This week we begin a new book of the Torah and it chronicles what happened after the death of Yosef and his brothers. This first generation of transplants were very successful, they were fruitful, and they became strong and wealthy. What were the reasons for their success? The Torah gives us two clues. The first is that Ya’akov sent Yehudah ahead to make preparations for their settlement, and the word for ‘preparation’ is actually “li-horot” which means ‘to teach’. The Midrash tells us that before the establishment of any community, any synagogue or community center, there must be a school, a place where the community can be educated in the Torah. The second reason for their success according to the Midrash was that they made a covenant among themselves not to allow assimilation into Egypt, that they would maintain their traditions, dress and language even in the midst of the ‘high culture’ of the Egyptians. These two factors helped the people maintain their identity and ensure they were righteous successful people.
There is an old saying in Judaism, however. You know you were a successful parent not when your children are righteous, but when your grandchildren are. Yosef and his brothers were not very successful here. After that generation died the people spread throughout Egypt and the process of assimilation began. They dropped their customs and their identity and began to blend into Egyptian society. They began to mix the light with the darkness, the Temple of YHVH with that of Ba’al, or in this case Ra. It was the story of the children of Israel for several hundred years as a nation, and is still the case today. The desire to fit in, not to stand out. ‘If I wear Tzitzit, people will look at me funny, they will laugh.’ ‘If I go to my employer and tell him I can’t work on Shabbat, I might get fired.’ ‘I really like shrimp, it can’t be that big a deal.’ ‘Christmass is so much fun though, especially for the kids.’ We come up with a million reasons not to be different, not to stand out, not to separate ourselves.
But in so doing, we deny our very reason for existence. YHVH has called us for a purpose and that is to be a witness to the Truth of Torah and Messiah. To righteousness and holiness. If we are doing the same things the world is, our light is not shining, we are not being a witness, we are no longer ‘segulah’, a separate and precious people in His sight. And YHVH cannot let that situation stand.
You see, covenant with YHVH is a very serious thing, and even when we don’t take it seriously, He does. When one has taken a public stand for the truth, identified oneself a a member of His people, has entered into the New Covenant through the Blood of Messiah, has recognized the calling of G-d, there is not turning back, one cannot return to life before that commitment. One cannot stand up for the truth and then melt back into the crowd; assimilate. YHVH will not allow that.
As the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Ya’akov began to assimilate, YHVH stepped in to stop it. If the children of Avraham did not want to sperate themselves, YHVH would do it for them. A new King arose who separated them and made them slaves. Everytime Israel began to assimilate, to engage in the practices of those people around them, ceased to be different, YHVH separated them by motivating some pagan king or nation to separate them. In recent memory, the most assimilated Jews in the world were in Germany at the turn of the century. The rule still holds.
YHVH takes His covenants very seriously and those who claim His name are accountable for their fulfillment. Yahushua admonishes us to count the cost because we are responsible once we make the decision to identify ourselves as one of His. The writer of Hebrews tells us that it would have been better not to have embraced the truth than to have done so and turned our backs on it. We must be diligent. We must study, we must apply, we must train up the next two generations to maintain our identity and blessing.
The book of Shemot describes the transformation of a small nomadic clan of shepherds into a nation with a destiny. This nation would be born in adversity and rise to become a world renowned kingdom under David and Solomon. The beginning of our story, however, offers few hints of the glory to come.
After the death of Yosef, a new king arises in Egypt who has no love for the people of Yosef. He reduces them to slavery, a pattern that would haunt the people of Israel throughout their history. The king would find them abhorrent yet require their services. The Jews would be too valuable to be thrown out or exterminated but always treated as second class or worse. For years the people of Avraham groaned under the burden of slavery, saw their children murdered and their elders left to die in the mud as they built monuments for a wicked, idolatrous people. Through all this pain and torture, where was their G-d?
