Sunday, December 24, 2006

TorahBytes: Facing Reality (Va-Yiggash)

Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph! Is my father still living?" But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence. (Bereshit / Genesis 45:3).

Last week we looked at how Joseph's brothers didn't recognize him when they went to Egypt in hope of buying food during a severe famine. Not realizing who he really was had nothing to do with the fact that he was the one that held their wellbeing in his hands. I drew a parallel between their experience and how we, as Jewish people, when we look at Yeshua today, do not see him for who he is - the Jewish Messiah. While it may be tragic that, like Joseph, he looks like a foreigner, he is still our only true hope. In order to truly know God and experience his blessings in and through our lives, we must come to Yeshua even though he seems to be anything but Jewish.

In this week's portion Joseph, after more than one interaction with his brothers, finally reveals himself to them. At first, they are terrified. It would take some time - if ever - before they would become fully comfortable in his presence. But in order for them to receive his help, which would include provision of food as well as a place to live and prosper for the next few hundred years, they had to come to grips with a reality that they most likely would have wished had been very different from what they were facing.

Years earlier Joseph had told his brothers and father about his dreams, which suggested that he would rise to some sort of place of superiority over them. His brothers had already been jealous of him due to his special place in their father's heart. His dreams at the time only made matters worse. Their hatred boiled to the point that some of them wanted to kill him, but in the end he was sold into slavery. The brothers deceived their father by claiming Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. Joseph in the meantime was taken to Egypt where he at first served as a slave until he was falsely accused of taking advantage of his master's wife. He spent the following several years in prison before the king of Egypt learned that he could interpret dreams. After he interpreted the king's own dreams about a coming famine and made a suggestion of how to prepare for it, the king not only released him from prison, but gave him a high ranking position with the responsibility of managing the nation’s provisions. It was during this famine that his brothers came to him in need of food not knowing who he really was.

I am sure that his brothers would not have written the story of their lives this way. Think how they must have felt standing before their brother whom they had mistreated, but now was in such a position of power over them. It was hard enough for them to hear his dreams many years before, but to actually be in that very situation must have been extremely humiliating.

Regardless of how humiliated and terrified they may have been, in order to get the help they needed, they had to accept their situation. They had to accept their brother's current place and position, humble themselves before him, and do things his way.

No matter how difficult this may have been for them, it was still God's way of taking care of them in their great need. No matter how uncomfortable they were at this point, they were encountering their solution, not further problems. What was now left for them to do was to accept what God was seeking to do in their lives.

And so the parallel for Jewish people continues. Even though we have centuries of negative feelings towards Yeshua and that the way he appears to us today is so foreign to us, he is our solution for our deepest needs. He is the only one who can satisfy our spiritual hunger. It is only through him that we can find lasting peace and security.

I wish the story of Yeshua and the Jewish people over the past two thousand years would be different from what it has been. But at the same time, we cannot change history. How the circumstances of life got to the present day is something we have no control over. To hear Yeshua say to us today that he is really one of us - our true Messiah - may be hard to take, but that doesn't change who he is. The sooner we can accept this, the better it will be for us.

I find that accepting things how they really are can be difficult for all of us. It isn't easy to face reality. We can be offended by how the world is and how our lives have turned out. We might have a hard time getting on with life, because it hasn't turned out the way we have expected. But instead of being offended by our failed expectations, we would do much better to face life and God as they really are.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

TorahBytes: Appearances Can Be Deceiving (Mi-Kez & Hanukkah 8)

Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. (Bereshit / Genesis 42:8).
As a Jewish believer in Yeshua, this time of year is one of mixed emotions. The way the calendar has turned this year, we are in the midst of Hanukkah, which will end just a couple of days before Christmas. To me the most meaningful Hanukkah theme is that of no compromise. This is when we remember how the Maccabees stood against the pressure to conform to the ungodly ways of their Greco-Syrian oppressors. Even though many of their fellow Jewish countrymen were being swept away by Greek culture, they were the ones who led Israel back to faithfulness to the one true God.

For Jewish people, the Christmas season can seem reminiscent of the days of the Maccabees. All around us are the trappings of a foreign culture - more concerned with crass materialism than with the ways of God.

