Torah Thoughts – Shemot

Back when I was on active duty in the US Marine Corps, I was a statistician for a couple of years. While I did not ever want to be a bean counter, I did enjoy discovering trends and factors related to why certain maintenance practices were more successful than others and how lines of supply effected the operational dependability of the aircraft I worked with.

As I began to read and study this week’s parasha, Shemot, Exodus 1:1 – 6:1, I made a “statistical” discovery that is only immediately noticeable in Hebrew. In Genesis 32:33 (32 in most English translations), the phrase בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, b’nei Israel appears and is usually translated son, children, descendants, or people of Israel, though literally it means sons of or children of Israel. This passage in Genesis is a brief explanation of why Jews traditionally do not eat the sinew of the thigh. But I digress. After Genesis 32, the phrase בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, b’nei Israel appears seven more times, including twice in this week’s parasha, Exodus 1:1 with the naming of the eleven sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob and again in 1:7 which proclaims that though in Egypt, 

Bnei-Yisrael (בְנֵייִשְׂרָאֵל) were fruitful, increased abundantly, multiplied and grew extremely numerous—so the land was filled with them.

Exodus 1:7

This has distinct overtones of modern anti-Semitic proclamations that the Jews are everywhere and are trying to take over everything. But, when we read the next two verses, we discover that it is not simply overtones of anti-Semitism, it is rather blatant.

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the people of Bnei-Yisrael are too numerous and too powerful for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them, or else they will grow even more numerous, so that if war breaks out, they may join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.”  

Exodus 1:8-9

In an article entitled “From Egypt to Israel,” Yosef Eisen points out a number of parallels between the “new king of Egypt” and Adolph Hitler, the most relevant here is, “Hitler claims the Jews are a threat to Germany and strong measures must be taken against them.
https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2843433/jewish/From-Egypt-to-Israel.htm

Hitler’s attitude and subsequent actions simply prove that the words of the Kohelet are true, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), as well as the words writer and philosopher George Santayana who coined the phrase, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Springing from Santayana’s words is an oft quoted phrase “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Anti-Semitism is on the rise in our world today. Violent and deadly attacks are being perpetrated upon Jews around the world. Jewish communities are advocating beefing up armed security at synagogues and other Jewish establishments, as well as personally arming oneself. Some are encouraging the need for action. We must prepare ourselves, but that first step should be to heed the words of the Psalmist, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we praise the name of ADONAI our God,” (Psalm 20:8, CJB). We must first arm ourselves by trusting in HaShem and not being motivated by fear, then choose to live daily following Nehemiah’s plan when he and other returnees were rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, they always had a weapon by their side, even when getting water (Nehemiah 4:17).

I am not advocating armed resistance, nor am I speaking against it. All I am trying to say is that we need to be prepared. Yeshua’s words to his talmidim, “Put your sword back in its place! For all who take up the sword shall perish by the sword,” (Matthew 26:52) must be weighed against the Kohelet’s words, “For everythingthere is a season and a time for every activity under heaven…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Granted there may be times when we are to lay down our lives for others or the Gospel, or Kiddush HaShem, but being shot in a Jewish deli or in a synagogue, accosted on the street or on a bus for appearing to be Jewish, or being hacked by a machete during a Hanukkah gathering in your rabbi’s home, does not qualify, because the victims had no choice. They were attacked and/or murdered simply for being or  looking like Jews. In taking a stand against anti-Semitism we stand against the evil that would destroy the Jewish people simply because they are chosen by the Holy One, blessed be He. By doing that we indirectly standing up for the Gospel and Kiddush HaShem.

Returning to the statistical aspect with which I started, it is in Exodus that the Jewish people were first defined. In Exodus 1:9, the phrase עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, Am B’nei Israel first appears. Pharaoh, the king who didn’t know Joseph, recognized the children of Israel, the descendants of Jacob, not merely as a nomadic clan but an actual genealogical people group on the world stage. Pharaoh recognized that Jacob’s descendants were to be feared because they were obviously blessed by the God who was bigger and more powerful than Pharaoh. 

