Saturday, October 31, 2015

Family Feud

The Torah portion this week started with God calling Abram from where he and his family had settled in Harran to the land God would show him. Immediately I placed an imaginary map of Abram's journey over the story and followed him as he traveled south as far as Egypt and then back north toward Damascus.

I wanted to know where Harran lays on a modern map. Turns out it is just inside the Turkish border, about 17 miles north of Syria. Damascus is in Syria, too. Heard anything about Syria in the news lately?

My entire reading of this week's text was colored (how could it not be) by what is happening today on the very ground Abram and his family traveled through. Here are the stories of the births of nations and of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. We all find our roots in the story of one man and his children. The very land God gave him is still riddled with horrific fighting between the descendants of Abram's two sons.

In Genesis 13:8, between Bethel and Ai (north of Jerusalem in the West Bank), Abram told his nephew Lot, "Let's not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives." And they divided up who would use what land to avoid a family quarrel. If only Abram had been able to pass this attitude down to his children!

God forged a covenant with Abram and made him some promises.* First, he would give him a huge family that would bring blessing to the entire world. Second, he would give them a chunk of land along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea that would be theirs forever.

And they all lived happily ever after...

...or they would have if Sarai, Abram's wife, hadn't gotten impatient with how long things were taking. Oh, my goodness, how I relate with Sarai. I can just hear her talking in circles around Abram, wondering aloud for years and years when God is going to hurry up already, finally suggesting a plan that would "solve everything" if Abram would just sleep with her maid, Hagar. Okay, that part of the story I really don't relate with. I am NOT handing my husband over to some other woman, nor can I imagine a situation where that would be a good idea, but I did not grow up in a time and place where polygamy was accepted and expected, so who am I to judge?

I do relate, though, to Sarai, when Hagar is pregnant and start treating her wrongly, blaming it all on Abram. Of course it's his fault. Never mind that the whole thing was Sarai's idea, it's definitely his fault.

An angel of the Lord reassures Hagar about her baby, telling her it will be a son and his name will be Ishmael. That's where the reassurance ends. The next thing out of the angel's mouth is "His hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers." Remember that Ishmael became the father of the several Arab tribes, and the beginning of the family line of Mohammad, the founder of Islam. Has a truer prophecy ever been spoken?

God reiterates his promises to Abram, and requires of him a sign that the relationship goes two ways. Abram and all his male offspring are to be circumcised. I've never understood this one, but I'm not a guy. I supposed if I thought about it, I could draw all kinds of parallels about circumcision being intensely personal and a true sacrifice. I could, but I won't. Suffice it to say I'm glad my circumcision is one of the heart.

Abram AND his son Ishmael (and all the other guys in the family) underwent their circumcision and God promised a child to Abram and Sarai once again.

And Abram cried out to God, and said, "If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!"

This part surprised me. I thought God would say, "Nope. That wasn't our deal. No blessing for Ishmael."

That's not what he said. God's response was to bless Ishmael as the father of rulers, of a great nation. There were enough blessings to go around. But for Ishmael, there was no covenant. That was reserved for a child not yet born.

I feel like I've used too many words to say so little here. Buried in this story are the beginnings of a battle between nations that still rages on and hasn't really moved from its birth place. The war in Syria rages on with all its religious undertones not even trying to hide beneath the surface. These nations (Jews and Muslims and Christians alike) are scattering across the globe, looking for anyone who will take them in. And I wonder, where is my part in this? When a Muslim Syrian refugee ends up in my neighborhood, will I treat him any different than if he were a Christian refugee? Or a Jew? Or a Kurd? This question is one I will have to wrestle with. I don't think it's a question of "if" but of "when."

Is the Muslim immigrant destined to be my enemy, a truth set in stone by the word of an angel of the Lord thousands of years ago? I don't think so. My Muslim neighbor is my neighbor, and I know how Jesus thought I should treat her. I might not be able to change the course of history or stop the war in Syria, but I can love my neighbor, whoever it might be.

