Thursday, January 29, 2015

B'shallach - After he had let go

B'shallach - After he had let go
Sh'mot 13:17-17:16

I will be focusing this week on the third aliyot (they are separate for Ashkenazi and Sephardic this week - I will cover both) of Parasha B'shallach. Basically, Sh'mot 14:15-15:21. At this point, the Israelites have left Egypt and Elohim has led them to travel through the desert in a roundabout way to the Sea of Suf. Elohim had them to avoid the main highway so that the people would not see warfare and become afraid. I suspect that He also had another reason to take them on the slower route, He needed to let the Egyptians catch up. The Israelites have now been pinned against the Sea by Pharaoh's army. While the people have become very fearful and are losing confidence, they are about to witness one of the greatest demonstrations ever of YHVH's power.

Moshe has tried to calm the people by letting them know that YHVH will do battle with Pharaoh on the people's behalf. It doesn't appear that they are interested in listening. When Moshe speaks to YHVH about it, His response is to tell Moshe to stop crying and move forward! He commands Moshe to reach his staff over the sea and part the waters. Despite the Hollywood depictions, this was not an instantaneous event. The water didn't just roll away and let the people run through. Reading on, we see that YHVH sent a strong east wind that blew the waters back all night. During this time of vulnerability, YHVH (appearing as a column of fire and cloud) moved from in front of the people to behind them. We all know that YHVH has been leading the people as a column of cloud by day and fire by night. I find it interesting to note that He seems to be appearing as both when He moved behind the people. It says that there was cloud and darkness on one side (the Egyptians), but light by night on the other (Israelites). How symbolic of the ninth plague and Israel's command to be the light in the darkness. He placed Himself between His people and their enemy. He cut off their sight of their past and their troubles. Is it any different today? If we trust in Him, will He not separate us from our past troubles while leading us in the proper direction? Will He not remove any obstacle that will prevent us from reaching His promise?

Once the ground between the waters was dry, the Israelites began their journey. Many explanations have been put forth to explain this mighty miracle as something natural, or an exaggerated event. None of them can explain how the ground was dry, yet water was walled up on the left and the right of the people. An earthquake causing a tsunami may explain the water pulling back and exposing land. It can even explain the water crashing back over the Egyptians just before dawn. It cannot explain their being a wall of water on the other side of the people. It also can't explain the walls staying there all night long while the people crossed. Three million people do not cross a sea quickly, no matter who is pursuing them. There are some who say the water was only a few inches deep where they crossed. That doesn't fit the description by any stretch of the imagination. It also fails to explain how YHVH could drown all those horses and cavalry in three inches of water. It seems to me, that would also be a miracle!

As the Egyptians pursued the Israelites into the sea, YHVH caused panic among them. He broke the wheels off their chariots to slow them down. He caused so much havoc that it says "The Egyptians said, 'YHVH is fighting for Isra'el against the Egyptians! Let's get away from them!'" Isn't that amazing? The Egyptians wanted to get away from the Egyptians. So who were these Egyptians that fled? Read who YHVH said would be destroyed in the sea, and notice who is not mentioned. The chariots, their riders, and the cavalry were slated for destruction. What about the foot soldiers that would have traveled with them? The attendants and servants that would have kept the army ready to fight the Israelites? Remember that not all Egyptian soldiers joined the army voluntarily. And not all Egyptians were of Egyptian descent. Many had families who had been conquered or came to Egypt to escape famine, like the Israelites. Therefore, Egyptians could escape the fate of the Egyptians. Who do you think spread the stories ahead of the Israelites as they traveled through the desert?

Once the people of Israel had crossed the sea, Moshe reached out his hand again and the waters returned to normal depth. As mentioned above, the chariots and cavalry were all destroyed... "not even one of them was left." The Israelites saw the dead Egyptians washed up on the shore of the sea. Scripture says that seeing this mighty deed made Isra'el fear YHVH and believe in YHVH and in Moshe. After all that they had gone through and seen in Egypt, the people finally believed in YHVH and His mighty power.

The first 21 verses of Sh'mot 15 gives us the pattern for how we should always respond to the awesome works of YHVH. The people sang and danced and gave praise to YHVH. I have to wonder if the people really understood that the song they were singing was telling prophecy. They sang about events in their future as if they were a done deal. Indeed, they were. The important thing to note is that they were praising YHVH and rejoicing in things that had not yet happened. While their faith didn't always stay as strong as it should, at this point it was rock-solid. This is another one of those not-so-subtle lessons in how we should walk out our faith in Him. We should be thanking and praising Him for all the wondrous deeds He has done in our lives. For every victory we have through Him over adversities and attacks of the enemy. But we should also be rejoicing in the belief in what He will do in the future. There are so many prophecies for His people that have not yet been fulfilled. Like our people coming out of the sea, we should be dancing and singing to Him for the fulfillment we know is yet to come.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bo (Go?)

Bo (Go?)
Sh'mot 10:1-13:16

This Torah portion is named for the command that Yahweh gives to Moshe to "go" in to Pharaoh and warn him of the next plague. However, as we can see just two verses later, this word also (and probably more correctly) means "come". If we change translations in verse one, does it change the meaning of what Yahweh is telling Moshe? Of course it does! Why else would I ask the question? Let's take a look at the connotations of the different translations.