Shemot 2:25 tells us. “G-d saw the Children of Israel, and G-d knew”. Knew what? He knew the sufferings of Israel. On the surface that may be little consolation. We could look at the story this way. G-d is on his throne observing the world and as his eyes scan the peoples of the earth, they return to his people and he notices they have been put into slavery. He observes their groaning and pain and figures it is time to do something about it. The G-d of this story is detached and uninvolved. This cold, scientific G-d who observes the ways of the world with a detached analytical mindset is not the G-d of the Bible, it is not the G-d Moshe knew. The reason we may interpret the story this way is because we are looking at “yada” (knew) in an analytical, Greek way. Knowledge in this understanding is mere observable facts. Knowledge to a Hebrew was much more.
To a Hebrew, to know something was to experience it, it was the intimacy that comes from putting oneself into a situation, into another’s shoes, so to speak. The same word is used in Genesis three were Adam ‘knew’ Eve. The intimacy of their union moved their relationship far beyond knowing mere facts about one another. When it says G-d knew their suffering it is because He suffered with them, he felt the pain of the whips, the mud between their toes, the weight of the stones they carried, the fatigue, the tears. The immanence of G-d compels us to believe that he shares in our sorrows.
The Writings of the Natzrim confirm this. The prophesied Messiah would be called Emmanuel, which means “G-d with us”. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we follow a Messiah who knows our sufferings and trials and temptations because he was subject to them all. It is of great comfort to know that when we are going through a difficult time, G-d is not dispassionately waiting to observe the outcome but that He is with us, feeling our pain, empathizing with us and giving us a measure of comfort that we can get no where else.
In this week we begin a new book and in that book we have some of the most well know and amazing revelations of God to mankind. There was certainly interaction between man and God in Bereshit, but nothing that compares to the power and majesty of the burning bush or the revelation at Sinai. The results of this interaction are just as unique. Moshe and Aaron perform many miracles in accomplishing the deliverance of Israel and their preservation in the desert. The tent of meeting is set up which provides for the continuous interaction between God and the people. Is this a template by which we can understand how God communicates with us?
If it is then we can say that God comes from the outside, He descends from His high, exalted position and graces us with His presence. Moses sees the bush and hears a voice calling him, telling him to take off his shoes. This is a unique place, a unique event. He says ‘Ehyah’, I am. I am the one who is, and is becoming. You have seen me and now you are getting a glimpse of who you are because you are in My image. Once you come to that point you are free and He called Moses to go and free the rest of the people so He could interact with them all on that level. He wanted them all to stand before Him as Moshe did, to come and be free. He wanted them to know Him as Ehyah, not merely as YHVH your Elohim. Unfortunately, they were terrified and told Moshe to interact with God on their behalf. Moshe understood and benefited, they chose not to but the way was clear. But that’s another story in another parasha.
In our western mind, this is how we understand God. The source of the voice comes to us from the outside. It speaks from the bush or the mountain. The Spirit descends of the people on Shava’out. Messiah comes from Heaven. He returns to establish shalom on the earth. These things are all true but that is only half the picture. But in our western, dualist minds, that is all there is. God is outside of us. The Bible is what he gave to us, in the fundamentalist mind, dictated to us. It distorts our theology and our understanding of who we are. We see this imposition necessitating conformity. We do not understand faith and works and so we wait for our salvation because is comes from outside. We live our lives with pathetic hope and longing, like a helpless maiden trapped in a tower waiting for rescue.
There is another man who balances the equation. Another man who spent time with God on the mountain. Another who seemed alone in his interaction with God. A man who performed many miracles. But this man did not hear God thundering from a mountain or calling from a bush. He heard God from within. Elijah, hidden in the cave did not experience God in the thunder or earthquake but in the silent speech, the voice within. It was no less God because it came from within. Every one of us is created in His image, each one of us has that connection between our spirit and that of our Creator. We all have Elijah’s potential, we are no longer helpless. We are individuals who hear scripture as only we can. But we can misunderstand the voice, it becomes distorted. Instead of a helpless maiden we confuse ourselves with our God and think we are Him.
On the Mount of transfiguration, Moshe and Elijah stood at Y’shua’s right and left. In Y’shua there is balance. We wait and we work. We see scripture as G-d’s teaching and it becomes His personal message to us. Our salvation is provided for us yet we work our our own salvation. We can develop our own spirituality yet it flows within prescribed channels. When we ask the question of faith or works, whether the voice comes from without or within, we ask the wrong question. The Ehyah, the One of becoming, who is beyond all created all things in himself and made us in His image. There is no separation, there is no sacred and secular. All is Echad. We can now live in expectation that the voice can come from anywhere, we just need to learn to listen.