*This is the third covenant God has made in three weeks of readings. I would like to come back and explore the concept of covenant later in the year, maybe when I anticipate getting bogged down in Numbers.

This week's Torah portion:
Genesis 18:1-22:34
2 Kings 4:1-37
Luke 2:1-38

Photo credit: mark lorch via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

Saturday, October 24, 2015

On Floods and Promises

It took one chapter for God to create the universe, one chapter for him to get mankind settled in the garden, one for mankind to screw up that arrangement and call down curses on farmers and mothers and everyone else.

With such an abbreviated story of beginnings, it's a little surprising that a full five chapters is given to the account of Noah and his family and the flood the killed everyone else. It must be an important story to garner so much real estate. This story hasn't sat well with me a long time. Sure, we decorated the twins' nursery with Noah's ark--what else are you going to use for kids that come two by two?--but even as a child, the idea that man could have been so horrible that God would scrap the whole experiment and start over from scratch brings up a picture of a creator so impatient and so vindictive that he doesn't even resemble the God we know today.

"The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was greatly troubled." He decided to wipe out humans and animals. I know there's mercy in the flood. I know he could have wiped out everyone, but decided to saved one family. I know the entire history of mankind could have lasted less than six chapters. I know he saved the animals through the ark and I know he made a promise with the rainbow, but it doesn't mean I like the story. Floods are such a destructive, violent force, it makes me want to skip that part of the story and hop right to the rainbow.

Isn't that what we've always done? We highlight Noah's righteousness, the building of the ark, the cute animals, the dove and its olive branch. We skip the desperation of people trying to reach high ground, of rivers raging through villages, consuming homes and the families inside, and the awkward part of the story where Noah gets drunk and is found passed out naked in his tent by Ham, who got a good laugh out of it for a minute and then his family was cursed forever.

Dov Landau, Professor of Jewish Literature at Bar Ilan University suggests the story is there to return us to wonderment. In Jewish thought, mankind's ability to question and wonder set the basis for morality. Wonderment brings fear. Fear brings moral restraint. Moral restraint brings religious restraint. Without questions and wonder, morality decays. He also reminds us that death to God is not nearly as permanent as death to us.

And still I am unsatisfied. And so I skip to the end (as usual) where God set a rainbow in the clouds and makes a covenant with Noah--and really with all of us--to never use a flood to destroy the earth again. I took the picture above the other night at sunset. As we drove through town, people stood on every street corner trying to capture the moment of promise on their phones. Some of them might see a rainbow and remember the promise. Others might have rejected the story, or might not even know it. But everyone was drawn to the spectacular display.

Remember? He seems to whisper... I have the power to wipe you out. But I won't. Not now. Not in that way.

I promise.

This week's Torah Portion
Genesis 12:1-17:27
Isaiah 40:27-41:16
Matthew 1:1-17

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The First Torah Portion

I was going to sit down this morning and tell you a lie. I was going to write about how my Torah reading this week (while good in itself) took all my time so I couldn't do my study for ladies' Bible class. I was going to say that having time to read and study double portions of scripture is a luxury for those who don't have to work, how it reminds me of how Tevye dreamed of having time to sit in the synagogue and pray, but only the rich could afford to spend their time like that. Then I thought of how many hours I spent this week with my injured ankle propped up watching stuff on Netflix. It's not that I didn't have time. It's how I chose to spend that time.

I started out last Saturday with new resolve. I wanted to not only READ the Torah portion, but WRITE it in my own handwriting. So I did. This practice of slowing down the scriptures lets you see all the words and allow them soak in at a different rate than they do when you simply read them. Listening to them aloud also gives a different perspective. This week, though, was for writing.

It took me all week to write out the five chapters and eight verses that started out the Torah reading for this year. Half the time, I was peaking ahead to see how many more pages, how many more columns I had to write. I got bogged down in the genealogy, even though it's pretty short and has some interesting plot twists.

