Monday, October 28, 2013

TorahBytes: Living in the Moment (Toledot)

Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, "Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!" (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, "Sell me your birthright now." Esau said, "I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?" Jacob said, "Swear to me now." So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Bereshit / Genesis 25:29-34; ESV)

The main contrast between twin brothers Jacob and Esau was their outlook on life. Jacob was a planner. His focus was on life's bigger picture. Esau lived in the moment with little care for the implications of his actions. I just read the story of Esau selling his birthright for a portion of stew. The account ends with the comment that he despised his birthright. It is difficult to tell whether he normally regarded his birthright as worthless or if in the moment the value he put on food was deemed to be so much greater than that of his birthright. That is to say perhaps on a better day he would not so easily part with it. My guess is that he devalued his birthright in the moment, due to the situation he was in.

This is what I think due to the reason Esau gave for agreeing to Jacob's offer. He said, "I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?" He had determined that the birthright was worthless if he died in that moment. So what choice did he have? He could keep the birthright, however valuable it was to him, but it wouldn't benefit him if he died. He probably would have agreed to anything in order to preserve his life in that moment. Makes sense to me. It makes sense, except for one thing. He wasn't going to die.

I don't know if Esau really believed he was at the point of death. Sounds like he did; it sounds to me as if he panicked. That's something I understand. I have that tendency. Call it overreacting or whatever, but I am talking about the times when in the moment everything appears to be going wrong and unless drastic measures are taken immediately, disaster is guaranteed. I don't know how many times my overreactions have been proven to be unreasonable. Yet in the moment, I believe that things are exactly the way I perceive them to be and that I am not overreacting at all.

Having had significant experience in this area, I am well-equipped to say that panic is never reasonable. In fact it is almost always destructive. At the same time, how do we prevent panic if we don't think we are panicking? The solution is found in the contrast between these brothers. Unlike Jacob, Esau lived in the moment. He didn't stop to properly assess his situation based on factors beyond what he was feeling at the moment.

I know that there are people who need to learn to live in the moment more. They are so out of touch with how they feel and what is going on around them that they tend to deny reality. But reality is not properly perceived by being consumed with the moment as Esau was. We, of course, actually only live in life's moments, but effectively living in the moment requires a much bigger view of life. Being aware that God is in control, that he is trustworthy, that actions have consequences, and that our feelings can fool us, will prevent us from overreacting in the moment.

Monday, October 21, 2013

TorahBytes: The Folly of Self-Promotion (Hayyei Sarah)

Now Adonijah the son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, "I will be king." And he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him. (1 Melachim / 1 Kings 1:5; ESV)

Some time ago, I read a comment by a Canadian columnist, Barbara Kay, in which she bemoans self-promotion as a generational thing ( Today self-promotion is the norm: look at me; look what I have done; like me; hire me; marry me! Years ago in job interviews, when prompted, "Tell me about yourself," the response would include such things as where we were born, the makeup of our family, what we studied in school, and perhaps move on to our interests, but not necessarily our accomplishments. Now it's "I was voted the most likely to succeed, so it's no surprise that that my lemonade stand produced the highest return on investment in our neighborhood, since the 1950s."

When I stepped out to pursue Bible teaching more actively almost two years ago, I was uncomfortable with promoting myself. I still am. But it's expected today. I was asked the other day, how my social networking is. Today's online world is like "working the room" at a cocktail party. We won't get noticed if we don't promote ourselves. "Network, network, network," they say. More books than one can count have been written to show us how to leverage relationships for success. But I think there is a fundamental fallacy with such tactics about how life works.

In this week's Haftarah (weekly reading from the Prophets), David is nearing the end of his life. One of David's sons took advantage of this and promoted himself as king and did what he could to make this happen. It didn't work. David under God's guidance had already determined that another one of his sons, Solomon, would succeed him. Through a set of circumstance that you can read about, the situation was rectified and Solomon was enthroned as planned.

The fallacy that drives self-promotion is that we control our own lives. We don't. I am not saying that our actions don't affect our lives; it's that no matter what we do, we cannot guarantee outcomes. The name of God as revealed to Moses at the burning bush on Mt. Sinai is derived from the verb "to be" (see Shemot / Exodus 3:13-17) and stands for "I am who I am" or "I will be who I will be." Only God is self-determinant, meaning he is the only entity in the universe that can unequivocally and absolutely state a plan and fully carry it through. Humans possess no such capability as Adonijah learned.

Every would-be king has learned the same thing eventually. The world doesn't have as many kings and queens as it once did, but still lots of people continue to promote themselves in order to rule over their own kingdoms large or small, be they personal, corporate, religious, or political.

We were not created to promote ourselves. We were made to cooperate with our Creator in serving his purposes. Torah teaches that we were made to rule over the earth (see Bereshit / Genesis 1:28), but under God alone. Our places and positions in life are to be apportioned by him. This is not to say that we should be completely passive in our pursuits. Far from it! We should pursue our God-given callings. But we must do so humbly, trusting him to promote us, accepting that we can't become anything unless he so blesses.