Israel remains the chosen people of God, heirs of the covenants and the venue through which Messiah Yeshua entered this world to provide all creation the way back into full relationship with HaShem. Anti-Semitism is not only against Israel and the Jews, anti-Semitism is a true spirit of the anti-Christ. We would do well to heed the words that Joshua spoke to Israel after they had entered the land,

If it seems bad to you to worship ADONAI, then choose for yourselves today whom you will serve… But as for me and my household, we will worship ADONAI.

Joshua 24:15

We each have to make the choice; will we follow and serve the God of Israel and Messiah Yeshua, or contrary to the Scriptural encouragement, choose to follow the ways (gods) of the world?

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

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Torah Thoughts – Vayigash

This week we read the third part of the narrative of the life and times of Joseph as he continues his epic journey from favorite son to viceroy of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. This week’s portion is Vayigash, “and he approached” (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27). Judah approaches Zaphnath-Pa’aneah (Gen. 41:45), who unbeknownst to Judah is really Joseph, the second most powerful man in Egypt who holds in his hand not only the life of Judah’s sibling Benjamin but also of his father Jacob. Judah approaches and pleads for Benjamin’s life and freedom. Zaphnath-Pa’aneah remains cold and stoic until the end of Judah’s impassioned plea. Then he breaks down, empties his chambers of everyone except his brothers and emotionally reveals his identity to his brothers.

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” And his brothers were unable to answer him because they were terrified at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Please come near me.” So they came near. “I’m Joseph, your brother—the one you sold to Egypt,” he said. “So now, don’t be grieved and don’t be angry in your own eyes that you sold me here—since it was for preserving life that God sent me here before you. For there has been two years of famine in the land, and there will be five more years yet with no plowing or harvesting. But God sent me ahead of you to ensure a remnant in the land and to keep you alive for a great escape. So now, it wasn’t you, you didn’t send me here, but God! And He made me as a father to Pharaoh, lord over his whole house and ruler over the entire land of Egypt.

Genesis 45:3-8

In his book, Journey to Consciousness: Who Am I?, author and motivational speaker, A. S. Murdock recounts a story of a mother comforting her daughter after the daughter’s traumatic encounter with a rude beggar on the street. The mother gave her daughter a piece of advice that we should all have embroidered on our consciences, “Life is about choices baby and you are responsible for the choices you make. It is those choices that will determine whether your life turns out good or bad,” (p 42).

Joseph, or Zaphnath-Paaneah as the eleven brothers knew him, had every reason to be angry, even vengeful toward his siblings. They hadn’t liked him all those years ago and their hatred and jealousy caused them to sell him into slavery. Joseph’s journey as a slave took him from being a trusted house steward to a forgotten prisoner and finally to the highest position in Pharaoh’s court. Joseph had been separated from his father for more than two decades, and it was the fault of ten of these eleven brothers. But contrary to the brothers’ expectation, Joseph did not hold a grudge against them. He didn’t hold them at fault for all that he had suffered and all that he had endured. Instead he chose to interpret the story differently; he saw everything as part of God’s plan, “…it was for preserving life that God sent me here before you. … it wasn’t you, you didn’t send me here, but God!” Life is about choices, and Joseph made a choice to focus upon the act of salvation HaShem brought about through Joseph’s less than favorable circumstances.

Joseph did not mention how his brothers had mistreated him, rather he focused on the positive results that eventually came from their actions. By focusing on the positive, Joseph chose to forgive the wrong that was perpetrated against him. He recognized that if his brothers had not done what they did, there would be no grain in Egypt and Jacob’s family may well have come to an end.

In a teaching by Institute in Basic Life Principles founded by Bill Gothard, we read these words,

A key to forgiving your offender is realizing that God can work through your suffering to accomplish His purposes in your life. Ultimately, God is in control. He allows the good and bad things in life, and we can trust Him to work all things together for good in the lives of those who love Him. (See Romans 8:28.)

