Defeating the “Egypt” Within Us

This week the portion from Exodus and the text from Prophets share one clear theme: Egypt is to be defeated, and its defeat must continue across generations.

On one level, this downfall involves the nation of Egypt at the time of Moses as well as the nation of Egypt as prophesied by Jeremiah in the declining years of the First Temple.

On a deeper level, and the one I would like for us to consider, there’s a way of life that is associated with the Egypt experience that is to be defeated. In other words, we must constantly be aware of an improper way of being that must be defeated, and we call that way of life, Egypt.

What is this Egypt?

Tomes have been written on this topic, and we could (and should) spend considerably more time than this short essay permits on its possibilities. Here, let’s use our time simply to look at the language in the text regarding Egypt to see what it teaches about human behaviors that ought to be defeated.

Let’s start by noting that the word for Egypt in Hebrew is mitzrayim, a word related to meitzar, which means narrow place. For reasons we well understand, narrowness is not a desirable attribute.

In Jeremiah, we begin by reading: “Pharaoh, the blustery king of Egypt, has let the appointed time go by.”

Didn’t we learn last week that God prizes one who is humble and contrite of spirit and reverential of God’s word? Blustery seems the exact opposite of all that.

Letting the appointed time go by – this has the feel of being unmindful of the appointed times in the season when we are called to draw near to God. This may be especially concerning when we miss the time to turn back to God and our fellows after we have strayed and done wrong by them.

Egypt, we read further, is “a beautiful calf,” prey for slaughtering. My mind goes to the golden calf. Does yours? A place where the material is elevated over the spiritual is a place that concerns God, and should concern us, too.

“Egypt’s voice will travel like a snake’s….” One can hardly keep from thinking of the snake in the garden, whose voice appeals seductively to act against God’s direction. It allures, but it leads to destruction.

In Exodus, we read of two plagues that afflict Egypt that also hint clearly of the condition of “being Egypt.”

The first is locusts. Is it the plague or the condition that draws the plague that is so claustrophobic? In the midst of such a plague, one is unable to know how or where to move, creating a sense of hopelessness and even further loss. This incapacity ultimately is horrifying and leads to death.

The second is a darkness that can be touched. People can’t see each other. There’s isolation from care, nearness, and any way out or forward. However physical it may be, it’s certainly, also, a spiritual or psychological darkness. Some sages tie this impoverishment of spirit back to the concern in Jeremiah: when there’s an undue emphasis on the material, especially when it leads to inordinate wealth built largely on the backs of others, there’s a darkness that can be touched. It’s become “too much Egypt,” and it must be overcome.

The text in Torah and Jeremiah both end with the promise of God’s saving hand. We’re redeemed from bondage to tyranny and worship of the material. From those narrow places, we are free to journey to Sinai and the land of promise, where living true to God’s expectations will bring us great expansiveness and blessing.

Who Doesn’t Love a Treasure Hunt?

People have enjoyed treasure hunts through the ages. We’ve seen this interest manifested in letterboxing in the 1850s, party and television games in the 1950s, and, in a fashion, Pokemon Go in our own day.

This week’s texts from the Bible also take us on a treasure hunt. But this hunt is not one in which we find clues that lead us to material or virtual rewards. Rather it’s one that travels along the path of God’s words, in which we look for clues about direction in life, with the promise of a different, but perhaps richer sort of reward at the end of the hunt.

The journey begins in Exodus. We learn that God hears the cries of the people enslaved in Egypt, holds steadfast to the covenant, and acts purposefully to redeem them. God says to Moses, “I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you.” Further, the Divine directs Moses to tell Pharaoh to “let My people go, so they may serve Me.”

These words will drive Moses on his own long search. What does it mean to be God’s people? What does it mean that God will be God to us? And what does it mean to serve God? We’ll catch back up with Moses in future weeks.

For now, we’ll explore these questions on our own quick treasure hunt through the two passages from Prophets that accompany study this week.

In Isaiah, we see our first clue. God says something very important that responds directly to our questions: “But to this one will I look: to one who is humble and contrite of spirit and reverential of God’s word.”

