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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, December 31, 2005

The Hands of God

(This is a sermon for Shabbat Miketz, dealing with the hand of God in the life of Joseph and his brothers, and our lives too).

Every week when we elevate the Torah, we make this declaration: "This is the Torah which Hashem placed before the children of Israel according to the word of the Lord, by the hand of Moses." "The hand of Moses" means, not his palms, and fingers and knuckles, but his agency—God used Moses to bring the Torah to Israel.

Scripture also speaks of the hands of the Hashem, of His right hand, of "the finger of God" in the writing of the Ten Commandments on tables of stone. We remember when the magicians of Pharaoh cannot reduplicate one of Moses’ signs, they tell Pharaoh, "this is the finger of God (Ex 9:15)."

And in our Haftarah, we read "The heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool—V’et kal eleh yadi asata vyihyu kal eleh—My hand created all these things and thus these things came into being" [Isa 66:2].

When Scripture speaks of God’s hands, it is speaking of his agency—of the ways in which he interfaces with the cosmos. We are not speaking here of literal hands, but of God accomplishing His will and exercising His power.

When we are in the hands of God, when we are subjects to His power, what does that mean?

Subsidiary to this question is this one: does God ever bring calamity upon us to teach us something—to get our attention and to change us in some way?

The Bible certainly teaches this. If you know no other part of the Bible than the Book of Jonah, you would know that just as Hashem prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah, and just as He caused the storm which resulted in his being thrown overboard, and just as Hashem prepared a gourd to shelter him from the sun, and prepared the worm to attack the gourd, so that Jonah was left baking in the sun, so God can and does sometimes prepare adverse situations for us that we might learn and grow.

I believe today’s parasha includes the first reference in Torah to consciousness of this phenomenon. And there is so much evidence that we could spend hours discussing it. We might point out how it was the hand of God that elevated Joseph to a position of power; we might point out that it was the hand of God that gave Joseph the wisdom to institute a program of public welfare to store up food for the famine that was certain to come; we might point out how it was the hand of God that caused the famine to arise which brought Josephs brothers to come down to Egypt. In this list alone, we see both "good things" and "bad things" as being caused by the hand of God.

But let us not focus there. Let's focus on chapter 42, the first time Joseph’s brothers go down to Egypt. Notice how Joseph puts his brothers through an ordeal, requiring that one of them (Simeon) remain behind while the rest return to Canaan to return with Benjamin as proof that they are not spies. Here is what the text says:

"Then they said to one another, ‘Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has come upon us.’ Reuben spoke up to them, saying, ‘Did I not speak to you saying, "Do not sin against the boy," but you would not listen! And his blood as well—behold!—is being avenged!’" (42:21-22).

And later, when they are on the road, and find their money in their sacks, instead of back there in Egypt where it belongs, they turn to one another and say, "Mah zot asah Elohim lanu?—What is this that God has done to us?" (42:28). We can see that already, this early in the spiritual consciousness of the children of Jacob, there is a sense that when unexpected calamity strikes, it just might be the hand of God.

Now, you might argue, "But, Rabbi! It wasn’t the hand of God that put them through this, but Joseph!’ And you would be right. . . and wrong, because God uses human agency as his "hands" to accomplish his will. Remember the quotation from our Torah service: It was God who placed the Torah before the children of Israel, but he did it using Moses as his agent. And it is God who is disciplining the sons of Jacob, but doing it through agency of Joseph.

Later in the parasha, when they have already returned to Canaan, and then come back again to Egypt bringing Benjamin, again, as they are returning home, the money has been hidden in their sacks, as well as a special goblet belonging to Joseph. Their reaction to being apprehended again recognizes the intevention of God: "God has uncovered the sin of your servants: Here we are: We are ready to slaves to my lord—both we and the one in whose hand the goblet was found" [44:16].

So we see that one way the hand of God works in our lives is sometimes through bringing us into hardship of some kind as a means of causing our moral and spiritual reflection, reform and transformation.

The hand of God is also seen in the ways in which he provides, as he used Joseph to save the lives not only of the people of that area, but also of all of the family of Jacob. It was the hand of God that elevated Joseph, gave him the interpretation to the dream., and used him to feed so many. As Joseph will say to his brothers in next week’s parasha, "It was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, maser of his entire household, and ruler throughout the entire land of Egypt" (45:8). And in the parasha that follows that one, after Jacob dies and the brothers are fearful Joseph will take revenge on them, he says "Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good; in order to accomplish—it is as clear as this day—that a vast people be kept alive" (50:20).

So we see, do we not, that the hand of God works in the glove of circumstance both for our chastisement and our preservation.

These two aspects of God’s dealings come together as well in our Newer Covenant reading. We read of Yeshua our Messiah seated "at the right hand of God. . until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet" (Heb 10:12-13). This is the right hand of God extended through Messiah in mercy and salvation for the needy. But then, later in the chapter, we read of God’s hands in judgment. We are warned as follows:

"26 For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy "on the testimony of two or three witnesses." 29How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? 30For we know the one who said, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people." 31It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."

Here, the hands of God are spoken of as hands of judgment. In Jewish life, these two aspects[oe "middot] of God’s character, God’s mercy and his judgment, are often thought of as being in tension with one another. In our holy calendar, it is this middah, this attrbute, Justice, which is central on Rosh Hashanah. On Yom Kippur, it is the attribute of mercy, "midat harachamim"" or "midat chesed" which is to the fore.

So what do we do with all of this?

First, we need to develop the habit of wondering when calamity strikes if we not have some sort of unfinished business with God.

we should see whatever good fortune we encounter as part of God’s care for us.

Third, we need to accept the responsibility to be conveyors of God’s care to others. We should never say, "Let God take care of them, not me," because God uses people just like us as His hands.

Fourth, we ought to be committed enough to one another than we can, at times, be bearers of bad news—be God’s hand and voice of warning and admonition, helping each other to grow, sometimes by telling others what they would rather not hear, but need to hear nonetheless.

Finally, we need to develop some equanimity about the hand of God, not always thinking when calamity strikes us that God has somehow forsaken us or is doing us damage.

Ismar Schorsch puts it this way:

"Nor is what befalls us, even the most frightening of fates, without divine intention. The joy that flows from love detects the hand of God in everything, turning adversity into opportunity. A spark of light is embedded in every black hole that hurtles our way. This is what Moses implied when he spoke of God in the wilderness as 'bringing forth water for you from the flinty rock' (Deuteronomy 8:15). In the final analysis, faith has the capacity to extract good from evil. Despair is a function of disposition."

Monday, December 26, 2005

Future Talk: The Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm

I have been privileged to be involved with the key thought leaders in today's Messianic Judaism. Together, we have been seeing emerge a new paradigm for understanding where Messianic Judaism needs to be going if we are to meet up with our God-given destiny.

One of those thought leaders is my very good friend, Dr. Mark Kinzer, who has written a recently published book which no one reading this blog should fail to read. The book is "Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People." (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005),

In part, this book communicates a new ecclesiological paradigm with which I entirely agree, and which accords with conclusions I have reached and upon which I have reported and will continue to report on this blog.

For now, content yourself to read the following outline and brief explication of his paradigm. Then, by all means, read the book!