For the Jewish Believer Christmas time can be confusing. While the true meaning of Christmas has deep Jewish roots in that it is really about the coming of the Messiah, the way his birth is commemorated seems to be anything but Jewish. It is difficult for Jewish Believers to engage in Christmas while claiming to be true to our Jewish heritage. This is due to the abundance of non-Jewish cultural trappings that have become associated with this holiday.

Christmas is one of many examples of how faith in Yeshua as Messiah has been associated with not being Jewish. For many Jewish people resisting Yeshua and the various customs that have emerged among his followers is similar to the Maccabees' refusal to submit to the Greco-Syrian oppressors of their day.

That Yeshua has become so associated with things not Jewish is tragic. It is tragic for two reasons. First, the un-Jewishness of Yeshua has distracted many from understanding that he is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. When we fail to understand the Old Testament roots of the New Testament, we miss out on so much of what God has for us. Second, Yeshua's overly Gentile association gives the impression that he is irrelevant to Jewish people. It is for these two reasons that many of us have worked very hard at trying to restore Yeshua's fundamental Jewishness.

Still, for many Jewish people Yeshua is far more like a Gentile god than a Jewish Messiah. The current situation is similar to the experience of Joseph's brothers that we read about in this week's Torah portion. When they arrived in Egypt hoping to buy food during the famine, they would not have expected to see him, since they sold him into slavery so many years earlier. As he stood before them looking and sounding like an Egyptian, there was no way that they would have realized that he was their own flesh and blood.

That they didn't recognize him was understandable, but that didn't change the fact that he was the one that held their salvation in his hands. The day would come when he would reveal himself to them as their brother, but at first they had to relate to him as if he really was a foreigner.

This is similar to our current situation with Yeshua. We look forward to the day when the confusion regarding Yeshua's true Jewish identity will be removed - and what a day that will be! But until then, even though he doesn't look very Jewish, he is still our salvation. To be offended by the abundance of his non-Jewish cultural associations will only prevent us from benefiting from God's blessings through him - blessings that we and our people so desperately need.

No matter how much we try to present a very Jewish Yeshua to our people, for the time being he will continue to appear somewhat Gentile. Let that not stop us from introducing our people to him. For whatever he might look like, he still is the Jewish Messiah.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

TorahBytes: Enough Is Enough! (Va-Yeshev & Hanukkah 1)

How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God? (Bereshit / Genesis 39:9)
One of the central themes of Hanukkah (this year from December 16 -23, 2006) is the resisting of society's pressure to turn from God's ways. Hanukkah retells the story of the Jewish revolt against Greco-Syrian control that occurred around 165 years before the coming of Yeshua. The emperor sought to consolidate his rule by forcing his subjects, including his Jewish ones, to adopt Greek customs. Many in Israel submitted themselves to these pagan practices, until a priest by the name of Matitiyahu refused. A small Jewish army led by Matitiyahu's son Judah eventually defeated the large and heavily armed Greco-Syrian force.

People who have sought to please God have often faced pressure to conform to the dominant culture. Hanukkah is an example of when those who desire to stay true to God and his ways need to say "Enough is enough!" and take a stand against the culture. We are in those times again.

It is interesting that the beginning of Hanukkah this year coincides with the Torah portion containing the story of Joseph. Joseph also stood against the pressure of ungodly influence. In his case it was not a cultural thing, but rather a personal situation, where he was tempted to commit adultery with his master's wife. He knew she created a no-win situation for him. To do what she wanted may have provided temporary relief from his circumstances, but would have most likely cost him his life. But to resist her advances, besides being a difficult thing to do, would eventually cause him great trouble, which is in fact what happened. As it turned out she falsely accused him of the very thing she was tempting him to do. What made the difference for Joseph was that to give in to her would have displeased God - something that he was in no way willing to do.

Joseph's predicament illustrates for us what it means to stand against the pressure of a culture that constantly nags us into submission. But I believe we need to be like Joseph and say "Could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?"

I fear that for many it is too late. Just like in the days of Hanukkah, many who claim to be part of the people of God have already given in to the prevailing culture. Having cast off the peculiarities of being people of faith, we have chosen to go after the customs of our day.

Here are a few examples of how we have been taken over by today's ungodly culture:

A growing number of so-called believers are ashamed of the exclusive nature of biblical faith. According to the Bible there is only one God and there is only one way to that God, the Messiah Yeshua. Yet there are those who have invented notions, claiming that there may be exceptions to this rule.

