Monday, October 20, 2008

TorahBytes: Beyond Personal Spirituality (No'ah)

And God said to Noah, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch." (Bereshit / Genesis 6:13,14; ESV)

There is something about the biblical understanding of life that I think many of us just don't get. In general, spirituality or religion tends to be thought of within areas such as philosophy, belief, personal enhancement, and self-realization. Benefits include motivation, self-esteem, hope, peace, happiness, and so on. Many religions include a moral component, which for many is all about the adoption of a particular lifestyle in order to successfully achieve the kind of personal spirituality I just described. While the Bible's understanding of life includes personal spirituality, it is much more than that. In fact it may be correct to say that the personal aspects of the Bible's view of life is much more of a minor thing than we realize.

When I was first introduced to biblical faith it was all about its benefits to me. I was told that if I would ask God to forgive my sins and believe in Yeshua's death and resurrection, then I would be happy for the rest of my life and live forever in heaven. This means that the result of my getting in touch with God and his cosmic purposes through the centuries, culminating in the Messiah's fulfillment of Jewish expectation was my personal emotional well-being and personal eternal security. While coming to know God that day has indeed made an extreme difference to me personally, is this really the essence of the biblical view of life? Is the whole plan and purpose of God really all about personal benefits and personal experience?

It can't be if the story of Noah is a reflection of God's truth. The story of Noah is a story of tragedy and hope. God was so grieved over the perversion of human behavior that he decided to destroy the whole world. Among all the people on earth only Noah was found to be right with God. While it was human evil that led to the destruction of all life on earth, it was through one man's right standing with God that life as we know it was preserved. God told Noah to build an ark, a large boat-like structure, to house his family and representatives of every kind of animal in order to repopulate and replenish the earth following the devastating flood.

It is difficult for us to perceive the magnitude of this project, including the years of hard physical labor and the organizational challenge of gathering and caring for all those animals. Noah and his family's involvement had its personal benefits, but that was secondary to the responsibility of the furthering of both the human race and the animal world. They worked extremely hard for very many years on what must have seemed to be the most ridiculous thing anyone had ever seen to date.

This was Noah's life. This was what it meant for him to truly know God. Would prayer have been a part of this? Probably. Did his personal relationship with God make a difference in his fulfilling his task? Absolutely. Did his understanding of God help him persevere amidst the ridicule and godless living of his neighbors? Certainly. But was his personal relationship with God what his life was all about? Of course not! The reality of God for Noah, for his family, for all the people living at that time, and for the animals affected every aspect of life.

But isn't Noah a spiritual lesson like all the other lessons of the Bible? Are not the Bible stories designed in such a way so that we could draw spiritual lessons for our personal lives? Perhaps to some extent, but if that is all we do, then we miss the fullness of these stories. What we have in the Bible are examples of real people facing real-life situations from the perspective of genuine encounters with the God of the Universe. Through the Bible we learn to relate to life in the way God designed. Whether it is heeding the warning of judgment that results from perverse living of the kind in Noah's day or the call to make a difference in the world as Noah did, we need to see that knowing God is not just about the personal benefits to you and me. It is about willingly accepting our God-given place within his overall plan and purpose for our day and in preparation for eternity.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

TorahBytes: Gender Matters (Bereshit)

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Bereshit / Genesis 1:7; ESV)

Some months ago I read the book, "Why Gender Matters - What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences" by Leonard Sax, MD, PhD. In this book Dr. Sax explores several physiological differences between males and females as the basis for teaching boys and girls differently. This is something that most parents and teachers tend to understand intuitively, even though for many years so-called experts have tried to convince us that these differences are learned.

In the name of equality we have been encouraged to think of boys and girls, men and women as simply generic humans as if our sexual differences are on the same level as differences in hair color or height. It is as if being male and female is like two identical gifts differentiated only by each one's wrapping paper. The outside is different, but the essence of the gift itself is identical in every way. To conclude that there is anything distinct about the gifts based on the wrapping would be considered absolutely silly and rightly so. But today, in spite of Dr. Sax's research, there are still many people who claim it is silly to think of males and females as having essential differences apart from our external ones. This view of human beings, according to Dr. Sax, has had detrimental effects upon the development of both boys and girls.

The Torah is clear that sex differences are intentional. When God created man (meaning the human race), "male and female he created them." The complementary nature of human beings is fundamental to our design.

Some of you reading or listening to this may be wondering why I am discussing something that seems so obvious to you. The reality is that, for whatever reason, it is not obvious to everyone. The fact that males and females are intrinsically and intentionally different simply on the basis of God making us male and female is denied outright by many.

Even among those who recognize these differences, there is great resistance to speak of any of their implications. Dr. Sax, for example, doesn't deal with the implications of our innate differences. He just provides practical guidelines to help parents and teachers deal with these differences in order to help both boys and girls succeed academically. It is illogical to me to not conclude that there most likely are certain tasks or roles more suited to each sex. The resistance to arriving at such a conclusion is at least partly due to the notion that equality of persons must be based on sameness. Restricting opportunity to someone on the basis of sex has become most distasteful and in some places illegal.

The insistence for sameness in human experience partly stems from a rejection of God's plan and purpose for our lives. Whether it is a resentment of women's exclusive ability to bear children or the special call upon men to lead in the home and the congregation, we want to be the sole determiners of every aspect of our lives. We don't want to accept that we enter life with certain unchangeable factors established by God, such as who our parents are, where we were born, or that we are born male or female. We would rather live in a land of imagination that thinks we can build our lives from scratch so to speak. But we can only pretend. We enter life with specific limitations assigned to us, including our sex. The notion that we should be able to do anything and everything we want instead of submitting to God's will for our lives is the essence of our rebellion against he who made us.