1. God is honored by Jewish Torah obedience. This applies no less to Messianic Jews than to the wider Jewish community.

In the Older Testament this is evident from narrative texts concerning the giving of the Law (Exodus 19-20; Deuteronomy 4:5-8). In addition, prophecies concerning Jewish renewal at the end of days state that this end-time turning to God will include a renewal of Torah obedience (e.g., Deuteronomy 30:1-10, and Ezekiel 36:24-27). The Newer Testament also extols Jewish Torah obedience for all Jews, including Jewish Yeshua believers. Luke-Acts highlights the Torah obedience and Jewish piety of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Lk 1:6); Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus (Lk 2:21-24, 27, 39-51); Simeon and Anna (Lk 2:25-26, 36-38); Jesus Himself (Lk 4:16 and many others); and the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 21:17-26). Clearly, Jewish Torah obedience for all Jews was presumed to be the God-ordained norm.

2. Such Torah-faithful Messianic Jews form the living link whereby the Church from among the nations is joined to the Commonwealth of Israel, and serve the Church by helping her reconceive of her identity and vocation as rooted in that of Israel.

The One New Man of Ephesians, chapter two, expresses a unity of two distinct communal realities living together not in uniformity, but rather in love and mutual blessing. These two distinct realities are the Yeshua believers in Israel living as Yeshua’s people in Torah-based Jewish piety, and the Church from among the nations, serving Him in their own contexts, apart from the requirements of Jewish piety. This is why Paul was insistent that Gentile Yeshua believers should not become circumcised and seek to keep the Law: not because the Law is wrong, but because it is not God’s call and will for Gentiles, who become part of the people of God through Christ alone. This is also why James expected Paul to model Jewish piety, but said he required no such thing of the Gentiles who have believed (Acts 21:24-25), and this is why the Jerusalem Council disputed long (“much debate,” Acts 15:6) before deciding that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised, and required to keep the Torah. This dispute only occurred because Jewish Yeshua believers assumed they were responsible for continuing to do so. Their debate was over whether the requirement of Torah-obedience applied to Gentiles as well (see Acts 15:1-21). Rather than superseding the Jewish people, the Church instead joins with them as part of the Commonwealth of Israel. Only in this way can the “dividing wall of hostility” – which supesessionism maintains – be removed, with Israel and the Church living in the peace Yeshua established rather than in competitive enmity.

3. Understanding her identity and vocation in this context, the Church will celebrate and support Jewish covenant faithfulness, seeing Yeshua-faith in the power of the Holy Spirit as its perfect embodiment, and will partner with Torah-faithful Messianic Jews as one ekklesia.

By being joined as one ekklesia with the Torah obedient Jewish Yeshua-believers, the Church becomes part of the Commonwealth of Israel (Ephesians 2:12-14), and therefore celebrates all of the God-given distinctives of Israel, including her Torah obedience. This position contrasts sharply with the denigration of Jewish Torah obedience so common in Christian thought and feeling. The Church joins with Israel without taking on her unique Torah responsibilities. This balance of unity and diversity is further highlighted in Ephesians 3:6, where Paul says “Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” The terms “fellow heirs, fellow members, and fellow partakers” require another communal reality with whom the Gentiles are joined, Jewish Yeshua-believers living as part of wider Israel.

4. Messianic Jewish outreach to the wider Jewish community involves revealing the Presence of Yeshua amidst Jewish life rather than importing Him as an outsider or exporting Jewish Yeshua-believers to other communities.

The Jewish Yeshua believers of the Newer Testament believed that in a mysterious manner the Messiah had been with Israel throughout its history (1 Corinthians 10:1-4; Ephesians 2:12). Because of this, they saw in all of Israel’s sacred institutions (e.g., the Temple, the holidays, the Jubilee year) signs of the Messiah’s presence, and proclaimed him to be the fulfillment of Judaism rather than its nullification. Though Jewish communal life has developed over the past two thousand years without explicit faith in Yeshua, we find him present there nevertheless, just as Joseph provided for his brothers who rejected him even before he revealed his identity to them.

5. Such outreach proclaims the Name of Jesus, not the neediness of Jews.

Sometimes mission approaches to the Jewish people include the assumption or even declaration of the emptiness and inadequacy of Jewish religious practice and faith. In contrast, the apostolic motivation for outreach to Jewish people was driven by the realization that in Yeshua, the long awaited Messiah had come. The oft-quoted passage, “There is no other name given among mortals by which we must be saved,” comes in a context where Peter and John were seeking to lift up the name of Jesus rather than put down the Jewish people: “for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:12, 20). We would do well to imitate their example and lift up the name of Yeshua without denigrating the holy things already given to the Jewish people (see Romans 3:1-4; 9:1-5).

6. The honor of God is enhanced, and His reign established, when His people honor the Messiah whom He sent.

Newer Covenant texts such as Matthew 23:39, Acts 3:19-21, and Romans 11:12, 15, imply that Israel’s acceptance of Yeshua will inaugurate the Kingdom, thus establishing and extending God’s reign.. Looking toward that day, we seek to model and advance his honor among our people, Israel.

7. This paradigm enables concerned Christians to be both deeply faithful to Christ and deeply respectful of the living Jewish tradition and the Jewish community.

Paul Himself exemplified this respect when, toward the end of his life, standing before Herod Agrippa, he characterized Jewish piety in this manner: “they earnestly serve God night and day”(Acts 26:7). Sadly, this respect has not generally characterized standard Christian approaches to the Jewish people. Isn’t it about time that it did?

Sunday, December 25, 2005

What it Means to Say "Yes" to God: Two Josephs and a Mary

This year, the Christmas season coincided with Parashat Vayeshev. This juxtaposition accords us a window into transcendence, and a challenge to aim our day to day lives to a higher level than most of us attain. Our readings for this day concerning Joseph, son of Jacob of the Older Testament, and Joseph and Mary of the Newer Testament challenge us concerning the “Yes’s” and “No’s” of our lives.

In Parashat Vayeshev, we find Joseph, our ancestor, sold into slavery in Egypt as a teen-ager, where he becomes the house slave and steward of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials. Joseph is handsome and young, and Potiphar’s wife constantly tries to seduce him. One day she grabs him by his garment, and tells him, “Come, lie with me.” Joseph refuses, saying that to do so would betray both God and her husband who has entrusted so much to him. She is humiliated at the rebuff, and, raising a hue and cry, tells her husband that Joseph had tried to rape her. As a result, Joseph is thrown into prison where he will spend about twenty years.

Here we see Joseph’s “Yes” to God clothed in his “No:” to Potiphar’s wife.

Our Newer Covenant readings concern another righteous Joseph, and his wife, Mary, who was to become the mother of Yeshua, our Messiah. In Matthew’s telling of the good news, Joseph is a righteous man, and betrothed to Mary, when he finds out she is pregnant. He finds out she is pregnant and decides he will terminate their relationship quietly to avoid her public disgrace. He is visited by an angel who tells him:

"Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." . . . 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus” (Matthew 1:20-21, 24-25).

It is interesting to contemplate what Joseph is saying “Yes” to here. People had no less a problem counting in those days than in ours, and surely some would draw the conclusion that Joseph and Mary had been having illicit relations which resulted in the birth of their somewhat early son, Yeshua. Remember, Mary is already pregnant at this time, and they are only engaged, Although engagement was a more formal and committed relationship then than now, sexual relations during the engagement period were strictly forbidden.

What, then is Joseph saying “Yes” to? He is saying "Yes" to likely life-long humiliation and slander pertaining to his relationship with Mary. Also, as a righteous man, one for whom reputations were very important, not only his, but Mary’s, this “Yes” to a besmirched reputation must have been an extreme test for him.