I made a lot of mistakes, words I had to cross out because I wasn't paying attention, that I assumed I knew because I'd read these passages so many times.

I would have made a terrible scribe.

Unlike the scribes, though, I've given myself permission to make mistakes. They remind me of the quilters and artists who used to make one deliberate mistake in their work in order to illustrate that God is the only one who is perfect. While I hate to have scratched out words in my hand-written Bible portion, it is visible reminder that I'm not perfect except by the grace of God.

I don't expect to keep up with writing the Torah portion this year, but I am making the goal to write out at least the narrative portions. I think it would kill me to hand-write the Levitical laws and the census of Numbers. Does that make me lazy or realistic?

As I read over what I've written above, it comes across as very self-centered. In the midst of reading about the creation--how the entire universe (or universes, though I can't wrap my head around that one) fell off God's tongue tip, how he spoke worlds and solar systems and galaxies into existence, how he breathed life into what he had made--in the midst of all that, I chose to tell you about me.

That's because I am the center of the universe.

The same thing struck me about the creation account. All that God made is so vast, it makes my head ache to think about it too much. But the creation account, what is written in the first chapters of Genesis, place the earth and the garden in the very center of creation. The story revolves around one planet, one garden, one man and one woman.

When I tell my daughter about the day she was born, I leave out the extraneous stuff. The story doesn't include anything happening in other towns to other people. It's all about the two of us (with a couple of nods to her dad). I tell her about how cold it was, how the roads were iced and the snow was falling. I tell her about how I felt when, after hours of hard work, I finally held her and looked into her eyes for the first time. I can almost feel that rush of emotion again, just thinking about it.

The creation story in Genesis struck me the same way, like it's God' telling us, his children, about the day we were born. He left out a lot of details, but he told us the parts he knew we'd like to know. He centered the story around us, his children, because he loves us.

This week's Torah portion:
Genesis 6:9-11:32
Isaiah 53:55:5
Luke 1:1-80

Photo credit: Lawrie Cate via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Finnegan, Begin Again

First of all, wouldn't it be awesome to have a holiday to celebrate God's word? What a great reminder of how he speaks to us, instructs us, prods us, and exhorts us. I think we should institute a party to say, "We read the whole Bible together. It was amazing. Let's read it again!"

Simchat Torah was quiet at my place, no dancing or singing, no day off work. I did take the time to read the passage Deuteronomy 33-34 and Genesis 1-2:3. The following are my shallow reflections on a passage so rich with history and promise.

Deuteronomy 33:1-26

Moses spoke a blessing over each tribe of Israel. I'd like to go back to this passage some time and compare it to the blessings Israel spoke over each of his sons at the end of Genesis. Note to self. A couple of things stood out to me about these blessings.

  • Moses knew these tribes. He knew their personalities and what they needed from the Lord. It reminds me that God knows who I am and what I need.
  • Even after hundreds of years, Benjamin and Joseph still seem to be the favorites in many ways. The others might be strong or numerous, but these tribes whose mother was Rachel still seem to hold a special place in God's heart.
  • Some of the tribes got less than top billing, but everyone received a blessing.
Deuteronomy 33:27-34:12

I love how God is described in the last verses of chapter 33 when Moses blesses all of Israel. You can hear in his voice how much God loves these people.

Refuge.

     Everlasting arms.

          Savior.

Shield.

     Helper.

          Glorious sword.


In chapter 34, Moses dies (120 but still vital) and God buries him. After a month of mourning, Israel gets a new leader, Joshua. It's not a surprise appointment--he's been prepped for the job. He is filled with a spirit of wisdom. What a great quality in a leader.

He was strong and courageous, wise and godly, but he was no Moses. Moses knew God face to face. Remind me to come back to this some time. It's one of my favorite themes in scripture.

