Sunday, November 25, 2012

TorahBytes: Bittersweet (Va-Yishlah)

And Ya'akov (Jacob) was left alone. Then some man wrestled with him until daybreak. When he saw that he did not defeat Ya'akov, he struck Ya'akov's hip socket, so that his hip was dislocated while wrestling with him. The man said, "Let me go, because it's daybreak." But Ya'akov replied, "I won't let you go unless you bless me." The man asked, "What is your name?" and he answered, "Ya'akov." Then the man said, "From now on, you will no longer be called Ya'akov, but Isra'el; because you have shown your strength to both God and men and have prevailed." Ya'akov asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he answered, "Why are you asking about my name?" and blessed him there. (Bereshit / Genesis 32:25-30 [English 32:24-29] CJB)

I was thinking the other day about traditional Jewish music and its trademark minor key. There is something about the Jewish minor key that is special. Minor key music is generally thought of as sad, and much of Jewish minor key music is indeed sad. But there is more to it than that. These haunting melodies tend to have threads of hope woven in. However dim the light at the end of the tunnel might be, the darkness is never completely dark. No matter how grave the situation, there is always hope. The best way to describe this unique combination is bittersweet. In fact, bittersweet doesn't only describe Jewish music, but the whole Jewish experience.

The bittersweet Jewish experience isn't only evident in the dark times; it is perhaps more so in the good times. For it seems that Jewish achievement and victory tends to come at a high price.

Jacob, in this week's Torah portion, came to understand the meaning of bittersweet. Destined for great blessing and to be the one through whom the nation promised to Abraham would be named, he came into his greatness through a most intimate encounter with God - a wrestling match. But God blessed him through this most unusual encounter - unusual and painful. God changed his name to Israel, and left him with a limp.

While Jacob's specific experience was unique, this is the history of the Jewish people. His grandfather Abraham was promised great blessing, but he first had to leave home and family. Joseph was destined to save his family from starvation, but had to endure years in a dungeon first. The nation Israel was powerfully rescued from slavery, but others had to die in the process, not to mention all the trials they had to endure. David was called to be king, but spent many years living in caves running due to his predecessor's jealousy. The state of Israel is a modern miracle, but emerged through one of history's greatest tragedies, the Holocaust.

So it should be of no surprise that the victory won by Israel's Messiah would be the most bittersweet of them all. Salvation was accomplished through a torturous and shameful death on a Roman cross. Yet through this most bitter of experiences, life abundant and forever is now available to all who put their trust in him.

And for those who put their trust in him, sometimes I think that we expect that Yeshua took away all the bitter and left us with only the sweet. But that doesn't jive with the real-life experiences of his followers. Having been made God's children through the bittersweet victory of the Messiah, our lives now closely resemble the bittersweet lives of the faithful who have gone before. Because of Yeshua we are forgiven our sins and know God. We have been enlisted to represent him in the world, furthering his mission of salvation to all nations. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that we are therefore immune to life's difficulties. Far from it! Yeshua told us to expect trouble. Listen to how these well-known words sound in a Jewish-oriented version of the New Covenant (New Testament) Writings. Yeshua said,

I have said these things to you so that, united with me, you may have shalom (peace). In the world, you have tsuris (trouble). But be brave! I have conquered the world! (John 16:33; CJB [words in parenthesis added for clarity])

Can't you hear the Jewish music in the background?


Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this is this rendition of "Hatikvah" (The Hope), the national anthem of Israel, by legendary Israeli violist Ivry Gitlis and chamber orchestra from a concert in Baden-Baden, Germany, May 2008 (2 min., 51 sec.):

Sunday, November 18, 2012

TorahBytes: Repentance Makes the Difference (Va-Yeze)

Ashur will not save us, we will not ride on horses, and we will no longer call what we made with our hands our gods. For it is only in you that the fatherless can find mercy. (Hosea 14:4; CJB [English: 14:3])

This verse is found near the end of the book of the prophet Hosea and is part of a section that refers to a time of great spiritual renewal for the people of Israel. These words express deep repentance. Repentance is the act of turning from living life our own way to living life God's way. Israel had been commanded by God to trust and obey him according to his directives given through Moses and affirmed by the prophets. This verse covers a wide range of ungodly attitudes and behaviors from which they will finally turn.