Finally, he is saying “Yes” to raising this holy child, this unique one, with whom he is to have a unique relationship. Joseph is saying “Yes” to being step-father to a son whose uniqueness he has only begun to contemplate.

For this Joseph, no less than for the Joseph of our Torah reading, this “Yes”” is clothed in a powerful "No." Joseph will marry Mary, apparemtly soon after this incident, “25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” For this Joseph, as for his Older Testament namesake, his “Yes” to God involves a “No” in the area of sexuality. We will return to this matter soon.

Of all in this holy trio of people, Mary is perhaps the most impressive. There is an amazing picture of her painted by the American born, but French expatriate, black painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, which all would do well to seek out on line via images.google.com. The painting is called “The Annunciation.”

In it, we see Mary, a young girl of perhaps fourteen or fifteen years, sitting on the corner of a bed, leaning against a wall, her shoulders slightly hunched, her hands folded, her face a study in weighing issues. Before her, in the lower left corner of the room is a brilliant pillar of light—the messenger from God’s throne room, the angel of the Lord. In the painting, we see in her bodily posture her world-shaking “Yes” to the Lord. Everything about her says “humble acquiescence.” Tanner has captured in his portrayal of her body her fully submitted, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).

What was it Mary was saying “Yes” to? Certainly, it was a “Yes”” to the pain of having to tell her beloved Joseph that she was pregnant. Even though it was by the Holy Spirit, of course, this pregnancy was unprecedented, and Joseph did not believe her—he had resolved to put her away quietly, and only an angelic dream kept him from doing so.

So she was saying “Yes” to the pain she was to bring to him and to herself in the telling and in the disbelieving that followed. She was saying “Yes” as well to a lifetime of humiliation and smirks from people “in the know.” It would do no good at all to protest that the child was the miraculous conception of God Himself. People were no more prepared to believe that kind of thing then than now.

She was saying “Yes” to having her virginal body used in this unprecedented way. Her “Yes” was a matter of body, soul and spirit. What a magnificent, iconic “Yes.”

What especially impresses me in these accounts is that they all deal with holy “Yes’s” to God in the area of sexuality. To us, and, I assume, for Joseph, Mary and Joseph son of Jacob, sexuality is the most personal of areas. And yet it is here that we find these iconic figures bowing to the will of God, and speaking holy “Yes’s”with body, soul and spirit.

If we would take Scripture and our tradition seriously, it will just not do for us to imagine that our sex life is somehow not quite God’s business. As much as might want to reserve our rights to do as we please in this one area, this will not do. God asks for not only our souls, not only our spirits, but our bodies as well, and this most certainly includes our sex lives. “Present your bodies as living sacrifices, which is your reasonable service of worship.”

To obey God in this area is exceedingly difficult in our day and time. Let no one pretend that this is easy, nor that offering our bodies to God is something we welcome. Let none of us look down our noses at others who struggle in this area. It is exceedingly difficult, and some of us are sorely tried. It is neither easy, nor comfortable. It is difficult, but God is only God to us and for us where and as we, as Mary, are willing to say and mean, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

“Yes’s” in the area of sexuality are big “Yes’s” which involve costly “No’s.” For us too, our “Yes’s” to God will be embodied in our “No’s” to attractive options. It has always been like this, and remains this way now.

How then are we to find the strength and the character resources to say such “Yes’s” to God?

First, we must remember who we are. Mary said, “I am the servant of the Lord.” We should be able to say the same thing, meaningfully.” “You are not your own, you were bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God in our body” (1 Cor 6:20).

Secondly, we must cultivate the habit of faithfulness in little things. If we do not do that, then it is certain that when the big challenges come, we will not be able to withstand them. In Luke 16:10, this principle is clearly stated: “"Unless you are faithful in small matters, you won't be faithful in large ones. If you cheat even a little, you won't be honest with greater responsibilities.” The best preparation for the big challenges is small ones.

Third, we need the help of God in these things. All of these people, the two Josephs and Mary, were people with intimate relationships with the Holy One.. This must also be true of us—it is the Holy Spirit who helps us in these matters. But we must never imagine that his help alone is sufficient if we have not learned to remember who we are, and have not practiced faithfulness in little things. There is nohing magical, and so much that is practical in our life with God.

Fourth, we must always remember that our “Yes’s” to God come wrapped in our No’s” to other things. Every “Yes” entails other “No’s.” We cannot say “Yes” to God and not say other “No’s>

Fifth, these “No’s” and our “Yes’s” to God will, from time to time, and from situation to situation, involve social humiliation for the sake of the Name of God. Although we should not go out seeking such humiliation—to do so would be pathological—it is sure to find us.

Last, we must remember that everything in our life is God’s business. To say anything less is to lose the God of the Bible and install an idol in his place. Even in the most personal of areas, we are obliged to honor the Holy one. Only thus, will we become holy ourselves.

It is not for nothing that Yeshua’s family is called “the Holy Family.” We cannot be holy unless and until we follow their example, and that of our ancestor Joseph. May our “Yes’s” and “No’s” demonstrate whose we are and whom we serve.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Let's Make a Deal

This is another sermon on Parashat Vayishlach, which includes Ya'akov's wrestling with the Divine Being. In this d'rash, the focus is on how Ya'akov had matured in his relationship with God, and the challenges this presents to us as B'nai Ya'akov.

We are used to thinking of ourselves as children of Abraham. But for Jews, a better name is “children of Jacob.” After all, Arabs are children of Abraham and Christians are children of Abraham as well. But only Jews are children of Jacob. That’s why the largest Orthodox synagogue west of the Mississippi, located a few blocks from Ahavat Zion is named “B’nai Ya’akov—Children of Jacob. In the latter part of the Older Testament, the name becomes rather common. So we read:
Jos 24:4
I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt.

2Ki 17:34
To this day they continue to practice their former customs. They do not worship the Lord and they do not follow the statutes or the ordinances or the law or the commandment that the Lord commanded the children of Jacob, whom he named Israel.

1Ch 16:13
O offspring of his servant Israel, children of Jacob, his chosen ones.

Ps 78:5
He established a decree in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach to their children;

Ps 105:6
O offspring of his servant Abraham, children of Jacob, his chosen ones.

Recently, I was in New York visiting my son, Chaim. He remarked to me how irksome it is to him discovering over and over again how he mirrors me in the things he says, in his gestures, etc. Despite the fact he didn’t intend to be a copy of his father, he is. Could it be that as sons and daughters of Jacob, we too bear a family resemblance? I think you can bet on it. When we look at Jacob, we see ourselves.

To me, the life of Jacob is a fascinating study in spiritual character development. As we see in today’s parasha, he eventually matures to such a degree that the Holy One changes his name, signifying a quantum leap in character development: “Lo Ya’akov ye’omer od shim’cha ki im Yisrael”—No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel—“ki sarita im Elohim v’im anashim v’toochal”—“for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome.”

We cannot do an entire study of Jacob our ancestor now. We will park ourselves in this parasha, after first paying a return visit to last week’s parasha. There we find him bargaining with God, just like he had bargained with his brother in the parasha before that. Last week, some twenty years earlier than this week’s parasha, we see a much less mature Jacob. Look what he says to God after the vision of the ladder reaching from heaven to earth, and after God has reaffirmed His promises explicitly to Jacob: “If God will be with me, will guard me on this way that I am going; will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear; and I return in peace to my father’s house, and HASHEM will be a God to me—then this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall become a house of God, and whatever You will give me, I shall repeatedly tithe to you.” It is clear that Jacob is trying to leverage the deal—to wrest a guarantee from God. He says, “O.K. If you will do these itemized things for me, then, God, have I got a deal for you! I will give ten percent back to you.”