This understanding enabled many people in Scripture to forgive their offenders. Their response freed them from the destructive consequences of bitterness and allows them to receive the blessings that eventually came about because of their suffering.

https://iblp.org/questions/when-bad-things-happen-can-god-use-them-accomplish-good  

Do not misunderstand me – the ability to forgive those who wrong you and to see the good that can potentially come from bad situations, are not easy, but they are necessary. The Psalmist wrote, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened,” (Psalm 66:18). This is often interpreted as the Psalmist saying that if he hid secret sin in his heart, HaShem wouldn’t listen to his prayers. I have no doubt about this interpretation, though I do not believe it is limited to this understanding. I think it also could be understood as the Psalmist saying, “if I hold on to those things that have been done against me, if I hide them in my heart and allow them to take root, then HaShem will not hear me when I pray.” Rav Shaul might have agreed with me as he wrote to the believers in Ephesus,

Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving each other just as God in Messiah also forgave you.

Ephesians 4:32

Another bit of wisdom from the Psalmist, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven; whose sin is pardoned,” (Psalm 32:1). If the person who is forgiven is blessed, how much more so the person who forgives. The forgiven is free from guilt and condemnation; the one who forgives is free from the root of bitterness and anger. Most of all, as with Joseph and his brothers and eventually his father, reconciliation is possible and what was broken has the opportunity to be restored. 

Let me close with these words from Rav Shaul to the believers at Colossae, 

…bearing with one another and forgiving each other, if anyone has a grievance against another.

Colossians 3:13

The word translated ‘bearing,’ anechō, carries the connotation of “to put up with,” “to bear with,” or “to endure”. We are to bear with, put up with and endure one another and to forgive each other. As stated earlier, forgiveness is a choice. The choice to forgive is often not an easy one, but the rewards of living in forgiveness nurtures and promotes an atmosphere of reconciliation and restoration. Let’s commit to choose to walk in forgiveness, looking to see how all things will work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.

* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

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Torah Thoughts – Vayeshev

This week’s Torah portion is Vayeshev, וַיֵּשֶׁב v’yeshev, Genesis 37:1 – 40:23, 

Now Jacob dwelled (v’yeshev) in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan.

Genesis 37:1

From the onset we see an interesting comparison between Jacob and his father: Jacob dwelled where his father sojourned. The inference is that unlike Isaac who sojourned, גּוּר, in the land of Canaan, living there as a newcomer and not really settling in, Jacob יֵּשֶׁב yeshev, he sat down, he settled in with the intention of staying. Rashi seems to think that Jacob not only settle in but that he was settled, he was at peace. The conflict with Esau that he had been dreading was past, and the future looked pretty good, well for a short season anyway. The seeds of discontent that began back in Padan-aran while with Uncle Laban, would soon become a full-blown storm that would separate Jacob’s family for years to come. The coming storm is centered around Joseph, the first born of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel and the one on whom most of remaining chapters of Genesis focus. 

Genesis 37:2 sets the tone of the upcoming chapters, “These are the genealogies of Jacob. When Joseph was 17 years old (he was a youth) ….” Why was it important to acknowledge that Joseph was a youth? Without a doubt, Joseph was not the only notable youth mentioned in Scripture. Samuel was called by HaShem when he was but a lad (1 Samuel 3) and David was probably 17 or 18 years of age when he fought Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Likewise, Jeremiah was thought to be 17 when he was called to be a prophet (Jeremiah 1) and it was a boy who donated his lunch from which Yeshua fed 5000 (John 6). It should never be said that youth cannot love or serve God because of their age. It was not necessarily Joseph’s age that got him into trouble, but the way in which he handled situations while he was a youth.

As his father’s favorite son, Joseph received special treatment (Genesis 37:3) that did nothing to bolster his relationship with his brothers. Additionally, Joseph often brought Jacob bad reports about the actions of the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah (Genesis 37:2) which lowered his popularity figures even more. Finally, Joseph had a couple of dreams, in both of which he was center stage with his family apparently subservient to him. Had Joseph done as Mariam when she “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), instead of sharing them with those who already had much against him, the story may have played out a little differently.

