The Deeper Purpose of Creation

In our reading of biblical verses this week, I love to see the pairing of the first chapters in Genesis with Isaiah 42 and 43. Many sages throughout time have taught that the deepest lessons in the story of the universe’s creation relate mostly to the creation of our moral purpose. Today’s readings, I think, show them to be right.

Look just a few verses into Genesis. We see directly that humankind was created in the image of God. Infused “with the soul of life,” becoming “a living soul,” Adam’s principal task was to “work and guard” the Garden of Eden. Many commentators understandably are off to the races right here at the start of the Bible in suggesting that the core message has little to do with cosmology. But, rather, it is that we are to serve God and live our lives in service of God.

This teaching, of course, only firms in the testing of, and consequences for, Adam and Eve after their fateful choices, and, of course, the drawing out from Cain of the never-to-be-forgotten question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”.

When the practice of matching readings from the Prophets with the Torah portions began, surely the sages and rabbis chose to use the occasion to teach more explicitly. Thus, now we see it all the more clearly in Isaiah.

The God Who creates the heavens and the world “gives a soul to the people upon it and a spirit to those who walk on it.”

God calls us in and with “righteousness,” protects us, and appoints us to bring the people to the covenant “to be a light for the nations.”

So, looking at both texts, what do we see? Perhaps the Narrator plants the seeds in Genesis. And then, in Prophets, we see more clearly and fully the fruit. We are created to serve God. We are to live in God’s ways. And, by doing so, principally through righteousness, we help fulfill our part in God’s handiwork, especially in service of the Divine aim that all people are to be redeemed and brought near.

 

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Fear and Hope

What is it about this season that makes me anxious, yet hopeful? Is it that the summer has come to an end? Is it that the earth is about to experience a time of death? Yet, there is a crisp anticipation in the air as well. I feel fear, frailty, and hope – all at the same time. Do you?

In both our texts and our experiences this week, we instantly see the fear and frailty. For Jews, at this holy time of Sukkot, we spend time in a fragile hut called a sukkah. We build the structure according to Biblical instruction in order to feel exposed to the elements in a temporary, make-shift home. In certain ways, we feel very vulnerable in it.

We, also, sense great anxiety and even fear with Moses at the beginning of our verses. The people had strayed. God seemed distant. And the road ahead was perilous. Look, too, at the other verses we read, at the plight of the people in Ezekiel’s tale. At the onset of the war of Gog and Magog, Israel must have felt considerable fear at the prospect of total defeat.

Yet, in all these experiences, as well as those in our own lives, there’s a Force above and beyond the fear and the near-despair that speaks to us with an assurance that all will be okay.

Even though (or, perhaps, because) the “roof” of the sukkah is open through its branches and leaves to the sky and all else that might scare us from the outside, we somehow feel a sense of comfort and peace and security while being in its space.

Moses pursues God out of his profound anxiety, wanting to be assured of continuing Divine support. What deep comfort he must have felt when he heard these words: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Like us, though, Moses wants to know more. He wants to be shown the Divine essence – who God is. So, God places him in the cleft of a rock, a sukkah of sorts. Like us, Moses cannot see God’s face. Yet, he sees, as we might sense in our own sukkah, that God’s true essence can best be understood in the Divine nature to be “merciful, slow to anger, gracious and abundant in loving kindness and truth,” forgiving yet just. This revelation provides an even deeper comfort.

Looking ahead, we, also, have an abiding hope that God will defeat Gog And Magog, the archetypal forces of evil in Ezekiel’s tale that always create a deep fear and anxiety within us. On that day, God’s “greatness” and “holiness” will be “recognized in the eyes of many nations,” and, we pray, there may be enduring peace in the world.

I feel a far greater sense of peace having studied and written about these words. I hope, in the reading of them, you do, too.

The Final Words of Moses and David

This week’s Bible readings are absolutely extraordinary. In Deuteronomy, we have a song from Moses on the last day of his life. In II Samuel, we have King David’s song at the end of his life. What do these two great figures teach us in their final words?

Perhaps the most poignant lesson Moses teaches is that it is never too late to get right with others and with God.

Recall the Bible story in which God punished Moses for striking the rock instead of speaking to it to draw water. Because of this, Moses would not be allowed to accompany the people into the land. So, what does Moses do now in his final oration? He speaks before God, the great Rock. And, in doing so, Moses draws forth the very finest water for the people.

What’s the water he draws with his speech? It is, I think, the living nourishment of guidance that quenches our thirst, mostly, to live a good life, in righteousness and love.

How does the water flow? It flows in ways that can sustain each and every one of us. For the young and those new to it, the water comes gently as soft rain or dew. For those, like growing grass, who are ready for more, it comes as a steady rain. And for those who are the most firmly rooted, as sturdy trees or strong vegetation, it comes in pelting, penetrating showers.

David, too, sees God as his Rock, but the emphasis for him is as his “Fortress,” his “Rescuer,” the “Horn of his Salvation.”

For David, God was the One Who illuminated and saved him from his darkness. What was David’s darkness? It was, at one level, the many midnights of fear that he experienced in combat with his physical foes. But, surely, too, it was the foreboding and shadows that haunted him as a consequence of his misdeeds with Uriah and Bathsheba.

As with Moses, David suffered consequences for wrongdoing, but he never stopped serving God and his community, living his days in righteous words and acts.

For those who have just completed the experience of Yom Kippur, these timely stories of Moses and David may help us better understand that day’s very difficult Unetaneh Tokef prayer.

This prayer doesn’t pull punches. We all will face the pain of death and loss, and likely not at a time of our choice. But the prayer concludes in uplift: we have the power to choose how we live, that is, the character we bring to the decisions and actions we make in life, and there’s great importance to the choice.

In Hebrew, specifically, teshuva (turning), tefillah (prayer), and tzedakah (righteous giving) can avert the sting of fate. We’re called to turn back to the correct course, with prayer and gratitude, and service to others and God in righteousness and generosity.

Aren’t these the very qualities Moses and David model for us? Indeed their living out these qualities is what truly endures beyond death, as a blessing for them and the generations that follow.

 

Four Steps Leading Back to God

This Sabbath for Jews is called the Sabbath of Turning. This is so because the intention of these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a turning back to God and the Divine path.

One of the loveliest and most powerful facets of the verses we read this week from Hosea and Micah is that they speak, specifically, of the way back to God. What does the God of mercy hope of us after we have strayed and erred?

The first step comes with an acknowledgement that we have stumbled. The second carries a true desire to return. Alas, the challenge is hard at the start because of the difficulty of taking even these first two steps.

Third, we offer words of remorse and devotion to a better way forward. In doing so, we seek at-One-ment through re-aligning ourselves to right purpose, with confession and a sincere intention to mend our ways.

Fourth, we return with whole heart, saying that material power, earthly rescue, and the gods of our own creation are not the source of our true salvation. Rather the saving hand comes only from the One God Who pardons iniquity, forgives transgression, and teaches us of righteousness.

We may feel like orphans in seeking return to God. But God waits with mercy. “I will love them gratuitously.”

In this return, there’s the promise for us to “blossom like a rosebush,” with roots striking out “like the cedars of Lebanon,” serving as as an eternal legacy which will bring blessing for future generations.

“Who is wise and will understand these things?” Who will take the steps of return?