Less and less people regard the Bible's view of family, and children in particular, as God's model for living. Instead we go along with how the culture regards family, thinking that after two thousand years human beings have improved upon the teaching of the Scriptures.

North American affluence has become our preferred standard of living. How very different from the One who had no place to lay his head, who calls us to give up everything to follow him.

What does our obsession with entertainment say about our understanding of the stewardship of our time and money? We prefer to drown ourselves in diversions instead of spending our time in truly productive endeavors. Then, at the same time, we refuse to partake of rest and refreshment God's way.

We have exchanged God's version of love and sexuality for that of the world's. We disregard the sacredness of the marriage covenant, while pursuing relationships with selfish motives.

Perhaps one of the main driving forces behind these and other examples is today's value of being accepted by others. What kept Joseph was his primary commitment to God and his ways. When the temptation came to conduct himself inappropriately, his loyalty to God was the strong foundation from which he could not be moved. What a contrast to our own day where we tend to so easily go along with whatever is perceived as popular, so that we would not be viewed as weird.

Until we can stand up and like Matitiyahu say, "Enough is enough!" we will continue to be swept away by the pull of culture's powerful tide.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

TorahBytes: Facing the Impossible (Va-yishlah)

In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. (Bereshit / Genesis 32:7)

This week's Torah portion contains Jacob's prayer of distress. Taking a close look at this prayer will help us to better express our needs to God. The passage begins with a description of Jacob's emotional state:

In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. He thought, "If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape." (7,8).

Jacob was very scared. Here is a man who has always been able to take care of himself, but now he was in great distress. It is too bad that, for some, it takes being in an apparently impossible situation before we call out to God. Still, some lessons are worth learning no matter how we learn them.

The first thing Jacob does is attempt to do whatever he can to minimize his losses in case his worst fears are realized, and his brother attacks him and his entourage. Doing what we can to help ourselves is not a bad thing necessarily. But note, Jacob's plan does nothing to alleviate his fears.

So he prays.

Then Jacob prayed, "O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, (9)
That he prays at all is an important first step. For many to express a need like this is a big deal, since it is so difficult to admit weakness. While praying should be the easiest thing in the world to do, doing so for the first time for some of us may be one of the hardest things we may ever do.

Jacob prayed. He didn't wish. He didn't think. He prayed. Praying is not something done with the mind and heart only. It includes the mouth. Jacob was talking to God.

When he prays he doesn't address God as "my God," but rather as the God of his father and grandfather. This shows us where he was at in his relationship to God. No hypocrisy here. He knew he was not in right relationship with God, but that didn't stop him from asking God for help. You don't need to wait to get right with God before praying.

Jacob then recounts that it was God who led him into this situation:
who said to me, 'Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper (9)
By mentioning God's prior communication, he is both acknowledging the reality of God in his life and expressing that God is the initiator of his circumstances. This is not blame as much as it is putting things in proper perspective. God is involved in our lives whether we acknowledge it or not. It would do us well to acknowledge his presence sooner than later.

Then Jacob expresses humility:
I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. (10)
While this may appear to be simply a form of address to a kingly figure, he means it. He realizes that the blessings that he received had actually come from God and that he doesn't deserve them. He realizes that even though he strove so hard to be successful, it was actually God who provided for him.

Then he comes to his request, admitting his fear and asking God to save him. Being honest with God is key to effectively communicating with him.
Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. (11)
His prayer ends with a most important statement:
But you have said, 'I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.' " (12)
God had promised Jacob that he would bring him back safely to the land of his birth, yet by doing what God wanted, he found himself in a most dangerous situation. The situation appeared to contradict what God had promised him years before. But instead of neglecting what God had promised, it spurs him on to confront God with God's own words.

Yeshua taught his followers to pray, "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). Knowing that God's will is not always done on earth, we need to confront the way things are, so that they will be what they should be. This begins with prayer. This is what Jacob did, whether he realized the process or not.

We should not be surprised by the impossible situations we find ourselves in. For it is God who leads us into these things, so that we would seek him in order that his will would be accomplished. These impossible things might be in our hearts or in our circumstances or both, which seems to be the case with Jacob. But whatever is going on, don't be surprised when God brings you to the end of yourself just so that you will truly seek him.