Sforno, an Italian rabbi, Biblical commentator, philosopher and physician observes that,

…the Torah mentions Joseph’s youthfulness to illustrate that it was precisely because he was youngand did not foresee the consequences, that he sinned by telling tales about his brothers. Thought Joseph was brilliant, the Sages observed that in general, לֹא בְּדַרְדְּקֵי עֵצָה, there is no wise counsel in children (Shabbos 89b).

Meir Zlotowitz. ArtScroll Tanakh Series, Bereishis Vol 1(b). Brooklyn, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1986, p. 1612.

Robert Alter, an American professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley suggests that

…this whole speech shows us a young Joseph who is self-absorbed, blithely assuming everyone will be fascinated by the details of his dreams.”

Robert Alter. “The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary” on Genesis 37:6. Apple Books.

There is no question that as Joseph would later tell his brothers “…you yourselves planned evil against me. God planned it for good, in order to bring about what it is this day—to preserve the lives of many people,” (Genesis 50:20). And there is no question that in Mizraim (Egypt), Joseph’s dreams were realized; his brothers and his father bowed down to him, but as the Prime Minister of Egypt and not as their brother and son. But if Joseph’s youthful zeal had been tempered slightly, and if he had a better reign on the words of his mouth, the end may have been the same but the journey radically different. As it were, the life experiences that Joseph endured from the pit to the righthand side of the throne, changed the impetuous young man to one who considered situations and how to deal with them while trusting in the God of his fathers. One lesson to be learned from this is that parents should not play favorites with their children, especially in blended family situations. In other words, if one child gets a special tunic, all should get something special as well. 

In closing, here are a few words of caution from Rav Shaul, first concerning the raising up of leaders, “He (or she) must not be a new believer, or he (or she) may become puffed up and fall into the same judgment as the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6). Joseph was given a lot of responsibility as well as favor, seemingly without much oversight. Whether youth or middle aged, one should not be elevated to a position beyond that for which they are trained and qualified, lest they be set up for a fall. And secondly, combining a word to Timothy and another to the believers in Rome, Rav Shaul instructs all of us to “…do nothing out of favoritism … for there is no partiality with God” (1 Timothy 5:21 & Romans 2:11).

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

This week’s Haftarah reading is from Amos 2:6 – 3:8 and the reading from the Apostolic Writings is Matthew 5:1-16.

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Torah Thoughts – Vayishlach

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4 – 36:43 continues with Jacob making his trek homeward. However, instead of rejoicing in the soon to be family reunion, this week’s reading begins with Jacob making plans to survive his imminent encounter with his brother Esau. Jacob, instead of trusting the promise HaShem had given him, “Behold, I am with you, and I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I promised you,” (Genesis 28:15), tried to arrange or maybe pacify things on his own. His first attempt at greeting his brother seemed to be less than favorably received, “Jacob became extremely afraid and distressed,” (Genesis 32:8). A potential war party of four hundred men led by Esau may well have been the cause of Jacob’s fear, especially as he did not have Rav Shaul’s words of comfort, “for we walk by faith, not by sight,” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

I want to stop here and acknowledge that making preparations for future situations is not a bad thing. As I write this, we have gas masks in storage in the bomb shelter in our apartment against the possibility of a future attack. There are other things that should be in there as well, but the lack of constant treat has led to the food stuffs and water being used over time and not replaced. People buy insurance—home, car, and health—to cover situations they hope never happens. Without a doubt, this is good and proper practice. Jacob’s planning for a potential future attack by his brother was not wrong, he was counting the cost of a potentially dangerous encounter with his brother. Jacob’s reasoning for dividing his camp could even be considered wise, “If Esau comes to one camp and strikes it, the camp that’s left will escape” (Genesis 32:9). What I want to emphasize here is not Jacob’s actions but the motivation that drove those actions.