So, who are such people, and who are not?

It is not people, we learn, who hypocritically go through the motions of religious ritual but mostly follow their own selfish ways and delight in doing things that are contemptible.

In Ezekiel, we find a similar message. God’s people are not those whose “heart is proud” and who think “I am a god.” Those whose “heart becomes haughty with wealth” often turn their spirit to commerce in ways in which they commit “wrongdoing” and become “filled with violence.” Their heart tends to “become haughty” because of a misplaced sense of “beauty,” and their wisdom is destroyed with misdirected “brightness.”

Happily, the hunt through these prophetic verses also gives us alternate, positive images, which direct us to the true treasure.

We find that those who serve God are those who answer God’s call. As we have learned elsewhere, they show their humility and contrition of spirit by loving others as they love themselves. They love God with all their heart, soul, and might. In so loving, they bring the cardinal virtues of righteousness, justice, loving-kindness, and compassion into the action of their lives and, thus, show themselves reverential of God’s word.

For them, the end of the hunt is in the land of spirit, in the soul, where God is present to us, where those who serve Divine purposes find birth, satiety, delight, consolation, peace, and rejoicing. In this treasured land, “they shall dwell upon it securely, and they shall build houses and plant vineyards and dwell securely.”

Finding Hope While in Pain

What this week’s portion from Exodus shares most with its companion text in Isaiah is that they both show us that the greatest hope, often to our surprise, can be found in the midst of the greatest pain.

Both protagonists in these stories are living through very different episodes of their people’s pain, yet they (and we) can only marvel at how signs of hope appear to them and play out so fully.

In Moses’ case, the people had just begun to suffer the worst burdens of enslavement in Egypt. Having exposed himself to certain danger, Moses is forced to flee to the mountains. There, seemingly alone, he experiences a miracle. A bush burns with fire but is not consumed.

God appears to Moses from within the bush. The Divine Force had heard the cry of the people and was ready, with Moses’ leadership, to rescue the people and bring them to the Land of Promise.

Though initially insecure and uncertain, as we surely would be, Moses begins to see and hold on to an extraordinary dream, and then sets out on a path to its fulfillment.

Amazing.

In pain and alone, Moses sees from God the way out of servitude in the narrow straits to a place of profound direction and love, and on to redemptive fulfillment.

Are there signs in our lives, too, that could lead us from pain and exile? Would we see them if they were there? Recall Moses had to decide to look, or else he may not have seen. “So Moses said, “Let me turn now and see this great spectacle why does the thorn bush not burn up?” “The Lord saw that he turned to see,” and THEN called to him.

Is there such a response to my cry, your cry? Like Moses, let us turn and see.

Isaiah lived in a different time. The people had made it to the Land of Promise centuries earlier. But now they had become terribly wayward, living contrary to the very direction and love that had been the basis for their rescue from Egypt.

Isaiah’s heaviest burden was that he could foresee the great pain of the people that was yet to come, in the exile that was yet to be.

Our text is full of his most frightening descriptions of what was in store for the people. Yet, interspersed in these awful accounts of the next days’ storms are visions of a hopeful, exceptionally beautiful day that lies beyond.

“Days are coming when Jacob will take root; Israel will bud and flourish and fill the face of the earth with fruit.”

“It shall be on that day…that…God, Master of Legions, will be the crown of delight and a diadem of glory for the remnant…,and a spirit of judgment for he who sits in judgment, and a source of strength for those who return from war to the gate.”

Moses and Isaiah feel poignant pain in the verses we read. There’s no denying it, no whitewash of it, just as there is no glossing over ours.

Yet, their testimony tells us that beyond the pain, there is hope. There are signs of pathways, however we come to see them. There is the One who always hears our cry and responds with hope, though at times we do not always understand. And there is the greatest hope ahead – a day of nearness and love, and a day of peace and ultimate redemption.