Being made in the image of God is more than just being generic people. It is being male and female. Accepting God's purposeful design in our sexual distinctives is an important first step in our becoming all that we are meant to be.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

TorahBytes: God's Involvement (Sukkot)

But on that day, the day that Gog shall come against the land of Israel, declares the Lord GOD, my wrath will be roused in my anger. (Ezekiel 38:18; ESV)

I have been thinking about God's judgment. I know it is not a very popular subject. I have the impression that many believers in God don't want to think about this. We don’t want to think about the possibility of God causing calamities that would in any way harm people. We would rather image God as a Really Nice Guy, a celestial teddy bear, who is always there to make us feel good especially when we mess up.

While the Nice Guy version of God has appeal, it is far from the biblical depiction of the God of Israel. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a complex character. The Bible teaches that in his love he has gone to great measures to restore us to himself. At the same time his patience only goes so far before he acts in judgment.

For example, in this week's Haftarah we read how God comes to the aid of his people by fighting against their enemies. There is speculation over the identity of the nations of Gog and Magog, but whoever they may be, it is God who saves the day. He does so through earthquake, sword, pestilence, torrential rains, hailstones, fire and sulfur, resulting in such destruction that it will take seven months to bury all the dead.

It is not the destructive nature of God's judgment that has been on my mind lately, but that this is one of the ways he is dramatically involved in our affairs. Judgment is not the only thing the Bible claims God does in history. God speaks to and through people. He performs signs and wonders; he heals the sick; raises the dead; he affects political outcomes. We could in fact say that the Bible is a record of God's involvement with human beings. According to the Bible, he is not a concept or a philosophy. He is not the product of man-made religion. Rather he has dramatically and effectively invaded the world in which we live.

Even though the Bible claims that God is involved in human affairs, that he is the primary cause behind certain cataclysmic events is not always obvious to the observers. It is not as if whenever God does something, he leaves his signature to ensure we know that "God was here". This is where the word of the prophet comes in. The prophet's job was to interpret the meaning of events. This is what Ezekiel is doing. He is telling the people of Israel that their coming victory over their enemies would be due to the specific involvement of God.

To some extent God is involved in all of life. There is nothing that happens that he is not aware of, that doesn't in some way serve his purposes. Exactly what his intentions may be may not be clear to us, but that he is involved is something we need to be aware of much more.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

TorahBytes: Do You Get It? (Ha'azinu)

For they are a nation void of counsel, and there is no understanding in them. If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern their latter end! (Devarim / Deuteronomy 32:28,29; ESV)

This week's Torah portion is a song that Moses sung to the people not too long before his death. It is a pretty negative song that speaks about how the people of Israel, in spite of all the good and wonderful things that God did for them, would turn away from him. It is a fitting portion to be recited on the Shabbat between the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) as this is a time of self-reflection and of returning to God.

In order to get the impact of Moses' words, we need to hear them, not just as words to a people long ago but as words to us today. If we don't accept that we are no different from the people to whom the words were spoken, our hypocrisy will act like impenetrable armor on our hearts, and we will remain oblivious to what God wants to say to us now.

Jewish people have a tendency to think that we have learned our lesson. The negative stories of our past are thought of simply as history lessons, and we think that somehow our leaders got all the kinks out of our religion, so that everything is OK now. But that certainly misses the point. God through Moses is revealing to us our nature as human beings, which is a tendency to be unfaithful to God - a tendency that remains with us today.

Understanding this should help non-Jews to understand how Moses' words apply to them as well. In spite of a different history, what the Jewish people experienced as God's people is an example of what all people are really like. With all the good things that God has poured out upon the human race, we don't respond to him as we ought.

If I am reading Moses' song correctly, we might give it the title "You just don't get it." Isn't that the gist of the verses I quoted at the beginning?
For they are a nation void of counsel, and there is no understanding in them. If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern their latter end! (Devarim / Deuteronomy 32:28,29; ESV)
God is saying through Moses, "You just don't get it." After all they have gone through until this point, including their dramatic deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the miraculous protection and provision for forty years in the wilderness, and the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they still don't get it.

What is it they don't get? It's the same thing that we still don't get today. It is that life was meant to be lived on the basis of a reality that we cannot perceive with our natural senses. We were not meant to figure out life on our own, based upon our own perceptions and analysis. We were not designed to live life based on what feels right at the moment or our own predictions of certain outcomes.

Remember the Garden of Eden? God said of a certain tree, "Don't eat". Yet the serpent said that God did not have our best interests in mind. The forbidden tree looked appealing and so our first parents took matters into their own hands. They deduced that they knew better and were willing to risk the consequences based on their own wisdom instead of upon what God had said. They didn't get it. They didn't get that God knew better.

This helps us to understand why it is through faith that we experience restoration to God. Many religious and moral activities are good, but they don't help us to "get it." In fact since we naturally don't get it, doing good things can further cloud the issue, because we might think that working harder at doing good is what will make the difference, when it is actually more of the same thing. It is we trying to make it on our own in our own way rather than relying on God and what he is saying to us. This will always result in the failure that Moses sings about. I am not saying that we shouldn't do good things. It is that our efforts are not that which will make us the people we were meant to be.

Once we accept that we don't get it, that we cannot know God on our own terms based on our own efforts, faith becomes our only option. It is when we are humble enough to no longer rely on ourselves and our own wisdom, but instead trust him and his Word that we can learn the lesson of Moses' song. It is by faith, which is trusting in God and in his offer of restoration through the Messiah, that we will "get it."