At this point we see an insecure Jacob, one inexperienced with God, one who has not yet learned that we don’t have to leverage God, nor indeed, can we.

This week’s parasha is twenty years later. It is brilliantly insightful. It demonstrates what human experience proves—that people can change, but that change is gradual and inconsistent. Jacob is now dealing with God maturely, trusting in His character, and not even pretending to leverage Him. But, inconsistent like the rest of us, in dealing with his brother, Jacob is still trying leverage the situation. We see Jacob’s immaturity in the same nexus of events.

Notice how, at the beginning of our passage [32:4-24] Jacob constructs an elaborate assembly line of bribes to try and win his brother’s favor. After all, he is frightened, and frightened people often revert to old coping mechanisms. And here we have the perfect illustration of a person trying to leverage a situation. This is a more elaborate example of what he had attempted to do with HASHEM Himself twenty years earlier. It is the same with us: our signs of maturity will coexist with remnant of old, immature patterns of thinking and doing.

Beginning in verse 25, Jacob wrestles with the angel. Here we have some more bargaining [he tells the heavenly being—if you want me to let you go, you are going to have to bless me]. But also, we see here a new persistence.

He doesn’t know who he is dealing with at first, very much like us as we live with God. We don’t know who we are dealing with at first. But he stays engaged, wrestling, struggling, persisting, remaining engaged.

That brings us to a question: do we remain engaged with God in the struggles of our lives, in our crises—or do we have a habit of disengaging and seeking other options, other ways to maneuver, bargain, work our way out of our dilemmas. Jacob has learned. Jacob has changed. Jacob persists.

Next, in chapter 33 we see a combination of Jacob’s old coping style and good old fashioned Middle Eastern protocol. Esau tells Jacob to keep the gifts for himself, but Jacob insists, and Esau capitulates. This is much like our modern American ritual of fighting over the check—you are supposed to fight over the check, and very often one knows in advance who ought to pick up the check, and that person should generally insist on winning and be allowed to win the “Who’s going to pay for this?” struggle.

Finally, it is Esau who exemplifies God’s way of dealing with Jacob, and with us. He has a right to take revenge, a right to claim Jacob’s life as forfeit. But, unbelievably, he loves the lug and treats him with kindness and grace. But also, Jacob is prepared to give him everything.

So is it with us and our own relationship with God. He has a right to be furious with us, to take our lives as forfeit, but He doesn’t do that. In fact, “God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son,” or as Paul puts it, “God spared not His son but freely gave Him up for us all.” But just as with Jacob here with Esau, willing to give up everything to his brother, so must we see that all we have and are by rights belongs to the God who has shown mercy to us.

The final mark of whether we “get it” about how we have been recipients of God’s good grace is how we deal with others. Our New Covenant reading puts it this way: “Beloved friends, if this is how God loved us, we likewise ought to love one another.” I hate to tell you this, but in general, this is NOT how I see us treating each other. There is too much grudge-bearing and revenge-taking in our midst. And because it is so petty, we fail to see it for what it is—and indication that we have not grown much in our relationship with God—that we still don’t really “get it” like Jacob finally got it.

The ultimate tests of whether we have learned anything at all about God are as follows:

1) Do we try and manipulate Him and leverage Him so as to gain or maintain advantage or do we simply and humbly seek his mercy, yielding all we are and have to Him?
2) Do we stay engaged with Him in the crises of life, or do we instead resort to other means of coping?
3) How do we treat others? Do we treat them with mercy and give them better than they deserve, as God has done with us, or do they have to dread meeting up with us because we are vengeful and grudge-bearing?

Let us test ourselves by these criteria, and if we find we haven’t grown much, let’s get with it, O children of Jacob.

The God Who Waits for Us in the Darkness

(This is a sermon Ya'akov's wrestling with the heavenly Being, with lessons for us on how we may encounter God in the dark crises of our own lives).

Her name was Sophie. I can see her today as clearly as I saw her I was in my late teens. In my mind's eye she had this radiance about her that was simply supernatural. It wasn't that she was beautiful, not Sophie. She was decidedly physically unattractive. She was a single lady, the kind who forty years ago was called by the very unattractive term "spinster," which was hardly better than the even more cruel term, "Old Maid." But the last time I saw her there was a radiant beauty about her. Her radiance almost took my breath away. What was it about Sophie?

The last time I saw Sophie, I had just heard that she had been diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer. Something about her suffering had deepened her relationship with God. Although not always, in most cases, the people who have the deepest relationships with God are people who have suffered. What is it about suffering, about the dark places of life, that tends to deepen our relationship with God?

And some of you reading this are going through personal times of darkness. How can these times of darkness become occasions when your relationship with God deepens, providing you with new strength for living, new hope for the future, new joy for the journey? How can some of you whose lives with God are "nothing to write home about" turn a corner so that your entire life is revitalized?

Today's parasha helps provide answers to these questions. Whatever our life circumstance right now, and even if we are in a very dark place, this passage can lead us to lasting transformation.

The passage concerns Jacob wrestling with the heavenly being. Through that wrestling his very identity, was changed, and he received a new name. He came out of that encounter a transformed man--and the same can be true for al of us here, if we will but pay attention to what God says to us through this text.

The story is familiar to you by now. It is here to teach how Jacob entered into a new phase of his relationship with God, with himself, and with others. The same can be true for us today. If we will put into practice the lessons of Jacob's wrestling with the heavenly being, our relationships with ourselves, with God and with each other will never be the same.

What are some of the lessons we can learn for our own lives from the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the heavenly being?

[1] God wants to wrestle with us in intimate encounter:
[2] We can encounter God intimately—mortal flesh can touch the Eternal realm. In other words, God is truly knowable.
[3] God always takes the initiative in these break-through encounters. However, it takes two to wrestle. Without our whole-hearted and persistent response, such an encounter remains nothing more than a transient superficial experience, an accidental brush against the transcendent in the midst of darkness. Mere goose flesh instead of glory.

For almost all of us, these occasions of close encounter with God come in the midst of crisis and suffering of some kind. Not all times of suffering become encounters with God, but most encounters with God come in the context of crisis and suffering. Why is this? I think the chief reason is that it is when we are really up against it, when we feel threatened, or afraid, or devastated, when we deeply and totally are consumed by a sense of need, it is then and only then that we are ready at last to give God our undivided attention. He has promised that we would seek for him and find him when we searched for Him with all our hearts. Usually, it is only when we are in deep crisis or suffering that seek him in this way.

Most of the time, the best we do with him is either pay him lip service or treat him like a convenience or add-on to our already busy lives. We shouldn’t kid ourselves here: very few of us live and act like our relationship with God is a high priority—much less our highest priority. And for that reason, most of us have at best a superficial knowledge of God. All most of us have is information and goose bumps—but nothing more.

These crises where God finally has our attention, and where we finally decide to struggle and strive to engage with the Holy One are often old, recurring themes that come back to haunt us again and again. Such was the case with Paul, whose crisis—his thorn in the flesh—was a recurring and persistent problem that plagued and distracted him. It drove him to seek the L-rd, to plead with him three times during three different seasons of prayer. You get the feeling these weren’t the kinds of prayers you toss up into the air while you’re on the run somewhere else. No, these were times of concerted, struggling, wrestling prayer.