In verse 8 Jacob was extremely afraid and destressed. In verse 12, we hear his prayer,

Deliver me, please, from my brother’s hand, from Esau’s hand, for I’m afraid of him that he’ll come and strike me—the mothers with the children.

Genesis 32:12

Jacob could have rested in the promise of HaShem to which he at least mentally gave assent,

You Yourself said, “I will most certainly do good with you, and will make your seed like the sand of the sea that cannot be counted because of its abundance.”

Genesis 32:13

But instead he allowed fear of reprisal of his past actions to darken the clouds surrounding his approaching encounter with his brother. Fear as a motivator for one’s actions is by no means unique to Jacob. In a September 23, 2009 online article from Psychology Today, author Robert Evans Wilson Jr. notes,

Fear is a primal instinct that … serves us today. It keeps us alive, because if we survive a bad experience, we never forget how to avoid it in the future. Our most vivid memories are born in fear. Adrenaline etches them into our brains.

Nothing makes us more uncomfortable than fear. And we have so many fears: fear of pain, disease, injury, failure, not being accepted, missing an opportunity, and being scammed, to name a few. Fear invokes the flight or fight system, and our first reaction is often to flee back to our comfort zone. If we don’t know the way back, we are likely to follow whoever shows us a path.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-main-ingredient/200909/the-most-powerful-motivator

Fear is a reality of life. How we handle that fear is the most important issue. Continuing in the article above Mr. Wilson suggests that removing doubt is the key to overcoming fear: doubt that you will be delivered, you will overcome, you will succeed, etc. But, where is one supposed to find or to generate the power or the ability to overcome doubt? I suggest the power and ability comes from trusting the same thing that Jacob should have depended upon, the Word of God. As Moshe told Israel, that word is not far away but is near to us if we seek it, “the word is very near to you—in your mouth and in your heart, to do it,” (Deuteronomy 30:14). Consider these verses and hold them as words that are near,

ADONAI—He is the One who goes before you. He will be with you. He will not fail you or abandon you. Do not fear or be discouraged.

Deuteronomy 31:8

But now, thus says ADONAI—the One who created you, O Jacob, the One who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are Mine.”

Isaiah 43:1

ADONAI is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer. My God is my rock, in Him I take refuge, my shield, my horn of salvation, my stronghold.

Psalm 18:3

Now we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.

Romans 8:28

The situation in which you find yourself may seem the same. Like Jacob, your Esau, with four hundred men, may be just around the corner and your heart and brain may be doing gyrations motivated by fear trying to figure a way out of the situation. Trust in the Word that is near, believe that it is HaShem’s desire to see you through the situation to the best outcome possible. Most of all, remember that fear is the antithesis to love, and we are told that “perfect love drives out fear,” (1 John 4:18). 

Life and occasionally life choices ensure that fearful situations will continually come and go. We need to keep our hearts and minds focused on the Word of God, and on our relationship with Him, knowing that whatever comes He will be there with us, seeing us through to fulfill His Word in our lives.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

This week’s Haftarah reading is from Obadiah 1:1-21 and the reading from the Apostolic Writings is Matthew 8:23-27.

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Torah Thoughts – Vayetze

I guess he’s makin’ the best of a bad situation,
Don’t wanta make waves, can’t you see.
He’s just makin’ the best of a bad situation,
Reckon I’d do the same if it was me.

This chorus, from Making the Best of a Bad Situation, released by Dick Feller in 1974, could well have been Jacob’s theme song while he sojourned with his uncle Laban. 

Strolling through this weeks parasha, we see several episodes in Jacob’s life. First he is fleeing his home in fear of big brother Esau’s retaliation after Jacob and his mother Rebecca had secured the patriarchal blessing by trickery. Nevertheless, Hashem promises Jacob that everything will eventually be well for him.

Behold, I am with you, and I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I promised you.

