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.

It’s Not Always “Happily Ever After”

Have you ever read a story or watched a movie in which you desperately wanted two characters in deep conflict to reconcile?

In one particular tale, we see two brothers who are completely different in nature and fundamentally at odds with each other. The Storyteller couldn’t have made it clearer. One brother seemingly had taken advantage of the other, and the other wanted to kill the one for it.

Yet, isn’t it our nature to want things to turn out happily? And, the story gives us hope that maybe they will. We know that the boys’ father wished well for both of them. After a period of separation and struggle, they meet. Further, they appear to reconcile. There’s a kiss. There is an exchange of gifts. And the two seemingly go off in peace.

Yet, while the two come back together to bury their father, we can’t help but notice that the brothers never see each other again.

I’m talking here, of course, about the end of the story of Jacob and Esau. It’s some of the main action in this week’s Bible portion.

It is true that I am a person, perhaps like you, who wants characters who have problems with each other to reconcile. Perhaps it’s human nature. Or it may be that this hope is a part of our ethical and spiritual orientation. After all, “How good and how pleasing it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

Over many years I have thought and written that this Torah text is one of reconciliation and that it is quite lovely in that respect. That the brothers appeared in so many ways to find peace and would later honor their father by joining together to bury him seemed sufficient proof.

It’s a nice and fair reading. But this year I fear it’s not altogether right.

Traditionally, rabbis and sages have never cared for or liked Esau. They see him as a crude, bad man who never strays from his true nature, that is, one to oppose God’s way, Torah, and the person, Jacob, who had been chosen to carry on the tradition. Many see the angel with whom Jacob struggled as an angel sent by Esau to destroy him. Further, they see Esau as the founder of Edom, whose descendants perpetually set out to destroy Israel and Israel’s descendants.

I’ve always known this point of view and accommodated it, or, should I say, I chose to put it to the side.

Now, I can’t altogether.

The accompanying portion from the Prophets this week is from Obadiah. The message there is absolutely clear: Esau fundamentally hated Jacob and had designs to kill him. Further, this enmity would last not only during the brothers’ lives but also throughout the lives of their respective successors. The end of the enmity would come only when the house of Esau is punished and the righteous ascend and help establish God’s kingdom.

So, what conclusion are we to draw? I, for one, have not yielded my former inclination generally to hope for reconciliation. In fact, I think the text won’t allow us to, all the rabbinic explanations notwithstanding. But the weight of negative observations over the ages about the never-to-be-present-again Esau is undeniably great. It is simply true that there are some relationships that are incapable of repair and that there are some people whose bad nature is such that reconciliation with them cannot be achieved.

One should be open to making peace with others where there are differences, but one must be clear-sighted and realistic. A naive blindness where the differences are due to others’ evil brings on weakness, insecurity, and harm. And a failure to see, defend against, and defeat evil is dangerous to the welfare of oneself, one’s community and the good.

I leave today’s study a bit sad, perhaps at a certain loss of innocence, but also safer and more secure for finally having had the difficult struggle the text invites.

Cutting to the Chase

I love it when, through careful reading, we can see how a prophet helps us understand the deeper meaning of a Bible story. We get such a gem this week.

In Genesis, we encounter the story of Jacob’s dream. You remember it. Jacob arrives at a place where he takes some stones, places them at his head, and goes to sleep. He dreams of angels ascending and descending on a ladder set up on the ground, with its top reaching to heaven.

In the dream, God appears, standing over Jacob, and announces that He, the Lord of Jacob’s fathers, will grant his descendants the land upon which he is lying and through him and his seed all the families of the earth will be blessed.

Further, God promises always to guard Jacob and return him to this land.

Jacob awakens from his sleep, gratefully acknowledges God’s presence there at Beth El, and pledges in his uncertain and contingent way to be true to his part of the covenant commitment.

Hosea remembers this story and chooses to emphasize it as he implores the people of Israel centuries later. He recalls Jacob’s struggling in Rebecca’s womb with Esau as well as his striving and prevailing with an angel. And then he says: “In Beth El, he shall find Him, and there He shall speak with us. And the Lord is the God of the hosts; the Lord is His Name.”

But what’s most notable is what Hosea says next. Recall that God’s speaking, here as well as later, takes the form of establishing a sort of covenant in which God commits to bless, to guard, and to return Jacob and his seed to the land.

Hosea’s language is sparse. All of the budding covenant is distilled simply in Hosea 12:7 to this: “And you shall return by your God: keep loving kindness and justice, and hope to your God always.”