Genesis 1:1-2:3

This is one of the most familiar passages in the whole Bible. After all, every time I dedicate myself to reading through the Bible, I start with Genesis. It's so familiar, I almost don't see the words. This time, though, a few stood out.

And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

I can almost hear the congregation chant the words with me as I read them silently. In a year where I am opening myself to listen for the spiritual rhythms God gave his people, the rhythmic recitation of the beginning and end of each day of creation echoes the pattern set forth from the first evening and morning.

And God said, "Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth." And it was so.

Did you see the blood moon/lunar eclipse last week? Did you notice it fell on the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles? The Jewish calendar follows the lunar calendar. It's no accident that an important feast started during a major event in the sky. Didn't the sky also tell those who knew to look of Jesus' birth? Won't we see great things in the sky when he comes again?

Circling Back to the Beginning

There's a certain beauty in the fact that when you finish reading the Torah, you don't read The End and close the book. Instead, you flip back to the beginning to start again. At the end, we come to the beginning.

We are never finished.

We are works in progress.

God's word goes on and on and on.

So now, after an extended season of repentance, forgiveness, restoration, atonement, sacrifice, and celebration, we are prepared to face the year. Armed with the knowledge we have gained and the memories of the past weeks, we step into our daily lives armed against whatever challenges may come.

This week's Torah portion:
Genesis 1:1-6:8
Isaiah 42:5-43:10
John 1:1-18 (for Messianic Jews)

Celebrating the Torah

The feasts don't end when the tabernacles come down. In fact, in many places around the world, the day after the Feast of Tabernacles, Shemini Atzeret is celebrated, which literally means "celebration of the eighth day." It's as if God, our host, invites us to stay over another night. The Jews believe this holiday is reserved for them as God's special guests, but I believe Acts 10 extended the table.

The next day, the 23rd day of Tishri (don't you feel like we've had something every day this month?) is another big day, Simchat Torah. In 2015, it fell on October 6 (Monday evening until Tuesday evening).

Simchat Torah is the resetting of the Torah. One of the most interesting things I've discovered so far on this journey is that for thousands of years, every synagogue around the world has read the same portion of Torah each Sabbath. No matter where you are or which week of the year it is, you can know what the reading will be. We could probably pinpoint which weekend Jesus stood up and read in his hometown synagogue based on the passage he read. It must lend a rhythm to the year to know that in a certain season, you will be reading certain scriptures. From now on, I'll try to include those readings at the bottom of each blog.

For Simchat Torah, the congregation reads the end of Deuteronomy, then opens the first scroll to read the beginning of Genesis. Of course, it's not that simple. According to tradition, every male in the synagogue has a chance to read. They split up Deuteronomy 33:1-26 and read it over and over, often in groups, until everyone has had a turn. This chapter is Moses' blessing to the 12 tribes of Israel. More on my personal reflections in my next post.

The end of Deuteronomy 33 and all of chapter 34 are read by a distinguished and revered member of the congregation. These few verses contain Moses' blessing for all of Israel, his death, and Joshua's taking on the leadership of the nation. The whole congregation rises to recite the last verse of the Torah together. Many believe these last words, "For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel," were breathed by God and written in Moses' own tears.

With the reading of the last verse of Deuteronomy, the reading is not finished. The congregation begs for more. A second scroll is opened, the one containing the book of Genesis. Another respected man reads the account of creation. Everyone joins him in saying, "And there was evening and there was morning, the first day."

Before the scrolls are closed, a third reading takes place, this time from the first part of Joshua. This is a reminder that Moses passed the mantel to Joshua, Joshua to the judges, the judges to the kings and prophets and elders, and so on in an unbroken line until today.

While the subject of the day is serious, there is a celebratory air about Simchat Torah. There is dancing and singing, a parade. It is a time to celebrate God's word.

Photo credit: Avital Pinnick via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Monday, October 05, 2015

Under the Blanket Fort

Our tabernacle turned out more liked one of those blanket forts we used to build in the living room. I spent countless hours of my childhood tucked into a cozy space covered with a holey pink blanket that also served as the curtain for our childhood stage productions and as a tablecloth at picnics.