Genesis 28:15

The next episode involves Jacob getting settled with Rebecca’s brother Laban (Gen 24:29). But it appears that trickery is a family tradition; only this time it is perpetrated against Jacob. The story is very familiar: Jacob meets and falls madly in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, and requests her hand in marriage (Gen 29:18–20). He works for seven years for the hand of Rachel. On the wedding day, however, Jacob is tricked into marrying the elder sister, Leah, and then has to work another seven years for Rachel (Gen 29:25–26). Notice the sleight of hand going on in both stories, as the incident with Leah and Rachel is reminiscent of the ruse played on Isaac. The old adage “what goes around, comes around” may well have started with Jacob’s family.

In last week’s parasha, Rebecca’s actions and advice led to the final split in her family that caused Jacob to flee from his home. Rebecca lost twenty years of family relationships (see Gen 31:38) and missed the births of all of her grandchildren, simply because she chose to help Hashem accomplish his plans for her son. This week, Jacob is not only separated from his parents for twenty years, but he winds up with a family situation that is fraught with rivalry and competition. For sure he is blessed according to Hashem’s promise at Beth-El (Gen 28:15–16), but shalom bayit (peace in the home) seems to be missing, as there is continual struggle between the sister-wives and their children and the concubines and their children. On top of these problems, there is the never-ending struggle with Laban and his sons that culminated in Jacob fleeing Laban’s home and land (Genesis 31:1–2). Jacob’s problems were realized both individually and collectively. 

Rav Shaul has words of encouragement that are relevant to Jacob’s situation and to our lives today.

 Now we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.

Romans 8:28

Earlier we saw that Hashem told Jacob that all would be well with him and not that all would necessarily go well with him. Rav Shaul’s words are similar. He does not say that everything we do in obedience to the will of God and love of God will work together for our good. Neither does he say that there will be no consequences for the choices we make; even though all things work together for good for those who love God, we’ll still face the consequences of our choices. What he does say is that eventually, whether we see it or not, all things will work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose. The sibling rivalry that emerged during Jacob’s time with Laban has continued throughout Israel’s history. Though tribal lines are less distinct today, rivalry between different strands and streams of modern Judaism remain just as prevalent. For that matter, the same could be said for the Body of Messiah. 

Our assurance is not that we will be trouble free in our faith-walk. In fact Yeshua taught his disciples just the opposite. 

These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have shalom. In the world you will have trouble but take heart! I have overcome the world!”

John 16:33

I realize that in context Yeshua was speaking of troubles that his followers would endure from a world that would not follow him. However, the reality is that we will have trouble, even in our own communities. Jacob’s family struggles, though unique in many ways, are not isolated to Jacob alone. We all have issues with which we deal within our families, personal and congregational. Life tends to throw us curve balls at the most inopportune times, and sometimes handling those curve balls may seem impossible. That is the time we must remember that (1) Yeshua has overcome all of these situations and (2) with hearts of faith we can live in the assurance that all things will work together for the good . . . whether we see it or not. 

Later in his letter to the Romans, Rav Shaul gives an invaluable piece of advice: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live in shalom with all people” (Rom 12:18).

It is easy to focus on the last half of this phrase, “live in shalom with all people.” However, the first part of the verse, “If possible, so far as it depends on you,” sets the guidelines for the second part. While we have the responsibility to live in shalom “so far as it depends on you”, living in shalom does not depend only upon us; it depends on others as well. 

Since I began with a musical notation, I’ll end with one as well—the chorus from The Gambler, a country song written by Don Schlitz and made famous by Kenny Rogers in 1978.

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away, and know when to run.
You never count your money, when you’re sittin’ at the table,
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

In other words, we do what we can do, and sometimes that involves walking away or, as in Jacob’s case, running away. And in the end, we may not see “all things work together for good,” but whether or not we personally see it, we know that the promises of God are sure, as he cannot lie (Num 23:19). As Rav Shaul reminds us, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).

The Torah reading for Parashat Vayatze is Genesis 28:10 – 32:2 (1 in English). From the Prophets the reading is Hosea 11:7 – 12:14 (Sephardic tradition) and the reading from the Apostolic Writings is from John 1:19-51.

