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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Saturday, January 01, 2005

When Calamity Strikes - A Sermon on Exodus 1-5

(This sermon was delivered at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue the first shabbat after the Asian tsunami catastrophe.)

It is productive to view the Bible as the amazing, complex, romantic and exciting saga of God’s relationship with Israel for her sake and for the sake of the nations and the cosmos. With this in mind, the book of B’reishit/Genesis establishes the setting and background for the heart of the drama—the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and her entering into covenant relationship with Hashem at Sinai.

In this sense, Genesis is Scene One. As the curtain comes down on that scene, Jacob, his sons, and their families are well-situated and well-fixed. They have come down to Egypt to be reunited with Joseph, who is Vice Regent of Egypt. They have the blessing of Joseph, the blessing of Pharaoh and the blessing of God.

The music underlying this scene would be soaring, inspiring and triumphant.

As Scene Two opens, the theme of blessing and well-being is reprised. Jacob and his sons are named, their entire generation referenced, and their times in Egypt characterized by the narrator, saying "the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them." Life is good.

But not for long. The music changes in the second paragraph of this "Scene Two." And in this, the story of Israel in Egypt is paradigmatic of the entire Jewish historical experience. In locale after locale, city after city, region after region, one century after another, Israel prospers and gets settled—only to be attacked, cruelly uprooted, and persecuted by powers bent on destruction.

This template of Jewish reality is spelled out for us in our text, and the kinds of calamities that befell our ancestors in Egypt have been replicated many times since.

"8 A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. 9 And he said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. 10 Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground." 11 So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites 14 the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field."

So many aspects of the Jewish experience are foreshadowed here, The paranoia of a ruler, the resentment of the Israelites as outsiders, resentment of their success, governmental edicts to restrict and subjugate the Jews—all are here, and all have been seen throughout the Jewish experience. For example, the Jewish people lived through a Golden Age in Spain, growing prosperous, numerous, influential. But then government shifted, paranoia manifested, Inquisitors stoked their fires and oiled their racks, and in 1492, approximately 180,000 Jews were shoved out of Spain onto an inhospitable ocean, heading for who knows where.

A century and a half earlier, an even greater tragedy had been visited upon the Jews of Spain and wider Europe. Christians blamed Jews for causing the epidemic of the bubonic plague, which suddenly and inexplicably killed about 25 million people in Europe. By the fall of 1348 the rumor was current that these deaths were due to an international conspiracy of Jewry to poison Christendom. It was reported that the leaders in the Jewish metropolis of Toledo had initiated the plot and that one of the chief conspirators had dispatched his poisoners to France, Switzerland, and Italy.

In response to these rumors, even in areas where the plague had not yet taken a toll, mobs took matters into their own hands. Thousands of Jews, in at least two hundred towns and hamlets, were butchered and burnt. The sheer loss of numbers, the disappearance of their wealth, and the growing hatred of the Christians brought German Jewry to a catastrophic downfall. It now began to decline and did not again play an important part in German life for three centuries.

During the Reformation, the Jews didn’t fare any better. The Cossack rebellion in Poland, also known as 'the Deluge' of 1648-58, resulted in hundreds of thousands of Jewish deaths. This totaled more killings than the Crusades and the Black Death pogroms combined. From 160,000 to 200,000 Jews were killed under the leadership of the Cossack "Patriot" Bogdan Chmielnizki. They were killed by being torn limb from limb [tied to horses running in opposite directions], and pregnant woman were cut open with live cats then sown up in their bellies to claw themselves out.

Lest you think this is ancient history, be advised that the father of one of congregants saw with his own eyes Cossacks tearing a Jew limb from limb in just this way in the village of his European childhood, and he hid in a cupboard in his kitchen and while his own mother and father were hacked to death by Cossacks proclaiming them "Christ killers."

And the words of Torah could just as easily be applied to the Jewish situation in Nazi Europe: "A new Chancellor arose over Germany. . ." with his own paranoia about the Jews, his own script of how the Jews were a fifth column in their midst, apt to side with their enemies and thus spell the ruin of the glorious Aryan civilization. The century changes, the names are different, but it is really the same story. . .over and again.