Messages for Our Children

Sometimes I get the feeling that many of my contemporaries don’t study the Bible because they think it’s ancient and doesn’t apply to them. Some got the idea along the way, maybe in childhood, that it’s stale or, worse, wrong or even cruel. And, now, these views often get cemented when the text they encounter in synagogue seems dead to them.

A great sadness of mine is that many folks don’t bring their adult minds to a serious study of the Bible in the here and now. If they did, they could see how powerfully responsive such study can be to meeting their own greatest needs through lessons in loving-kindness, righteousness, and justice.

This week’s texts from Genesis and I Kings are perfect examples of stories that I would like all parents to study.

Why?

In Genesis, we see Jacob, as he approaches death, telling his sons the words he thinks they should hear from him before he dies.

In I Kings, we see David, as he approaches death, telling Solomon the words he thinks his son should hear from him before he dies.

As a father who is always anxious about the messages I send to my own children, I’m thrilled to learn how our great leaders, even in their imperfect ways, handled such duties in their lives. I bet most parents would, too, if they could just jump into the narrative and find the fabulous lessons that are waiting there.

So, let’s jump in!

David takes one approach. He’s learned a hard but extremely rewarding truth: a life lived in service of God is a good life and one that will be rewarded. With the exception of his waywardness with Bathsheba and Uriah, David lives as close to God, in service of the Divine, as any of our forebears. In fact, it might be argued that the lifelong consequences he bears as a result of that sin bring him even closer to God in profound ways, along with great blessing.

David, therefore, emphasizes from his deathbed that his son should “be strong and become a man.” He tells Solomon to “safeguard the charge of…God…to walk in His ways, to observe His…Torah…so that you will succeed…and that God will uphold His word…”

Further, David praises Solomon’s greatest strength, his wisdom, and asks him to act on it. Then, before dying, he does what one king would feel duty-bound to do with his successor. He gives his son important advice about a few urgent matters Solomon will soon face in his reign.

Jacob takes a different approach. He gathers his sons to tell what lies ahead for each of them.

For some of the sons, it is the richest sort of blessing that plays out in their lives and those of their descendants.

For most, it is metaphorical language about the direction of their lives, words upon which these sons can understand and build their futures.

For a few, it is harsh truths that are merited but also likely dispiriting. Some have no good future. (I wonder how I would handle such a predicament with my own children, should such be the situation.)

Yet, in the case of one, Levi, who is chastised, the son and later his tribe turn a negative prophesy in such a constructive direction it becomes – in the end – a most amazing blessing. They become our people’s priests and holy attendants!

As for me, for now, I love having all these ideas swirling in my head. Yes, I would want my children to know God and follow God’s direction. I believe much good comes from that. I would want my children to be strong and mature. I would want to emphasize their strengths and give them some crucial advice about serious problems they will face.

I hope my sense of their direction would be helpful in how they actually structure their lives. I hope I can bring truth to what I say, even if there is concern in my thoughts and voice. And I hope they will find a constructive path forward, even in the face of criticism.

God willing, though, I hope I have a little more time to think about what I’ll finally say. In the meantime, I’m just very grateful I have these invaluable lessons from the Bible to help me write my “first draft.”

Where Penitence Meets Righteousness

 

In this week’s verses from the Prophets, Ezekiel reports on a mysterious, yet powerful request from God. Ezekiel is asked to put a piece of wood with Judah’s name on it with another piece of wood with Joseph’s name on it and they will become one together in his hand.

Since the kingdoms of Judah and Israel had split apart after the reign of Solomon, this prophecy is read as God’s promise one day to bring all the children of Israel together again in the land. They would thereafter turn away from idols and sin, restored to relationship with God. They would live in God’s ways, in peace, with hope for the whole world of God’s dominion and saving power.

I think all this is right in the grand scheme of things, but I think there is something more, something that touches us in the here and now. And I believe we can find these more intimate truths if we look at this text’s companion portion in Genesis, where we see the actual coming together of Judah and Joseph. For, it is their reconciliation that teaches us most personally of this deeper meaning of Ezekiel’s prophecy.

Recall the story.