* This week’s Torah Thoughts also appears on the UMJC’s website,  https://www.umjc.org/commentary/2019/12/3/the-best-of-a-bad-situation

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Torah Thoughts – Toldot

This week in Parashat Toldot, meaning generations or history, we once again have a tale of two brothers, an elder and younger. It is almost as if HaShem was setting forth the pattern for the making of Hollywood sequels. First, Cain and Abel, then Ishmael and Isaac, and now Esau and Jacob. One must acknowledge, however, that in the sequels, both Ishmael and Esau fared better than Cain, just as Isaac and Jacob fared better than Abel.

In this week’s sequel, we read the continuing story of Abraham’s progeny. Like his parents, Isaac and Rebecca had problems conceiving, though Rebecca was not barren for as long as Sarah. Like Abraham, Isaac eventually had two sons, unlike Abraham both from the same mother. Isaac also mirrored his father’s actions by having Rebecca introduced as his sister to the Philistine king Abimelech, which, when discovered, was not well received.

There is another comparison that caught my attention while reading the parasha, which is the recording of their last days. About Abraham we are told, “So Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, old and satisfied. Then he was gathered to his peoples” (Genesis 25:8). I have long thought that this would be an ideal epitaph for gravestone, XXX was a good old age, old and satisfied. It appears that Isaac had a bumpier journey. 

Now it was when Isaac grew old and his eyes were too dim to see, that he called Esau his elder son, and said to him, “My son.” “Here I am,” he said to him. “Look, I’m old,” he said. “I don’t know the day of my death.

Genesis 27:1-2

While Abraham was “old and satisfied,” Isaac seemed to be worried about his death; so much so that he desired his eldest son to prepare him a last meal—just in case. Interestingly, this was not to be Isaac’s last meal. In fact, he lived twenty plus more years. 

Now Isaac’s days were 180 years. Then Isaac breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his peoples, old and full of days. So his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.

Genesis 35:28-29

Somewhere along the line, it would appear that Isaac got over his fear of death. Between Genesis 27:1 and 35:29 Jacob went off to Uncle Laban’s acquired a couple of wives, concubines and a whole slew of children, while Esau stayed close to home with his three wives. Eventually Jacob returned and was somewhat reconciled with his brother Esau. Eventually, Isaac, like Abraham died old and full of days, satisfied with the life he lived. 

I realize that it is dangerous to play the “what if” game, but one has to wonder how the story would have played out if Isaac hadn’t been gripped with fear of death and Rebecca hadn’t chosen to help matters along in securing the patriarchal blessing for Jacob. Rebecca had the prophetic word that the elder would serve the younger (Genesis 25:23), but she, like her mother-in-law, who also had a prophetic word (Genesis 15:4), decided to help HaShem with the fulfillment of the prophecy. Both Ishmael and Esau, the sons born from their help, became the patriarchs of mighty nations and have been “a thorn in the flesh” of the sons of promise through Isaac and Jacob, and their descendants throughout history. 

I recently read that God does not need our help; just our cooperation. Throughout the Scriptures we have examples of folks trying to assist HaShem (Sarah and Rebecca for instance). Others tried to negotiate a favorable outcome (consider Jephthah in Judges 11). And then there are those like Moshe, who though he had a direct encounter with HaShem, thought he knew himself and his abilities better than HaShem. Instead of accepting the commission of HaShem to be the one to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt, Moshe negotiated or possibly argued with HaShem until He agreed to allow Aaron to join him. As with Sarah and Rebecca, we don’t know how things would have worked out for Jephthah or for Moshe had they simply trusted HaShem.

Fortunately, we have Rav Shaul’s words of assurance—words that have encouraged Yeshua-believers ever since the community in Rome read his letter.

Now we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.

Romans 8:28

I suggest that “all things” includes those things that HaShem brings into our lives as well as those things that HaShem allows into our lives whether as a result of our doing or just because we live in a fallen creation. Remember the words spoken to Israel as they prepared to enter the land,

Chazak! Be courageous! Do not be afraid or tremble before them. For ADONAI your God—He is the One who goes with you. He will not fail you or abandon you.