In the midst of seeming security, tranquility and peace, calamity rose up to engulf the people of God.

And matters got even worse for Israel in our Sedra as Pharaoh implemented a policy of genocide.

"15 The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 saying, "When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live."

When the midwives proved unreliable and established measures inadequate, Pharaoh tried new measures.

"22 Then Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, "Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live."

One is reminded of the "progress" of the Final Solution. Originally, Jews were gassed with carbon monoxide in the back of specially dispatched trucks. . .but this proved too unreliable and inefficient, and the Germans just couldn’t tolerate inefficiency! What was needed was a new approach. Perhaps gas chambers would work better! And so it was done.

This sedra is especially timely at this time as our hearts and minds are filled with images and thoughts, or perhaps more often, our hearts and minds are preoccupied with the effort to avoid images and thoughts of the sudden catastrophe that overtook nearly two hundred thousand people this week in Asia. Mothers, fathers, lovers, teenagers, children, babies, grandpas and grandmas, tourists and natives, rich and poor, young and old. One minute carrying on with normal life, laughing, chatting, working, sleeping, walking, riding, standing still. . .the next minute, snatched from the land of the living by a cruel, overpowering, watery hand.

Suddenly, irrevocably gone.

What often happens in times of calamity, whether natural calamity—as in the case of tsunamis—or moral calamities—as in the case of pogroms and the Holocaust, is that many people will ask "Where was God?" or, "Why did God allow this?"

More often than not, what is happening here is that we compensate for our sense of terror, of things being out of control, by looking for someone to blame—someone who was supposed to be in control and let things slip. In this way, we distance ourselves from the threat, imagining that this was some sort of Divine slip-up, and that if we complain loud enough, or take other measures to compensate for His negligence, we will be protected against such terrible things ever happening to us.

Another way some of us protect ourselves in times like these is that we look for something in the victims which makes them responsible for what happened to them. For example, one person pointed out to me how the people to whom this happened were overwhelmingly Buddhist, as if Buddhists were on God’s hit list this week! In this way, since we comfort ourselves that we are not like the victims, we can feel safe because, after all, we are not the kind of people such things happen to.

From reading Scripture, it seems there are at least three principles we need to keep in mind at such a time as this.

(1) God has created a universe in which natural laws like gravity, for example, work "on their own." Gravity is an aspect of creation which has been set in motion because of the nature of the created order. When someone falls out of a window and is killed because of the effects of the force of gravity, it is not God who did this to them. Rather, they failed to take proper precautions, and gravity functioned in its normal manner. Not everything that happens in our lives is caused by God: God has created a universe full of natural causes.

(2) When we ask God, "Why did you create the universe this way?" or, "Why didn’t you intervene?", or, "What are you going to do about it?," God chooses to not respond, as is illustrated in the masterpiece, the Book of Job.

(3) The question that confronts us as moral beings in God’s universe is this one: "What are we going to do about this?" It is not enough to look around for someone to blame. To do so is an exercise in self-protection, a way of making the horror go away by putting it on someone else’s doorstep. Instead, the mature response is for each and all of us to ask "What is my responsibility here?" When we fail to honestly deal with this question, we are being as irresponsible as God is in the minds of his accusers.

Today’s readings do give us a repertoire of responses—of things to do when calamity strikes. Let’s look at a few of these together.

The first thing to do is to not cooperate with evil, but rather to find effective ways to resist it and thwart evil’s designs. We see this in the behavior of the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, who cleverly played dumb with Pharaoh but who were anything but dumb in their thwarting of his evil plans.

"17 The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?" 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth." 20 And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly. 21 And because the midwives feared God, He established households for them."

It is interesting to note how God rewarded those who would not cooperate with evil.

"21 And because the midwives feared God, He established households for them."

The second thing to do is to carry on with life as normally as possible. We see this in how Moses’ parents decided to marry and to bear children even though the times were so chaotic, and Pharaoh had issued his murderous edicts.