In fact, Paul speaks of wrestling in prayer in Colossians 4:12, where he writes of his co-worker Epaphras: “He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.” Epaphras was a man who got the message of today’s parasha, the message I am trying to give you today—the message of wrestling prayer. For him it was a habit of life. And you can be sure that this man really knew God in a deep way. And as for Paul, although he didn’t get relief from his thorn in the flesh, he did experience a break-through in his relationship with God. God told him—and Paul heard it down to the marrow of his bones—“my grace is sufficent for you for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” As a result, Paul’s life was transformed in his relationship with his thorn in the flesh—whatever it was. What had formerly been an annoying preoccupation became an occasion for praise. Look how his relationship with his affliction was transformed: “Therefore I will boast the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Messiah’s power may rest on me. That is why for Messiah’s sake I delight in weaknesses. . .in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” [2 Cor 12:8-10]. He now “boasts” and “delights” in his weaknesses that formerly caused him to cry out to God for rescue. Struggling in the darkness, like Jacob in our parasha, Paul wrestled with God in prayer, and God transformed his life. And the same could happen for each of us, that is if we truly want transformation rather than just goose bumps and data.

Paul characterizes his seasons of prayer as times he “pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” Our arenas of suffering, or dark places, our times of crisis should, as in the case of Paul and our father Jacob, drive us also to deeply and earnestly seek God—to plead with him. Do you know anything about pleading with God about your life? Most people never really do this, and they certainly do not do so as a habit of life. What is the result? The result is that at the most people have “spiritual experiences,” brushes with the numinous, but not deep encounters with the Holy One, and certainly know nothing of transformational relationship God deeply desires for all of us. And this is important: God deeply desires this for us: but we are too busy or unaware, so nothing happens. Instead of glory, the best we have is a growing heap of religious data and recollections of goose-flesh.

Let’s take a closer look at this—at the disparities in different people’s relationships with God. Every one of us on this list can find ourselves in one of the following descriptions. Which of descriptions fits you?

A. People with little or no information about God who are either not seeking more information or rejecting or suppressing the information they have,
B. People who like to accumulate spiritual information—for its own sake.
C. People who have had brushes with the supernatural, those who have had spiritual experiences which they attribute to God.
D. People who engage in various spiritual disciplines, like meditation, or even Bible reading, but who do not really engage with the Living God. The disciplines may not be wrong in themselves. Yet for these people, the disciplines fall short of the bringing them into authentic relationship with God.
E. People who have had true encounters with God but who are either too busy, too distracted, or too unaware of the possibilities to really engage with him in an ongoing transformational relationship. God wants to wrestle with them but they don’t wrestle with him.
F. People who have not only encountered God but are also engaged with him in an ongoing transformational relationship. They engage with God in holy wrestling.

Why is it that some people never reach this stage of ongoing transforming relationship? Might it be because they do not know what it is to wrestle with God? Is it possible that too many of us are satisfied with mere spiritual data? Do we just settle for spiritual experiences of one kind or another: holy goose bumps? Are such people satisfied in knowing that they were born again at such and such a time, or consider themselves to have been baptized in the Spirit at such and such a time, but in day to day life not earnestly seek after God—do not really pursue him. Is it possible too few of us know anything about really wrestling with G-d?

Is it possible we are too tired, too busy, and just not interested right now, thank you?

If this dire diagnosis is true, then, if we are lucky, some calamity will come our way, some great darkness will overshadow us, and we will suddenly feel a desperate need for God and his help. It may be illness. It may be family crisis. It may be a sudden loss of a job with no real prospect of another. It may be that we discover we have wandered far away from God in pathways of sin, and now we’re just plain scared of where we find ourselves.

Whatever it is, if we are lucky, God will let the darkness overtake us, and he will wait for us in the darkness, ready to wrestle with us. But will we wrestle with him?

What is such wrestling with God like? A few pointers.
1. Wrestling with God always involves also wrestling with ourselves and with our relationships with other people. That night Jacob was tossing and turning, wrestling concerning his own terror over Esau coming to seek him out. Jacob was struggling with himself that night, with what he had done to Esau, and with what the consequences might be for him and his family. Jacob was scared. So will it be for us: we will wrestle with God in the context of struggling with who we are and with how we have behaved toward others. These factors almost always go together. And those who continue to refuse to face the truth about themselves and their relationships with others cannot know what it means to wrestle with the Holy One.
2. Wrestling with God, like wrestling with people, frequently involves one or the other person seeming to slip away, and the other party not letting him or her do so. In such wrestling, often one or the other party will seek to slip the hold, to get away. And what always happens is that the other partner will not let the would-be escaper get away. So it is with us and God. Sometimes we try to get away from God, but he grabs hold of us and won’t let us go. And sometimes God seems to be withdrawing from us. But if we are serious about our relationship with God, we will grab him all the more tightly as if to say with our father Jacob—“I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
3. Wrestling with God is not always for ourselves alone. Sometimes, like Epaphras, we wrestle with God in prayer for others and for the progress of His Kingdom.
4. In wrestling with God, we get a hand hold on God through what we know of his character and his promises and we struggle, confessing and acknowledging sin [our own or the sins of others for whom we pray], and pleading with God on the basis of his character and promises until we have a sense that he has heard—that we have prevailed and that he will answer, or that we have said all that can rightly be said, and now we must wait.
5. It is only when we learn what it is to wrestle with God for ourselves, for our Union, for our families and friends, that we can expect spiritual growth and circumstantial breakthroughs.

In the New Covenant, the Greek word used for such struggle is “agonizomai”—which is related to the modern word “agonize.” In the Greek it is a word that suggests the kind of struggle which requires the focusing of all our faculties--the investment of our whole being. It's a term used in 1 Cor 9:25, where Rav Sha'ul describes talks about the kind of focused energy he applied in his life. Look at the comparisons he uses here:

I do it all because of the rewards promised by the Good News, so that I may share in them along with the others who come to trust. Don't you know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one wins the prize? So then, run to win! Now every athlete in training submits himself to strict discipline, and he does it to win a laurel wreath that will soon wither away. But we do it to win a crown that will last forever. Accordingly, I don't run aimlessly but straight for the finish line; I don't shadow box but try to make every puhc count. I treat my body hard and make it my slave so that, after proclaiming the Good News to others, I muself will not be disqualified" [1 Cor 9:23-26].

This "submitting oneself to strict discipline" is agonizomai in the Greek--a holy agony--a concerted, focused effort. It is the same word used in Lk 13:24: "Struggle to get in through the narrow door, because--I'm telling you!--many will be demanding to get in and won't be able to. . ." It is this struggling, this pushing, this concerted effort that Paul is calling for, that Yeshua is calling for, and that Jacob exemplified in his wrestling with God.

Let's not forget the context and the lesson. Jacob wrestled with God on the darkest night of his life--a night when he was terrified of meeting his brother, when he thought he might lose everything, a night when he struggled with his relationship with himself, with Esau and with G-d. He went into that night as Ya'akov--"the one who supplants, the guy who always has an angle." He came out of it Isra'el--"the one who struggles straightforwardly with G-d and with man and prevails." His whole manner of living, his whole manner of dealing with life was changed that night. And he walked away from that encounter with a limp that reminded him his walk with himself, with others, and most of all with God was forever transformed. He was no longer Mr. Angle. He was now a man who could face anything in life head on--and prevail. And so he rose from that conflict to go and meet what he most dreaded--his sin and his brother with whom he had unfinished business.