Deuteronomy 31:6

And Yeshua’s words to his disciples,

I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper so He may be with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him. You know Him, because He abides with you and will be in you.

John 14:16-17

Whatever condition we find ourselves in, whether it be from HaShem, of our own making or thrown upon us by the world, know for sure that the ADONAI is with us.

The readings for Parashat Toldot are Genesis 25:19 – 28:9 from the Torah; Malachi 1:1 – 2:7 from the Prophets and from the Apostolic Writings, Romans 9:6-13.

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Torah Thoughts – Chayei Sarah

The law of first mention may be said to be the principle that requires one to go to that portion of the Scriptures where a doctrine is mentioned for the first time and to study the first occurrence of the same in order to get the fundamental inherent meaning of that doctrine. When we thus see the first appearance, which is usually in the simplest form, we can then examine the doctrine in other portions of the Word that were given later. We shall see that the fundamental concept in the first occurrence remains dominant as a rule, and colors all later additions to that doctrine.

https://www.biblicalresearch.info/page56.html

Why in the world would I start this week’s study with a quote on the law of first mention? Simply put, because Abraham, in seeking a place to bury his wife Sarah, predicated his request with “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you…” or as the JPS translates, “I am a resident alien among you…” (Genesis 23:4). He called himself a גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב, (ger v’toshav), a sojourner and foreigner or resident alien. In other words, he is different from the people with whom he is speaking regardless of the fact that he lived among them and interacted congenially with them. A quick word search in Genesis shows that the term “ger” or a derivative of it appears at least twelve times. While “ger” may simply refer to living in a specific place, it often carries the connotation of dwelling in the midst of another people but separate; i.e., living together but not assimilating the culture, customs or religion of the indigenous dwellers. The importance of the aspect of not assimilating can be seen in Abraham’s insistence that Eliezer seek a bride for Isaac from among his (Abraham’s) kin.

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things. And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh, that I may make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.”

Genesis 24:1-4

Though the word ger has evolved through time to indicate a convert to Judaism, in antiquity it was not so. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, as well as the children of Israel, were foreigners and strangers when they dwelt among the Canaanites, the Philistines, and the Egyptians. Later King David would make the following declaration during Solomon’s commissioning speech,

But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.

1 Chronicles 29:14-15

Again, we see the terms strangers and sojourners, indicating resident aliens, those separate from the peoples among whom they dwelt. This separateness, not wanting to be like those around them, is not simply a “Jewish thing”. It is a divine commandment. Speaking to Bnei Yisrael HaShem commanded,

You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.

Leviticus 20:26

Rav Shaul took this idea of separation even further when he declared the word of HaShem to the believers in Corinth,

What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore, go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you…

2 Corinthians 6:16-17

Followers of Yeshua, just like the children of Israel, are to be separate and distinct from the world. While at the same time they are to dwell in holiness within the world, showing forth the light and life of HaShem and Messiah Yeshua.

Kefa (Peter) continues with this thought when he wrote to his community,

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

1 Peter 2:11-12

Notice if you will, Kefa encouraged his readers to be sojourners and exiles who are in control of their fleshly passions, i.e., their carnal instincts, especially as they relate to those around them, those who are not followers of Yeshua. Notice as well, that Kefa expected his audience to be interacting with the world around them. Kefa may well have been remembering the commandment in the Torah,

You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus 19:34

Beginning with Abraham, the Jewish people have been strangers and foreigners, gerim v’toshavim, a people set apart from the rest of the world to be holy unto the LORD and to be a light and an example to the rest of the world to God’s glory and grace. At the same time, HaShem requires Israel to treat those who are themselves strangers and foreigners with grace and care because they (Israel) have been strangers and sojourners since the time of Abraham. As followers of Yeshua, whether Jewish or from the nations, we too have the responsibility to treat non-Yeshua followers with grace and care, thereby letting our lives and our words exemplify HaShem’s care and concern for them. 

* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV Text Edition of the Bible. Copyright © 2001, 2006, 2011, 2016 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL.

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