First, "Ashur will not save us". The Hebrew name "Ashur" refers to the then powerful Assyrian Empire. Hosea prophesies that the day would come when Israel would no longer look to foreign powers for protection and help. Small nations like Israel then (or now) have a difficult time fending for themselves without the good will of powerful, influential nations. But Israel was not alone. God promised to be with them. It was God who delivered them from bondage in Egypt. It was God who cared for them in the wilderness. It was God who enabled them to conquer the Promised Land. Yet they looked to political alliances instead of this same God to rescue them from trouble.

Second, "we will not ride on horses". This is not saying the Israelites would one day refuse for any reason to ride horses. It's not saying they would refuse to ride horses in battle. What it is saying is similar to the first statement. It's saying that Israel would no longer put their faith in the equipment of war to rescue them. We tend to think of our current era as the technological age, which is true to an extent. But humans from the beginning designed and developed innovative solutions for all sorts of reasons. This includes taming horses for work and for battle. The use of animals and objects as tools is not wrong in itself, but relying on our ingenuity instead of God demonstrates a gross misunderstanding as to the place of God in our lives. If God doesn't bless our technology and guide us in its use, we will find ourselves working against his plans and purposes.

Third, "we will no longer call what we made with our hands our gods." Certainly this is primarily a reference to the creation of idols to worship, but it represents much more than that. The prohibition against idolatry was designed not only to preserve a right understanding of the identity and nature of the true God, it also directed the people away from placing inordinate affection on things of our own making. Only God is God, something we have too easily forgotten.

And finally, "For it is only in you that the fatherless can find mercy." This is stating in the positive what the other three statements express negatively. The fatherless in ancient Israel were without means of natural protection and provision, making them along with widows the most vulnerable members of society. Declaring that the most vulnerable find mercy in God is a confident expression that God is capable, willing, and trustworthy to provide needed help to the society in general.

The essence of Israel's repentance is an acknowledgement that political and military power, human ingenuity, and man-made religion are insufficient to provide the kind of help they so desperately need as a people. All they ever needed is only found in God, the reality of which is available right now to not only Israel, but to all people through Israel's Messiah, Yeshua of Nazareth.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

TorahBytes: Is God in Control? (Toledot)

There are two nations in your womb. From birth they will be two rival peoples. One of these peoples will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger. (Bereshit / Genesis 25:23; CJB)

Do you believe that God is in control of life? If so, how in control is he? Some people believe that he is so completely in control that every single thing that happens - every human action, every drop of rain is a result of God's direct initiative and involvement. Other people, while claiming God is intimately involved in life, resist this extreme view. They assert that this level of control makes human beings nothing more than puppets in God's hands. But if God isn't completely in control, how can we be assured that he is in control at all? Either he is or he isn't, isn't he?

It seems to me that if God is really God, he must be fully in control. If he is in control, then his control must be absolute or else there is no basis for having confidence in him. Is not this week's Torah portion a case in point? Isaac's wife, Rebekah, receives a prophesy regarding her yet-to-be-born twins. God tells her that contrary to custom, the younger of the two would be the greater. This is exactly what happens. Jacob, the second born, instead of his older brother, Esau, becomes the heir of the promises given first to his grandfather, Abraham, and then to his father, Isaac.

But how do prophecies like this work? When God predicts the future is he simply communicating what he sees will happen or is he saying that this is the future he will intentionally bring about? Some prophecies sound like the former; others sound more like the latter. Overall, however, throughout the Scriptures, God's predictions don't sound as if he is passively looking through a window to the future, but rather they sound like a ruler determined to fulfill his plans.