Are you up for a transformed life? Are you interested in making a quantum leap in your relationship with yourself, with others, and with God? Are you willing for God to help you deal with the unfinished business of your life? Are you ready to wrestle, to struggle, to agonize with God? Or will you only be willing to do so after some kind of desperate darkness to fall upon you?

Whether in the light or in the dark—God waits. The only question is this: do you care enough about your life and the difference God can make in it to do some serious wrestling?

Only those who wrestle can hope to gain the prize of a transformed life--a renewed walk with God, with a limp to remind us how much we need him. The choice is up to you.

If you believe that God has been speaking to you though this conetmpation about your need to seriously wrestle with God, I am going to ask you to do just ONE thing. I want you to decide right now on a place and a time where you are going to go to be alone in the presence of God where you can read the Scriptures and pray undisturbed. You need to decide exactly when and where that will be. It should be a definite time, proportional to the crisis you are facing.

Do not postpone this: now is the time to decide to decide or to defer to indecision.

Saturday, December 10, 2005


(This is a sermon from Parahsat Vayetze, dealing with the problem of being unaware in our relationships, in our day to day tasks, and most of all, in our spiritual lives).

We read the following in a newspaper article from early 1999.

Two Japanese soldiers unaware of WWII end found in the jungle of the Philippines - The soldiers were hiding in the jungles of the Philippines for about 60 years

A lieutenant and a lance-corporal of the Imperial Japanese Army were found in the jungle of Mindanao Island, the Philippines. The two Japanese military men have been hiding there since the end of WWII over the fear of being punished for desertion.

The found soldiers did not even know that WWII was over a long time ago. Local authorities are currently holding the two elderly deserters, aged over 80. In the near future the Japanese military men will have a meeting with spokespeople for the Japanese embassy in the Philippines, Tokyo newspapers write. Several other former servicemen of the Japanese army might be hiding in the out-of-the-way place in the south of Mindanao, Itar-Tass reports.

Agents of the Philippine counterintelligence incidentally found the former Japanese lieutenant, 87 and the former lance-corporal, 83, during an operation in the area.

The 87-year-old Yoshio Yamakawa and the 83-year-old Sudzuki Nakauti were serving in the 30th infantry division of the Imperial Army, which landed on the Philippine Island of Mindanao in 1944. The unit suffered considerable losses as a result of US-led massive bombings. The Japanese infantry unit was ordered to start a guerrilla warfare in the jungle. The remainder of the division were later evacuated to Japan, although some of its servicemen did not have enough time to appear at the assembly point and became deserters against their own will.

The found lieutenant and the lance-corporal are reportedly very scared of the court martial in case they are sent back to their fatherland. Japanese soldiers unaware of the end of WWII were previously found in other remote places on the islands in the Pacific Ocean. Junior lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was found in the jungle of the Philippine island of Lubang in 1974. Another solitary soldier of one of the infantry units was found in 1972 on the island of Guam, which currently belongs to the USA.

The question which confronts us here is this: Did these men lose anything by being unaware?

Here’s another one:

Study shows people unaware of harmful effects of painkillers

Findings signify need for patient education on complications of misusing painkillers
Bethesda, Maryland (Nov. 21, 2005) – According to a study supported by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA), over-the-counter and prescription painkillers are often used inappropriately and there is an alarming number of people who are ignorant to the potential side effects. Despite the widespread use of store-bought and prescription painkillers, also known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), this is the first study to look at the characteristics of the population who frequently uses painkillers and their attitudes and behaviors. The study is published in the November issue of the Journal of Rheumatology.

"This study shows just how common these medications are used and highlights the lack of insight into their potential dangers," said C. Mel Wilcox, MD, lead study author from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "The findings paint a clear picture of the need for patient and physician education efforts and interventions to help prevent unnecessary complications from painkillers."

Of the 807 people surveyed who used NSAIDs, 54 percent were not aware of the potential side effects of these drugs and 18 percent has previously experienced side effects. Those who used over-the-counter painkillers commonly experienced side effects such as stomach pain, internal bleeding and ulcers. Moreover, nearly 30 percent of these people did not consider themselves at risk for any side effects associated with painkiller use. Similar numbers of people who exclusively used prescription painkillers were unaware of their risks and experienced complications.

My question for us here is this: Did these people lose anything by being unaware?

And finally, try this one: Comedian Gary Shandling said this, "I'm dating a woman now who, evidently, is unaware of it." Does she or Gary lose anything by being unaware?

Of course, in all of these cases, and many more, the answer is "Of course, Yes! We lose much by being unaware." Gary Shandling’s lady misses the sense of engagement with him, people taking medication unaware of their side-effects misread the danger they are in, and those poor Japanese soldiers missed an entire lifetime of relationship with their own people, all because they were unaware.

The Old King James translation of the Bible uses the phrase "some have entertained angels unawares." There is a subtle difference between the term "unawares" and the term "unaware," but it hardly makes a difference in our discussion today. The adjective "unaware" means "not being aware of something," and the adverb "unawares" means "without being aware of something." The difference is subtle, and unimportant to our discussion. But the issues of being unaware is very important, not only to our discussion, but to the quality of our life.

Our Torah reading finds our ancestor Jacob both aware and unaware. When he awakens from his dream, realizing that he had heard from the God of His ancestors in a most dramatic fashion, he becomes aware that he had formerly been unaware: "Surely, Hashem is present in this place [awareness], and I did not know! [lack of awareness].

I want to suggest to us this morning that personal growth whether in interpersonal relationships, or in task performance, or in relationship with God, is in large measure a matter of becoming aware of what you were formerly unaware of.

In interpersonal relationship, like Gary Shandling’s girl friend, you may be unaware that someone cares for you, and the relationship can take a giant step forward when you become aware. Over thirty years ago, when Naomi and I were traveling in a music team together and had just begun dating, Kresha Warnock, a mutual friend came up to me and said, "Are you aware that your flirtatious comments to Naomi has her wondering if you are really serious about her?" Kresha’s comment to me made me aware of the need to be explicit about my feelings for Naomi, and the rest is marital history.

In professional life, and in day to day tasks, growing in awareness is also the pathway of growth. Take practicing the piano. When I used to practice, many years ago, a major component of pianistic growth was becoming aware of what I was doing, of how the hand was moving as I did this passage or that scale, and becoming aware of whether the motion was efficient or needed improvement. There was a vast difference between mindful piano practice and mindless piano practice. And so it is with everything you do, from ironing a shirt, to handling your e-mail, to dressing for the day: mindlessness and mindfulness make all the difference in both process and outcome.

And what of our relationship with God and with the realm of the Spirit. How do we need to grow in mindfulness, in being aware? That is a gigantic and momentous question! We can only make a small beginning with it this morning, but I suggest this question "How can I become more aware, more mindful, in my spiritual life" is one of the most important questions you could grapple with on a day to day, moment by moment basis. This is a most transformational question.

Let’s begin with our Torah portion. First, we need to become aware of the promises of God to our lineage—those people with whom we are aligned. This encounter between Jacob and God involved his becoming newly aware that the God of his ancestor Abraham and the God of his father Isaac was his God too, and that the promises made to them applied no less to him.

This awareness, this mindfulness, weaves throughout the prayers of our people, the siddur, which is nothing if not a book of holy mindfulness. Over and over again we explicitly pray on the basis of God’s promises and His faithfulness to our ancestors, confident that these promises and this faithfulness are our legacy as well. So the first things we need to become aware of are the promises of God to our lineages--to the people of God of whom we are a part.