What does that mean?

Here’s my take. Hosea is teaching the essential nature of the covenant obligation that God expects of those He blesses. And, though Jacob only has a vague and immature sense of what it entails in the beginning, it’s the essence of the obligation he takes upon himself and his seed.

This obligation, according to Hosea, and in sync with all the ethical melody of the Bible, is fundamentally to keep loving-kindness and justice and hope always in our God.

Praise to God for teaching us, and to the prophet Hosea for cutting to the chase to be sure we understand.

Half-hearted Love Won’t Do

We don’t make sacrifices at an Altar in a Temple any more, and it certainly isn’t likely that we will any time soon.

So, what are we to make of this week’s text from Malachi? God shows great disgust that the people have offered “defiled food,” as well as “blind,” “sick,” and “lame” animals, and those “taken by violence.”

What in the world might this mean to us? Is there a deeper significance below the surface of these words about ancient practices that might speak to and guide us today?

Let’s begin by exploring some questions. Do people of faith today make offerings to God? Do we devote our time and energy in worship and prayer? Do we give of our resources to support church, synagogue, or mosque, where sacred encounter takes place and where we join together with others to come near God? Do we give of ourselves to love our neighbor as ourselves?

These sacrifices in our own time may happen on a regular basis. And they may happen when we feel called. They may feel right in moments of joy or necessity. They may be made on the occasion of personal or community celebration. They may be done through our own form of tithes or our leaving the “gleanings of the field” to those in need. For these reasons and more, we, too, respond to God’s call to draw near through offerings – not just for God’s sake, but also for our own.

But of what value is our approach if it is deficient or blemished? If we’re inattentive, unfocused, or wrongly motivated, how true is our worship and devotion? If what we bring is tainted, aren’t we tainted?

We seek from Divine encounter the blessing of holiness so that we might live more in the ways of loving-kindness. How can we possibly achieve that end if the spirit or the resources we bring were “taken by violence?”

If we bring less than our best to what supposedly matters most, aren’t we hypocritical or unserious, or both? If our offering can be characterized as blind, sick, or lame, then surely the love that accompanies it can be as well.

This week’s verses are designed once again to teach that we are to “love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might.” All, not half. All, not deficient. All, not tarnished. All, not “craftily” pretended to be all.

God loves us as God loved Jacob, and expects from us the love of Jacob, not the contempt of Esau. “A son honors a father,” we are taught in these verses. And, as such, we give honor and “a pure oblation” to our Parent, the One we hope and pray will “be gracious to us.”

Parents’ Hopes

For all aging parents who love their children and hope they will carry forward their legacy, this week’s verses in Genesis and their companion piece in I Kings are just for you. My hope is that there is something in both of these complex stories that will “turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents.” Let’s take a look.

“Abraham was old, advanced in years, and blessed by God in all things.” One of Abraham’s more challenging “blessings” must have been a deep anxiety about the security and wellbeing of his son, Isaac. It was through Isaac, after all, that God’s covenant promise of the land would pass on to his descendants. Yet, Abraham certainly knew that Isaac, living apart, had been hurt and weakened at Moriah and then upon the news of his mother’s death.

As a result, after burying Sarah, Abraham pours much of his remaining life energy into preparing his servant to find the right wife to accompany Isaac and help lead their way in the future. Abraham’s hope is powerful, yet his body is so frail he doesn’t live to see the results of the mission he initiates.

As the text tells of his servant’s work, our hearts go out to the worrying and waiting Abraham who sent him and the wounded and lonely Isaac who has yet to sense the blessing that will come his way. We enjoy the tale of Rebecca and her family, but our emotions go to the peace that will be restored to Abraham’s soul as well as optimism for the future of Isaac and Rebecca.

With the certainty of perpetuating God’s way in the next generation assured, life on this earth for Sarah and Abraham ends. Yet, we sense their enduring presence in the lives that follow.

How fitting it is that our accompanying story tells of the end of David’s life. David, too, is ill, cold, and indeed unable to become warm. Yet, he summons the energy to assure that his successor will pass on the destiny of the people.

One of David’s sons seeks to seize the throne, though it had been sworn to Solomon. Upon hearing the news of this plot, David acts immediately to effect Solomon’s succession.

In gratitude, Bathsheba bows down, prostrates herself before the king, and says, “May my lord King David live forever!” Though David dies shortly thereafter, it is true with him, as it was with Sarah and Abraham, that a person who extends God’s ways to the next generation lives on.