"1 A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son;"

I am reminded of a friend whose wife’s mother died of Huntington’s Chorea, a debilitating and eventually fatal disease of the nervous system. Genetically, there was a fifty percent chance that the gene was transmitted from his mother in law to his wife, an a fifty percent chance that the gene would be tranmitted to their own children if she was a carrier. Nevertheless they decided to marry and had five children. They decided "You can’t live life with our eye on the rear view mirror. You must take life as it comes and live the best life you can, can, come what may. This is the attitude demonstrated by Moses’ parents as well.

The third thing to do, with faith in God, is to do what you can to preserve life and curtail disaster. We see this in the amazing provisions Moses’ mother made for his survival when she could no longer keep him hidden.

"and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. 4 And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. 5The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. 6 When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, "This must be a Hebrew child." 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?" 8 And Pharaoh's daughter answered, "Yes." So the girl went and called the child's mother. 9 And Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay your wages." So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, who made him her son. She named him Moses, explaining, 'I drew him out of the water.'"

Here too it is interesting to see how taking steps to do what one could to preserve life in the midst of calamity was deeply rewarded: Moses’ mother ended up getting paid for raising and nursing her own son!

Moses developed into a young man very much in the mold of his mother. He too sought to do what he could to preserve life in the midst of calamity. Of course the rewards for his intervention were not immediate. But God DID reward him by making him to be the deliverer of all Israel.

"11 Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. 12 He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand 13 When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, "Why do you strike your fellow?" 14 He retorted, "Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" Moses was frightened, and thought: Then the matter is known! 15 When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh. He arrived in the land of Midian, and sat down beside a well."

The fourth thing to do is to realize that real calamity does happen to the people of God—do not be surprised by this. And sometimes things get worse before they get better. We see this illustrated by what happens when Moses goes to Pharaoh with the message, "Let my people go!" Notice how things get worse!

'6 That same day Pharaoh charged the taskmasters and foremen of the people, saying, 7 "You shall no longer provide the people with straw for making bricks as heretofore; let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8 But impose upon them the same quota of bricks as they have been making heretofore; do not reduce it, for they are shirkers; that is why they cry, 'Let us go and sacrifice to our God!' 9 Let heavier work be laid upon the men; let them keep at it and not pay attention to deceitful promises. 10 So the taskmasters and foremen of the people went out and said to the people, "Thus says Pharaoh: I will not give you any straw. 11 You must go and get the straw yourselves wherever you can find it; but there shall be no decrease whatever in your work." 12 Then the people scattered throughout the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw. 13 And the taskmasters pressed them, saying, "You must complete the same work assignment each day as when you had straw." 14 And the foremen of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh's taskmasters had set over them, were beaten. "Why," they were asked, 'did you not complete the prescribed amount of bricks, either yesterday or today, as you did before?' 15 Then the foremen of the Israelites came to Pharaoh and cried: "Why do you deal thus with your servants? 16 No straw is issued to your servants, yet they demand of us: Make bricks! Thus your servants are being beaten, when the fault is with your own people." 17 He replied, "You are shirkers, shirkers! That is why you say, 'Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.' 18 Be off now to your work! No straw shall be issued to you, but you must produce your quota of bricks!" 19 Now the foremen of the Israelites found themselves in trouble because of the order, "You must not reduce your daily quantity of bricks." 20 As they left Pharaoh's presence, they came upon Moses and Aaron standing in their path, 21 and they said to them, "May the Lord look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers — putting a sword in their hands to slay us."'

The fifth thing to do is to keep the long view in mind and to remember the promises of God. God had told Abraham that his descendants would be oppressed as slaves for four hundred years in a land not theirs and that afterward they would leave with great wealth and return to the Land of Promise. With the long view in mind, one needs to realize that even if we suffer and die in calamitous times, the purposes of God for His people continue and will triumph. We should adopt the attitude: "What happens to me is not so important. What is important is the progress of God’s plans for His people. What can I do to further those plans?"

The sixth thing to do is to cry out to God. He does hear the cry of his people—although the answer may be a long time in coming.

"23 A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. 24 God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them."

Let us join together in prayer this morning, crying out to God for the victims of the tsunami calamity, asking that God might look upon their affliction and take notice of them. And let us do what we can to be of help.