Judah and his brothers had sold Joseph into slavery. They then deceived Jacob, their father, by saying Joseph had been killed. This, of course, brought years of extreme difficulty to Joseph and great grief to the father.

In this week’s portion, Joseph, now in power in Egypt, has the opportunity to test his brothers to see whether they have changed their ways for the better. Joseph has made it appear that one of the brothers, one particularly dear to Jacob – Benjamin – will be held hostage. So, Judah, who had already begun to walk the penitent’s path by promising his father that he would take responsibility for Benjamin, must decide whether to step forward.

What happens when he does is among the most poignant moments in the Bible or any story, for that matter. Let’s watch.

First, probably at some risk, Judah “went up” to Joseph. Sages say this motion was tantamount to a remarkable drawing close, both physically and emotionally. One of the great rabbis says this going up was so significant in what it generated that, while there was no peace beforehand, now “peace could come into the world, with great joy above and below.”

How is that possible?

Fundamentally, Judah draws close to Joseph to say YES – he and his brothers see that an innocent brother is in peril, that it matters, and that he will act on his behalf. He tells of his aging father’s predicament and of his own promise to the father that he would never again let him down. Whatever befalls himself, Judah makes clear that he cares and that he will do what’s necessary and right, out of love and compassion, especially on behalf of those in pain and need.

This is the quintessence of penitence. Judah had made Joseph a slave and brought misery to his father. Now he is prepared to make himself a slave in order to prevent such things from ever happening again.

He sees Benjamin’s face. He sees in his mind’s eye Jacob’s face. He sees, though he may not recognize it, Joseph’s face. He sees need and pain and righteousness, all by going outside of himself to look into the faces of others. His interest is now invested in them. His turning is so complete and this tale so powerful that Judah will one day become an exemplar of God’s expectation that we love our neighbor as ourselves.

In response, Joseph weeps openly and publicly. Reconciliation is underway. Penitence has met righteousness, and all is possible in the world.

This is what Ezekiel is prophesying on behalf of God: where penitence and righteousness meet, people come together. Unity can be achieved. Those who have separated can be restored back to each other and God. This is how we live in peace. This is what gives hope to the world. This is where God dwells, and it is in such moments when we can best see and praise God’s sovereignty in the world.

What Makes for the Miracle in the Lights?

It’s a treat to be able to read the special portion of the Prophets that fits with the Sabbath in the week of Chanukah. Together with the Bible portion, these verses give us deep insights into the meaning and purpose of this special time of the year.

In the book of Zechariah, the people are beginning to experience the Second Temple, and they feel that God’s presence seems somewhat diminished from that of the First Temple, before the exile. The prophet assures them that, as before, God will “dwell in your midst.”

Some sages say the Heavenly Presence was manifested here in the menorah, which burned miraculously and would bring joy to the people.

Others look to the text itself where there is mention of a menorah with “seven lamps upon it, with “seven ducts for each of the lamps” and “two olive trees over it.” They see a miraculous burning here of the lamps in the Temple, corresponding to the last seven days of Chanukah.

Here’s what I find most meaningful. An angel asks the prophet what’s significant in the sight of the menorah, perhaps in the miracle of the lights. The prophet doesn’t know. The angel teaches that it is “not through army and not through strength, but through My spirit” that we have the blessing of God’s presence and the grace we feel and express in its midst.

As we comb this week’s verses in Genesis, we see evidence of God’s spirit manifested in such a way. To start, Joseph’s remarkable interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams leads to much saving in the world.

But I think it comes even more so in the poignant moments in which Judah assures and comforts his pained father when he seeks the elder’s approval of their bringing Benjamin back with them to Egypt. Joseph has demanded this as a test of whether they are capable of compassion and righteousness after the injustice they inflicted upon him and their father so many years earlier.

Judah now shows love for their father and takes personal responsibility for the boy’s welfare. “Send the lad with me,” he says, “and we will get up and go, and we will live and not die, both we and you and also our young children.” Judah continues: “I will guarantee him; from my hand you can demand him.”