When the canopy was up and a random collection of quilts, blankets, and sheets fastened to it to serve as temporary walls, it felt cozy and familiar inside. The sun shining through the hand-stitched pink quilt cast the same light as that childhood fort. Out came the table and tablecloth, a runner and some candles, a string of white twinkly lights and some corn stalks. It didn't look like much, but it was to be our home outside our home.

I tested the space with a cup of tea and a good book and found it comfy inside, but a little flappy in the wind. Some bricks to anchor the blanket walls took care of that.

The next important thing for our tabernacle was to fill it with friends, food, and laughter. Above, catch a glimpse of a delightful evening, just one of the gatherings that took place in the small, temporary shelter. The candles and twinkly lights filled the little room with a warm glow that chased away the darkness just through the blankets.

I'm in a different sort of tabernacle now, a timeshare apartment at the coast with some good friends. While we didn't build this room for the occasion and we will not deconstruct it at the end of the festival (promise!), I believe this sort of weekend honors the spirit of what God is trying to teach me.

God sustains.

Relationships are good.

Enjoy the harvest.

His presence is with us wherever we go.

Be satisfied.

Open your heart to others.

Even if the walls are flapping and the rain comes in through the roof, God is faithful.

I'd love it if you'd join me in my little fort. It's cozy in here.

Friday, October 02, 2015

What Is the Feast of Tabernacles All About?

Of all the feasts I've celebrated so far this year, the Feast of Tabernacles had the most readily available information. I'm guessing this is because, unlike Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Tabernacles is about doing something. It's about fun, food, and friends. This is not to discount the remembrance aspects and the Messianic threads, but the Feast of Tabernacles (also called Sukkot and the Feast of Booths) shakes off the heaviness of repentance, atonement, and reconciliation and says, "Let's have a party."

The basics of the feast are outlined in Leviticus 23:33-44. Build a shelter and stay outside for seven days. Make sacrifices. Wave 4 kinds of fruit before the Lord. Don't work on the first day. Have the biggest festivities on the last day.

It was a time to remember how God led Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, how he took care of them during their 40 years of wandering in the desert, and how he eventually gave them a permanent home in the land he had promised them.

The festival, which always falls in autumn, also has a harvest aspect to it. In face, some say the first American Thanksgiving was based off the Feast of Tabernacles tradition.

Tabernacles (or booths or Sukkah) are built outside. Their roofs are typically made of plants so the light of the stars can filter through. They often have only 3 walls made of sheets or blankets, something that can be disassembled at the end of the feast. The openness reminds us not to close ourselves off to the suffering of others. The temporary house reminds us what it was like to have enough, but not more than we needed (like the children of Israel in the desert had enough manna and quail, but could not store it up for the future). It also reminds us we are not in control.

This feast is a time to invite guests. By inviting strangers in, you are also inviting invisible guests like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Hannah, and Deborah. It's quite a prominent guest list who join you as you open your temporary home.

I gleaned a couple of very interesting points about the Feast of Tabernacles from a book called "Jesus and the Jewish Feasts." Tabernacles is one of the feasts we know Jesus celebrated. He likely celebrated it every year, but only one occasion was recorded in John 7-9. Besides the temple sacrifices, the waving of fruit, and the building of shelters, the Feast of Tabernacles involved a ceremony of fetching water from the Gihon Spring and pouring it out on the altar to ask God to end the long drought season and bring rain to the land. In the evening, there was the lighting of some huge bowls of oil in the women's court of the temple. They say these lights illuminated the temple so everyone in Jerusalem could see it.

It was during the Feast of Tabernacles that Jesus declared, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink," and possibly, "I am the light of the world." I never knew that water and light are part of the activities surrounding this holiday.

Photo credit: Israel_photo_gallery via Visualhunt / CC BY-ND