Monday, October 14, 2013

TorahBytes: When God Sees (Va-Year)

So Abraham called the name of that place, "The Lord will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided." (Bereshit / Genesis 22:14; ESV)

The Akedah (The Binding of Isaac) is one of the most disturbing stories in all of Scripture. That God would direct Abraham to sacrifice his son and that Abraham would be willing to do such a thing should bother reasonable people. Knowing the whole story helps, since God stopped him at the last minute. But still, what kind of lesson can be learned from this? To answer that question, we should look at what Abraham learned.

We are told what he learned through the name he gave the place where this awful event occurred. He didn't call it "The Place of Sacrifice" or "The Place of Turmoil" or the "Salvation of My Son" or "I'm Glad That's Over With!" He called it "Adonai Yir-eh" (English: The Lord will provide). But what does that mean? Is it that God provided a substitute sacrifice for Isaac? The story might look like that, but not really. For when the angel stopped Abraham at the last minute, he didn't mention anything about the ram caught in the bushes nearby, but only delivered God's words of affirmation. So one would expect the memorial name of the place to be about that, but it isn't. Or maybe it is.

It is possible that the problem lies with how most English versions translate this verse. Most newer English translations prefer "provide" even though the verb here is actually a form of "to see," because in this kind of context, it usually implies seeing something in such a way to notice it and take action. So when God saw Abraham and Isaac in the predicament they were in, he wasn't just observing the situation from afar, he was deeply aware to the point of getting involved.

I understand that for most of us, the horrible thing about this story is that it claims God told a man to sacrifice his son. But it's actually worse than that since Isaac represented everything that Abraham lived for. To lose him meant to not only lose his beloved son, but to destroy the very future guaranteed to Abraham by God. Yet his willingness to do this was not some sort of fanatical abandonment to a religious ideal, but rather a most profound trust in the God of promise. God did not let him down. As Abraham allowed himself to be drawn into the most impossible of situations, God saw and God provided.

It is through Abraham that the Torah begins to reveal how human beings may be restored to the Creator God. It is through Abraham we begin to learn that even in the midst of death, God is present to bring life. The day would come when another son would be offered up, this time there would be no angel to stop the executioner's hand. But the result would be similar. God again would see; God again would provide. The Messiah would not stay dead, but through him death itself would be destroyed. And through him the gift of life and resurrection would be made available to all who would trust in him.

If this is news to you and you want more information, please contact me.

Monday, October 07, 2013

TorahBytes: Confronting the Curse (Lekh Lekha)

Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Bereshit / Genesis 12:1-3; ESV)

The first several chapters of the Torah set the stage for the entire Bible. Here we learn that God, the sole originator of the whole universe created everything "very good" (Bereshit / Genesis 1:31). Humans were purposely made by God to take care of Planet Earth (see Bereshit / Genesis 1:26-27), but due to Adam and Eve's disobedience, the creation was cursed (see Bereshit / Genesis 3:17-19); compare Romans 8:20). The curse didn't revoke our original mandate, but greatly frustrated it through the introduction of death, pain, and relational strife. Thankfully this condition was not to be permanent, since one day evil would be destroyed (see Bereshit / Genesis 3:15).

The way God brought this about begins to unfold in this week's Torah portion with the call of Abram, whose name would be later changed to Abraham. This elderly childless man was called by God to leave his ancestral home to journey to a foreign land where he would become a great nation that would bring blessing to the whole world. A couple of weeks ago (, we saw how blessing is the impartation of life originating from God in the same way as creation itself. Blessing enables living things to reproduce. It brings life, resulting in more life. Without it there is no life. With it there is. Blessing confronts the curse by bringing life where there was only death.

Abraham illustrates this perfectly. He and his wife, Sarah could not have children. Yet the Word of God comes to Abraham promising blessing. Not only will they themselves have children, but they would also become a great nation - a nation that would bring blessing to the rest of the world. Choosing this couple demonstrates how God's blessing confronts death, since they could not reproduce. Their bodies, being dead as it were, would eventually overflow with life, life resulting in more life.

The New Covenant Writings call the promise of blessing to the nations "the good news" (see Galatians 3:8). While the good news or gospel is often defined as the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah, it is more than that! It has to do with what Yeshua's death and resurrection accomplishes: the confrontation of the curse. The Abrahamic blessing is poured out upon the nations through what Yeshua has done on our behalf. But that's just the beginning! Yeshua gave his followers a mandate, not entirely different from the original one given to all people at creation. Just as Adam and Eve were commissioned by God to take care of this planet, so Yeshua's followers are to go throughout the world teaching the ways of God in light of his coming (see Matthew 28:18-20). As people are taught God's truth in this way, they encounter the blessing promised to Abraham: the curse is confronted, death is replaced by life, and they themselves become instruments of this same blessing to others.