Does this therefore mean God was a manipulating force controlling Jacob's scheming in the buying of his brother's birthright and in the deceiving of his father to steal his brother's blessing? Logically, if God is in absolute control, then this must include Jacob's antics. The problem with this conclusion is that it doesn't seem to reflect how the Bible tells these and other stories.

Certainly the Bible regards humans as free moral agents, who are to be held responsible for their actions. The misdeeds recorded in Scripture are provided as lessons for us to learn from. If God treated us as puppets, then there would be no reason to learn in this way.

Yet at the same time, the freedom with which human beings conduct themselves will never be able to undermine God's plans. What God has determined to accomplish he will do with or without our cooperation. So what we encounter in Scripture is a complex interplay between God's control and the freedom which he has bestowed on his creation, humans included. Only a God who is absolutely in control can allow for the level of freedom we have (whatever that is), without threatening his sovereignty.

So contrary to how some may think that God's control restricts our behavior, it is actually wonderfully freeing. Even in the kind of dysfunctional world we live in today, we can be confident that God is working out his plans and purposes. And for those who love God and align themselves with those purposes, we can successfully live life in spite of our failings and weaknesses, knowing that he will cause everything to work out for our good (see Romans 8:28).

Sunday, November 04, 2012

TorahBytes: The Key to Answered Prayer (Hayyei Sarah)

He said, "Adonai, God of my master Avraham, please let me succeed today; and show your grace to my master Avraham." (Bereshit / Genesis 24:12; CJB)

I wonder how many people would start praying if it was guaranteed God would grant their requests. And if you already pray, would you adjust your prayer methods if you possessed the secret to answered prayer? This week's Torah portion may just contain the hidden key to unlock heaven's infinite resources.

Abraham sent his servant to the land of his relatives to acquire, if possible, a wife for his son Isaac. Upon arriving outside the city wall of Nahor in Mesopotamia, he prayed. He prayed a prayer of occurrence. A prayer of occurrence, according to my own definition, is a prayer where we expect an occurrence of something to indicate the will of God. In the book of Shoftim (English: Judges) for example, Gideon twice seeks to confirm God's will based on the particular conditions of a fleece and the morning dew (see Shoftim / Judges 6:36-40). It's interesting that Gideon already knew what God wanted him to do. He only went through this procedure because he was scared. Yet God cooperated with Gideon's requests. In the case of Abraham's servant, he asked God that if the woman to whom he asks a particular question answers in a particular way, then let her be Isaac's future wife.

And she shows up! He set the prepared question before God, and as if reading a script Rebekah answers exactly as requested. Moreover, we read that she appeared on the scene "Before he had finished speaking" (Genesis / Bereshit 24:15; CJB). Not only did God answer his prayer, he hadn't even finished praying before the answer began to materialize before his eyes. Who would not want to learn how to pray like that!

Many years later Isaiah prophesied that the day would come when God's people would experience answers to prayer in this same fashion. He writes, "Before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear." (Isaiah 65:24; CJB). Perhaps we are in that day, the day when God is so anxious to answer our prayers that he grants our requests before we can hardly get the words out of our mouths. But what do we need to do to get God to respond to us in this way? Abraham's servant holds the key. His prayer demonstrates an essential spiritual principle that if we follow it, there is no limit to what God will do for us.

Heaven's resources were at the disposal of Abraham's servant because he was living out God's plan. He didn't travel all that way to satisfy the whim of his master. Abraham's desire for his son was rooted in God's will. We too can expect God to answer our prayers when we pray his will.

We have to stop praying like we are making lists for Santa; long list of trinkets to satisfy our selfish desires. On the other hand, we need to start praying in the way Yeshua calls us to; for God's will to be done (see Matthew 6:10). That kind of prayer will include desires, but not selfish ones. For those who truly love God often desire the will of God. If we, like Abraham's servant, are living lives committed to fulfilling God's will, then our hearts will long for all sorts of things that have not yet come to pass, but that God himself desires. For some reason we don't understand, God has designed life in such a way that praying for the things he wants is an essential aspect of his accomplishing his work in the world. This is the prayer he longs to answer.