Now, for those of you who are not Jewish, there is good news as well. Through Yeshua the Messiah, the God of Jewish promises becomes your God too, and many of these promises become yours. In Yeshua, all the promises of God are Yea and Amen. Although Gentiles do not become Jews by believing in Yeshua, they do become part of the Israel of promise—the people of God, and those joined by faith to Yeshua, become the seed of Abraham by faith.

Our Torah passage reminds us not only that we need to become aware of the promises of God, but also of the Presence of God. God is present with us, even in the most mundane of places and circumstances. So it is that Jacob said, "MA NORAH HA-MAKOM HAZEH - How awesome is this place! EN ZEH KI IM BET ELOHIM This is none other than the abode of God V’ZEH SHA’AR HASHAMAYIM and this is the gate of the heavens!"

We need to get beyond thinking of God simply as "out there somewhere." He is present in our lives, and every thought, word, and deed is contemplated, uttered or committed in His presence. This means that every moment is an occasion for supreme blasphemy or wondrous sanctification. Our tradition reminds us in so many ways to cultivate this sense of holy mindfulness, as in this statement from Pirkei Avot: "Reflect on three things and you will never come to sin: Know what is above you --a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and all your deeds recorded in a book." This kind of mindfulness of the Divine Presence can transform your life.

The third thing we need to become aware of is this: That spiritual potential inherent in the most mundane of situations. Our New Covenant passage reminds us "don’t forget to be friendly to outsiders; for in doing so, some people, without knowing it, have entertained angels." This reminds us of Abraham our ancestor, receiving three visitors at the doorway of his tent. The lesson is clear: even the mundane act of showing hospitality, feeding wayfarers, can become an occasion for encountering the Divine—experiencing transcendence, becoming aware in retrospect that there was more to the encounter than meets the eye.

Perhaps, like me you have had the experience of looking back on something and realizing that God was meeting you in that situation, meeting your needs, addressing your situation, speaking with you, and that at the time you had been unaware of it. Only later did you realize that God had been there in the commonplace. It is just as our ancestor Jacob said: "MA NORAH HA-MAKOM HAZEH - How awesome is this place! EN ZEH KI IM BET ELOHIM This is none other than the abode of God V’ZEH SHA’AR HASHAMAYIM and this is the gate of the heavens!"

What I am calling you to then today is this: don’t go through life mindlessly. It is you and you alone who must cultivate in yourself an awareness of the promises of God, of His presence, and of the Divine potential inherent in every moment and every task. This, by the way, is the business of our Jewish heritage—the sanctification of the commonplace. The rituals of Judaism, the saying of b’rachot, the lighting of candles, smelling of spices, putting on a tallis before morning prayer, washing of the hands as a ritual act, the praying of our liturgy as a wondrous daily habit and meeting place with God, the study of sacred texts in the company of others, all of these and more are ways in which our tradition teaches us Divine mindfulness. As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, "The teaching of Judaism is the theology of the common deed. God is concerned with everydayness, with the trivialities of life."

Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it this way:

Earth is crammed with Heaven.
And every bush aflame with God.
But only those who see take off their shoes--
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

I leave us with four questions:

1. Are we are just going to eat blackberries or will we go through life frequently taking off our shoes knowing that the place where we are standing is holy ground?

2. Are we going to grow in mindful embrace or our heritage that we might grow in awareness of the promises and Presence of God, and of the Divine potentialities of the commonplace, or is it just too much trouble?

3. As in the case of the Japanese soldiers at the beginning of our lesson, and of people mindlessly taking pain-killers, or even Gary Shandling’s girlfriend, what do we stand to lose if we continue living life unaware?

4. And finally, what would you say to a person who said that he/she was going to cultivate mindfulness not through any of the means we have discussed, but rather through thinking of God every time a TV commercial came on. Do you find anything unsatisfactory with this option, and why?

Sunday, December 04, 2005

On Not Trading Down - How to Avoid Losing Your Birthright

(This sermon on Parahsat Toldot considers Esau as a horrific warning to all of us not to barter away what is most precious).

One of the saddest transactions in all of the Bible is found in today’s sedra. Here we see poor, stupid Esau bartering away the blessing of God for a two-bit plate of stew. Poor Esau. What a fool.

We would be fools ourselves were we to simply see this as a story about how the Jews and Arabs became enemies, or simply a story about sibling rivalry, or dysfunctional family dynamics, nor even just a story about how the blessing of Abraham was transmitted down through Jacob instead of Esau. No, this story is much more than that. This is a story about us. It presents a perfect warning to us against our own tendency to barter away the blessing of God for more immediate, and often, sensual satisfactions.

We saw this kind of sad scenario played out before our eyes this past week in the sad saga of Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Under a heading, "Lawmaker’s Career Ends in Disgrace," we read this about him.

For months, a longtime Republican congressman denied taking millions of dollars in bribes. On Monday, Randy "Duke" Cunningham admitted it was all true. [When they say longtime, what they mean is eight terms!].

He resigned from Congress after pleading guilty to graft and now faces a long prison term.

To a biography that notes he was the first fighter ace of the Vietnam War, the top instructor at the Top Gun school, and the recipient of two Silver Stars and 15 air medals, the California congressman must now add admitted felon as well.

"The truth is, I broke the law, concealed my conduct and disgraced my office. I know that I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation, my worldly possessions and most importantly, the trust of my friends and my family," a tearful Cunningham told reporters in San Diego.

Cunningham is sixty-five years old. This man has forfeited his superb and stellar birthright for a couple of nice homes, a nice car, and a bundle of perks. He probably envisioned spending his sunset years with his wife and family, living in luxury, basking in the glowing admiration of a public well aware of his decades of public service. Now he will likely spend all the rest of his days in disgrace and in the barren and brutal life of being a prisoner in the California correctional system. What a tragedy. And I am sure, Randy Cunningham has scolded himself a hundred times for being such a complete fool. He traded everything for nothing.

I can’t speak for all of you, but I would guess that many of you, and certainly some of you, will face occasions in your life when you are tempted to trade everything you know about God for some sort of short-term satisfaction. I know I have faced this, and the onslaught can be withering, like trying to maintain your footing in spiritual hurricane winds. The current account is one of three or four I know in Scripture that portray the very same dynamics, and which all serve as potent warnings to keep us from being hoodwinked out of our God-given blessing. Accounts like these call us to preparation, vigilance and faithfulness despite the onslaught that is sure to come sooner or later. This onslaught is what the Letter to the Ephesians calls, "the evil day." And all of us will face an evil day, or many such evil days sooner or later.

Even Yeshua experienced such an onslaught when he was tempted in the wilderness. This happened directly after he received his Father’s validation for His ministry, at the Jordan River and before commencing his ministry to Israel. It was directly after his immersion in the Jordan that he was driven into the wilderness to be tempted by the Evil One. And so will it be for us. If you are seeking to make headway for the Kingdom of God, you can be sure that at pivotal times your resolve, your character, your faith in your God and in your calling will be severely challenged.

The story of Esau bartering away his birthright is tragic. And if we would avoid facing a similar catastrophe in our own lives, we will all need to take its message to heart. This means we will not only need to understand its lessons: we will also need to be vigilant and faithful to install safeguards in our lives lest we be caught unawares.