When we left the children of Israel in Bereshit, life was good. They were prosperous and happy in Egypt. Yosef had ingratiated himself with the pharaohs by giving them total control over the country and it’s people as well as ensuring the very existence of the nation during the disaster of the famine. A short statement in 1:4 changes all that. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef...” In one fell swoop, the children of Israel fell from the privileged class to slaves. Much has been written about this in an attempt to discern the will of God in this, how he could let his people suffer and die in the mud pits of Egypt for years before delivering them. That is the wrong question. It is not primarily a religious question but a political question. It is not some mystical power arbitrarily giving and taking from people, it is concrete decisions made by real people that result in justice or injustice, freedom or slavery, life or death. It is our decisions in response to such things that determine the course of our lives.
All of us, like the Israelites in Egypt, are at the mercy and whim of the dominate political power of the country in which we live. Sometimes we are on the good side of that power and reap the benefits as did Yosef and Ya’akov. Other times, for whatever reason-usually power, money or both, we are exploited or, in extreme cases, exterminated. The fact is, as the minority, we are subject to the whims of the governing powers. Now those of us who live in ‘civilized’ western democracies think that the rule of law and representative government protect us from such things. To believe such things is to delude ourselves. Few people who achieve power allow their respect for the law or the principles of justice to limit their ambitions. Those normal citizens who appear on the radar screens of such people are just a means to an end and the results for the average Joe can be devastating with little remedy. If you thought such things only happen in communist countries or Banana Republics, think again. In the so called ‘freest nation on Earth’, the good ‘ol US of A, the base human traits given free reign in more openly corrupt places are alive and well. I will give you a few examples.
I have mentioned the plight of Kay and Slade Henson of Wisconsin before. Two years ago she spanked her ten year old son, a son by a previous marriage. The father was attempting to regain custody and had been playing the son against her for some time. He told the school authorities who contacted Child Protective Services (CPS). They came and took all six of her children, four of whom were by her current husband Slade who is also a Messianic pastor. The youngest was under a year old and still breastfeeding. No charges were filed and it took her months to get the four youngest back. Once the children were returned she was put under strict probation which required her to send the children to day care (care by the state). She was eventually charged with felony abuse, for spanking, and has been in the county prison since September 11th. In order to keep their children from being taken into foster care again, Slade had to flee the state with them. They have lost everything as a result.
In North Carolina, CPS has taken the ten children of Jack Stratton and his wife. Their crime? Their house was too small and the state did not think their education was adequate because the children were home schooled. Even after moving into a larger house, their children were not returned. When the judge issued a gag order on the proceedings to keep Jack from talking to the media about the case, Jack spoke anyway and is now in jail.
Steven Magritz of Wisconsin had his 62 acre property on the banks of the Milwaukee river confiscated for back taxes. They are making it into a park. To protest, he filed a mountain of legal actions against the appropriate authorities. For this he was charged and convicted of ‘paper terrorism’ the maximum penalty for which is $70,000 and 70 years in prison. Even the ‘20th hijacker’ didn’t get that and he planned to really hurt and kill people!
What is the point of all this? A recognition of the fact that our security is an illusion. How many of us would be wiped out trying to defend ourselves against a frivolous lawsuit? If a social worker decided we weren’t good parents, what could we do? If the state chose to take our land through eminent domain or by declaring it a ‘wetland’ or finding some endangered species, what could we do? Nothing. We can only hope our anonymity protects us. This is what our society expects of us. Resignation, a feeling of powerlessness. ‘Play by our rules and stay out of the way’. If that was the way things were done in Egypt, the Israelites would have stayed there. Lot wold have remained a slave. Jericho would still be standing. Goliath wold still be cursing Israel and Israel’s God. We would still be British subjects. Blacks would still be riding in the back of the bus. Such victories however, are only the results of courage and wise action and usually necessitate great sacrifice. So what kind of person are you?