This is a vastly different person than the one who let a brother slip into slavery and then deceive a father. This is a son who shows compassion and love to a father. This is a brother who remembers and begins to atone for a wrong to a brother. This is a human being who understands and practices righteousness in his world.

In essence, it is in the hurly burly of life where God’s spirit is most made manifest. It’s not principally through armies, nor physical strength. Rather, it’s in a changed heart that leads to lovingkindness and righteousness where we can best see the powerful miracle of God’s enduring light.

 

Injustice Destroys Worlds

I’ve been haunted for the past three weeks.

I listened to an unabridged CD reading of Franz Kafka’s harrowing novel, The Trial. The tale was an account of an innocent fellow who was arrested, tried, convicted, and killed for a supposed crime, the details of which were never brought to his attention. And the process by which the “system” caused his demise was totally beyond his understanding – though clearly, at the very least, corrupt and unjust.

What makes this novel so especially troubling is that Kafka wrote it in 1915, decades before inarguably the most barbaric and inhumane time in the history of the world.

Little did I know while I was listening to The Trial that God was merely prepping me to confront this week’s Bible texts!

For, you see, in our verses from Prophets, Amos teaches that there is no sin more offensive to God than the unjust treatment of a righteous person, especially through corrupt harm to innocents.

Here Amos clearly has in mind the selling of Joseph into slavery by his brothers. As was true with the brothers, Amos sees that Israel had committed other evils about which God had remained patient. But, for God, injustice toward innocents is what is ultimately intolerable, indeed the last straw which necessitates a Divine response.

What is it about this precise wrongdoing that brings on such extraordinary wrath from God?

As we think about the Joseph in our story (and perhaps the Josef K. in Kafka’s), we sense that the process of acting unjustly to others may begin with something as small as a felt slight. But, very rapidly, as if in the most malignant cancer, it can evolve and spread with amazing destructive power. The damage it finally does can be great, even incalculable. Indeed, at its worst, injustice can destroy worlds.

How does this happen?

In Joseph’s case, we remember that the story begins with his telling dreams to his father and brothers. Though they may have seemed presumptuous, the dreams were true, and, as Amos later suggests, a case of God’s revealing “His secrets to His servants.” Yet, though wisdom would have guided them to understand and benefit from the difficult truths in the dreams, the brothers, in weakness and ego, misjudge what they’re being told.

This misjudgment then leads to jealousy. Jealousy leads to anger. Anger leads to plotting harm. Plotting leads to assault, damage, and victimization of an innocent. Such injustice then hatches the wrongdoers’ desire to kill. And only the fear of being caught in doing so leads to the final injustice of selling a victim into slavery, with the cover-up that he suffered death by a devouring animal.

What a progression! But the downward, accelerating trajectory persists until it produces the most frightening and devastating harm. For Jacob’s family, these wrongs actually bring them down, take them to Egypt, and ultimately lead to their people’s enslavement.

Amos is talking directly about the people of Israel centuries later. But he also is talking about Joseph’s brothers. “They…walk on the head of the poor and they twist the judgment of the humble.” “They recline on pawned garments.”

Amos foresees the punishment of the wrongdoers. “I will encumber you in your place just as a wagon full of sheaves is encumbered…Escape will elude the swift one; the strong one will not muster his strength.”

Jacob’s family, thanks largely to Joseph and Judah, achieves a sort of reconciliation, which is a crucial piece of the narrative, giving great hope for the future and a new and just way of living. Torah’s wisdom teaches us how to break the cycle that leads down the dangerous path from misjudgment to injustice, from bloated ego to destruction.

But a key part of that wisdom comes in this week’s teaching: there’s a heavy price to be paid for the sin of injustice. Those who put Joseph into the pit are like the bird in Amos’s prophecy that itself awaits the snare. The people of Israel who sold the righteous for money tremble ahead of their exile as the shofar is blown.

So it was, too, for the real world oppressors who later aped Josef K’s tormentors in The Trial. So – by our faith – it will be for all who inflict cruel injustice upon the innocent.