What, then are these lessons? How can we avoid being cheated out of our birthright as children of God and His servants?
First, we must clearly know what are our own weaknesses. Torah demonstrates that Esau took after his father Isaac. We read in verse 28 that Issac loved his son Esau "because game was in his mouth," meaning that Isaac loved Esau because he loved the taste of the game Esau trapped or hunted and which his father then got to eat. Isaac is here described in terms of his appetites. This is what characterized him at this time in his life. Esau proves to be the same way—a man of appetites who takes after his father. It may help you to think deeply about your parents and grandparents. What were their weaknesses? And who do you take after in your areas of weakness? What negative traits characterize you? Do you have a constant need for approval? Is it an insistence on being right all the time? Is it a hot temper or a tendency to treat other’s coldly? Is it flirtatiousness or other forms of playing with sensual fire? What characterizes you? Esau took after his father Isaac and was characterized by sensual hungers. The question you must ask and answer for yourself is this one: What are your moral and spiritual areas of vulnerability and weakness?

Answering this question is not as simple as it seems. Many of us have deeply entrenched habits of self-justification, self-deceit and denial. We say that like a glass of wine once in a while: our friends know that we inevitably get tanked when wine is served with dinner. We say that we appreciate members of the opposite sex: our friends know us to be flirtatious, indiscreet and potentially adulterous. We consider ourselves to be sensitive: but everyone else knows that we dominate our social landscape with our touchiness. We are zealous for the truth: others know that we manipulate people or wear them down into agreeing with us. So, let’s do the hard work of knowing and owning up to our own weaknesses. Otherwise, we may well get blindsided when temptation waylays us. We may find ourselves exchanging the things of God for our pet sins.
The second question is one of timing. We must all know at what times we are most vulnerable to our pet temptations. In this case, Torah reminds us that Esau is exhausted. For some of us, that is a dangerous time-a time when our judgment is impaired, and our resolve low. If you are a person who is apt to make bad moral choices when you are exhausted, you need to know that about yourself and protect yourself. You need to avoid getting exhausted, and take measures to keep yourself from being tempted when you are tired. Others are most susceptible when they are depressed, or angry, or lonely. For example, someone who has had a problem getting high as an escape and addiction, whether it be booze, grass or something else, may know that he or she is most tempted when they are bored, or scared, or depressed.

As we said earlier, one of the most dangerous times is on the heels of a victory or breakthrough. For many of us, this is when our guard is most likely to be down, and when our pride is most likely to be way up. Do you know when you are most susceptible to your own particular weaknesses? If you would withstand spiritual onslaughts aimed at leveraging you out of your spiritual inheritance, you will need to be aware and brutally honest with yourself and answer this second question: When are you most susceptible to compromise and temptation?

Third, we must learn to be honest with ourselves about our overtures. Although Esau would come to blame his brother Jacob for skunking him out of the birthright, the fact is, Esau was the one who said "Hey, give me some of that red stuff over there!" We too get ourselves in trouble, even though, when we get into trouble, we inevitably blame others. The Newer Covenant Letter of Ya’akov puts it this way: "No one, when tempted, should say: ‘I am being tempted by God’ [everyone’s favorite target for blame-shifting]: for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved." And this was the way it was for Esau: he was tempted by his own desires, and he himself made the moves that got him into trouble: he made the overtures. And so will it be for us. The third question we need to ask and answer is this one: What fires have you been playing with? What overtures have you been making that if consummated will lead you into spiritual trouble?

Fourth, we need to be aware of the time factor. God never crowds us, and the King of Eternity always has time. By contrast, the Kingdom of Darkness loves to rush us, and as you look at this story, you see Esau in a hurry. If you and I are going to experience the blessing of God in our lives, so that our obituary will read like Abraham’s in last week’s parasha, "Now Abraham was old, well on in years, and HASHEM had blessed Abraham with everything" [24:1], then we, like Abraham, are going to have to learn to wait. God takes His time. But immature people, people driven by their passions, and the Kingdom of Darkness itself, are all in a hurry. Such people cannot wait—they want what they want and they want it now! And when we are in a rush, when we have no tolerance for waiting—especially not for a long wait—then we become easy prey for the blandishments of the Kingdom of Darkness, which stands only too ready to give us what we want, if we will just put God on the back burner. So our fourth question is this: Am I in a hurry all the time? Do I want what I want and want it now? Do I think that waiting for the things I want is for saps? Is there something I want that I should not want, that has become a preoccupation with me, something I am tired of waiting for? If your answer to any of these questions is "Yes," then you just may be a sitting duck for a devilish diversionary tactic. You have become easy to manipulate because of what you want and your impatience to get at it. Be careful! You may just be the kind of gullible fool who will lose your birthright when you least expect it! You will need to learn to be vigilant against your rushiness and impatience, and against your demands to have your wants satisfied immediately.

Finally, we need to recognize that after we have played with fire long enough, after we have been injudicious and failed to watch over our own vulnerability, we will then be softened up for the tragic exchange: to trade our spirituality, our integrity, our self-respect, and our power with God for something more immediate and O, so luscious, something which has so magnetized our souls through our drawing near to it and playing with it, that we are extremely likely to take a fall.

This fall always has the same proposition imbedded within it: We will be offered exactly what we want if only we will simply turn our backs on God. That is all: that is the total price, and many of us are prepared to pay it. That is what Satan offered Yeshua in the wilderness: "I will give you all the kingdoms of the world if you will just fall down and worship me," to which Yeshua rightly answered, "It is written, ‘You shall worship the L-rd your G-d and Him only shall you serve." Yeshua understood that he was being propositioned to exchange God and His blessing for something else. So it was for Adam and Eve in the garden—they were invited to turn their backs on God and His one prohibition for them—to abandon their history with the Holy One for immediate gratification. And they did it. So will it be with us. We too are likely to be tempted to abandon all we have experienced with God, all we know of God, for this one short fling, this one brief moment, this one juicy temptation. And, like Duke Cunningham, and like Esau, we are sure to end up smiting our thigh with tears of frustrated remorse, scolding ourselves for having been fools—exchanging what is incorruptible and priceless for trinkets and pretty soap bubbles.

I am not one of those people who attributes every bump in our spiritual road to Satan. I think the Devil is much too big and much too busy to occupy himself causing indigestion for people like us. Nevertheless, to the best of our knowledge, there is a very extensive and highly developed dark kingdom, which I would term "the spiteful kingdom." The spiritual forces of wickedness in high places despise God and His rule and are utterly corrupted, so that their highest aim is to thwart God’s glory and pleasure. This is where we come in: to the extent that we are dear to God, or are engaged in advancing matters that give Him honor and glory, we can expect to be subjected to countermoves from the spiteful kingdom which hates God’s authority and seeks to deprive Him of the worship and honor he is due. Therefore, to the extent that we are authentically engaged with the Holy One, Blessed be He, we would do well to forearm ourselves so as not to be deceived into forfeiting holy privileges, holy opportunities, and our intimacy with God over some bauble which we find ourselves seemingly powerless to resist.

May God help us all to be watchful and aware, not only of how others might trip us up, but more so how vulnerable we are because of our resident weaknesses, our times of special vulnerability, the little fires we like to get close to without getting burned, and the things we feel we simply must have, and the sooner the better. We need to be careful, lest Scripture’s verdict about Esau be spoken over us: Watch out for the Esau syndrome: trading away God's lifelong gift in order to satisfy a short-term appetite [Hebrews 12:16, The Message].

May we all be more watchful than was Duke Cunningham, or Esau. And may none of us discover the hard way just what it means to be a fool.