis 41:8), but no one could tell him the meaning. That’s when his cupbearer spoke up and told him about Joseph. The cupbearer had been in the dungeon along with his baker colleague, when they each had dreams which Joseph, a fellow prisoner, had correctly interpreted. Just as Joseph predicted, the baker was executed, while the cupbearer was restored to his position. Prior to their release, Joseph asked the cupbearer to speak up on his behalf in the hopes that he too would finally get out of that horrible place. But even though Joseph’s interpretation was proven to be correct, the cupbearer neglected to say anything on Joseph’s behalf. We read:

[Pharoah] restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them. Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him (Bereshit/Genesis 40:21-23).

Did the cupbearer forget Joseph or forget him, if you know what I mean. Did the thought of Joseph’s request completely vanish from the cupbearer’s mind or is this a way of expressing neglect? Perhaps someone has done a thorough study of the psychology of forgetting. Why do we remember some things and not others, even important things? However that works, it is possible that the word “forget” here is a way to indicate neglect rather than the complete loss of awareness of something. Of course, we may also use “forget” to purposely cover up (“lie about” in other words) something we don’t want to do.

Whatever the dynamics in the cupbearer’s case, in the context of Pharoah’s distress, he owned his forgetting by confessing that he failed to follow-up on Joseph’s request. I wonder why he admitted that he failed to do it. Apparently, this is something he thought he should have done at the time. Regardless, why didn’t he simply say that he knew a guy from his prison days who could interpret dreams?

Whatever his motive, how he says what he says reflects a sense of regret for not mentioning Joseph sooner. This suggests that his forgetting may have been due to some sort of purposeful neglect after all. Perhaps, he didn’t want to talk about his imprisonment. Maybe he didn’t like thinking about it, or he was afraid that bringing up whatever led to his imprisonment may stir the wrong people and get him in trouble again. It was a lot easier to forget everything about those days and enjoy his freedom, while innocent Joseph rotted in prison.

Whatever the reason for not speaking up sooner; whatever the reason for his apologetic confession, he did speak up. Would it not have been easier, after not saying anything for two years (see Bereshit/Genesis 41:1), to stay silent and let Pharoah get over it? Maybe Pharoah was making things really unpleasant for everyone around him, and that’s why the cupbearer was so apologetic when he did speak up.

Whatever the reason, he did speak up.

I wonder how many times in our lives we find ourselves in a situation where we realize we should have said or done something in the past, but for whatever reason, we didn’t. Now the opportunity to speak up or do what we should have done earlier presents itself again. Yet, the intimidation we feel from having to admit what we should have said or done prevents us from doing what we should say or do now. I am sorry for whatever it was that prevented you from making the needed difference at the time. I am also sorry for how uncomfortable you might feel now as you are faced with not only the challenge of whatever it is, but also having to own up to your past failure. But may I plead with you to consider how much the benefit of your contribution at this time is greater than the discomfort you may feel over it? It’s possible that others may not be happy with your past failure. Can you blame them? You aren’t. But think how much better off we’d all be if you would break through your fears and do what needs to be done. Better late than never.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


God’s Target

For the week of December 9, 2023 / 26 Kislev 5784

Message info over a red and white round target

Torah: Bereshit/ Genesis 37:1 – 40:23; B’midbar/Numbers 7:18-29
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. 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 37:3-4)

Joseph had a target on his back. From a young age, his life situation set him up for trouble. We just read twice in quick succession that his father not only loved him more than his brothers, he made a big deal of it by making a special garment for him. The Hebrew word for love is “ahav,” which functions much like English in that it expresses strong affection and/or desire toward a person or thing. Jacob had and demonstrated a great preference for Joseph over and against his other sons.

Something similar was going on with God and Joseph as well. I wouldn’t say that God loved Joseph more than his brothers or anyone else. But he certainly bestowed upon him a special favor not shared by others. Joseph was gifted by God in having revelatory dreams, the ability to interpret dreams, and great administrative skill. Moreover, his thriving in the midst of great and painful circumstances at the hands of his own family and others is also credited to God’s being with him in an unusual way.

God chose Joseph unto a very particular purpose. This is not to say that the rest of us are insignificant. Each and every human being is created in God’s image and thus is designed to represent God on Planet Earth. At the same time, however, we are not all called to the same level of importance and impact. Joseph was unique in this regard. Not completely unique, of course, as the Bible includes a long list of such individuals.

Being called to a privileged position in God’s overall plan comes with great existential challenges. Through the years, as I have examined Joseph’s life, I have considered how both Jacob’s and Joseph’s attitudes and actions may have contributed to Joseph’s trouble. But had it not been for the special role God called him to, it is doubtful his life would have been so difficult.

Last week, we looked at how Jacob’s striving and prevailing with God is an illustration of the essence of truly knowing God. I may not have said it exactly that way, but the more I think about it, the more obvious it is to me. From the earliest chapters of Torah, God’s intention was to confront and eventually overcome the curse that resulted from our first parents’ rebellion against him. Since then, anyone truly aligned with God and goodness goes against the grain of the prevailing evil that has been unleashed upon the whole creation.

Those who are called by God unto the service of good will find themselves targets of all sorts of trouble. Trouble from family, trouble from friends, trouble from co-workers, trouble from enemies. And it’s not because God’s servants are troublemakers. Look at the trouble caused by Pharoah’s wife (see Bereshit/Genesis 39:1-23). It was difficult enough to be a slave in Egypt, but then to be falsely accused of attempting to rape his master’s wife, resulting in imprisonment in a dungeon? If you know the story, you know that God would use this in Joseph’s life as a long, difficult road to great prominence in Egypt and as the means to preserve his family and God’s purposes. Wonderful indeed, but at great personal cost to Joseph.

To be favored by God is to have a target on your back. Failure to understand this causes us all sorts of confusion and unnecessary grief. That’s why the Messiah said: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). Let’s not be surprised when it happens.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version