If Yahweh is saying go in to Pharaoh, we get a picture of Moshe being sent away from Yahweh into the presence of Pharaoh. This is the equivalent of me telling my kids "Go to your room" or "Go outside and play". It's clear that I'm not going outside or to their rooms with them. They are departing from my presence. Does this sound like the way Yahweh operates? I don't think so. That would be a pretty significant violation of His promise to always be with His chosen people. It doesn't seem right that He would say "I will never leave you nor forsake you, now go away."

If Yahweh is saying come in to Pharaoh, we can visualize Yahweh leading Moshe into Pharaoh's throne room. If I say "Come to the synagogue", it is implied that we will be together. Therefore, we can translate this as Yahweh saying "Come with Me to Pharaoh". I think this is a better fit with what I know about Yahweh (granted that's not as much as I would like). So, "bo" along with me as we delve deeper into this week's parasha.

As we begin this portion, Moshe and Aharon have come to give Pharaoh another warning. Locusts! Aharon warns Pharaoh that the locusts will cover the entire land, worse than has ever been seen before. We immediately see a small, but very significant, change in the dynamics of Egyptian life. Before Pharaoh has a chance to respond, his servants begin to argue with him. Imagine, servants speaking apparently rather boldly to their "god-king". What would cause them to do the unthinkable? Remember the preceding plague? That's right, hail, the first plague to kill people. Which people would have been killed by the hail? I would suggest that few regular Egyptians were out working in the fields with livestock. It would have been the servants that had to face the danger. Who had to die. These servants who had placed their trust in Pharaoh to protect them. And now, Pharaoh is still arguing with Moshe and Aharon instead of ending the plagues. How important were the lives of servants to their king? The evidence was not favorable for Pharaoh.

These servants were witnesses to opposing attitudes from two different deities. One, their Pharaoh, was seemingly indifferent to the suffering of lowly servants. He was only strongly vocal when the plagues inconvenienced Pharaoh. The other, Yahweh, who was willing to destroy an entire nation to free and protect a bunch of slaves. The lowest of the low, the most despised in all the land. These were the people important enough to Yahweh to make His presence felt with extreme prejudice. As we read through the accounts of the plagues, we see Yahweh systematically attacking various aspects of Egyptian society. He attacks them economically, psychologically, and theologically. Now he continues the trend and attacks their faith and trust in their king. I wonder how many of the mixed multitude that left Egypt were servants.

To Pharaoh's credit, he actually listens to his servants and offers to let the Israelites go and worship Yahweh. Until he hears who is going. His reaction to the news that ALL the Israelites are leaving? "Ain't happening! Yahweh will have to be with you to get all of you out of here." Who knew that Pharaoh was a prophet? Albeit not a very enlightened one, apparently. He didn't bother to listen to his own statements. With his refusal to let them go, the plagues must go on. Here "bo" the locusts. A strong east wind brings locusts that cover the entire land, destroying all plants and trees in Egypt. We now see an amazing change in Pharaoh. He summons Moshe and admits to sinning against both Yahweh and Moshe. He actually asks for forgiveness and asks Moshe to intercede with Yahweh to remove the locusts. Humility from Pharaoh! Who'd a thunk it? Yahweh responds and removes the locusts with a strong west wind. There "bo" the locusts. But He hardens Pharaoh's heart again. His plan is not yet complete.

The penultimate plague is another no-warning plague. At Yahweh's command, Moshe lifts his staff and darkness descends on the land. There is no light anywhere in Egypt, except Goshen. The Israelites have light in all their homes. I will leave you this week to ponder the significance of the Israelites being the only source of light in a darkened world. Is there a chance for His people to be a light in a darkened world again? Must we wait, or are we expected to be that light now?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Va'era (I appeared)

Va'era (I appeared)
Sh'mot 6:2-9:35

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This is going to be one of my longer posts. This week's Torah portion has much that we can learn beyond the basics of the plague stories that we all know so well. I will be discussing two topics that I have named "The Plague Pattern" and "The Staff of God". I will go into detail about both of these topics as we go along.

But first, I want to address the beginning of the Torah portion when YHVH seems to contradict his own Torah. In Sh'mot (Exodus) 6:3 Yahweh says “…I did not make myself known to them by my name, YHVH.” Yet, His name is shown repeatedly in Torah during the stories of Avraham, Ya’akov, etc. We even see in B'resheet (Genesis) 32:9 that Ya'akov refers to Him as Yahweh. So how can they not have known His name? To understand this statement, we must understand that a name is more than just a name. It is not enough for someone to know that my name is Robbie. There are plenty of people named Robbie running around, mostly unsupervised. There is even another one running around inside my own house. Therefore, if I tell someone that I am Robbie, I haven't really told them that much about me. To make a name known is to show the full meaning of the one who owns the name. If I tell you my last name, where I live, that I am a husband and father, you begin to know more of who I am. In the context of Torah study and instruction, I can tell you that at our synagogue, I am the Gabbai (like an MC, I control the order of service, lead announcements and liturgy, etc.), I am an elder, I am a teacher, and I am the son of the head Rabbi. Now you can start to understand more of me and my authority to write this blog. Each new bit of information gets you closer to "knowing my name".

For the Patriarchs, they did not yet know the full extent of YHVH’s power and might. They had only begun to see some of who He is. While they had the promise of YHVH, they had not yet seen the fulfillment of His promise. That fulfillment would be seen by their descendants. Someone's name is his reputation. In other words, we are known by our actions. Looking back from our present day, we can see that fulfilling the promise to give the land to Avraham's descendants made His name known.

Read verses 4-8 of this chapter and you will see YHVH explaining to the Israelites how He will make His name known. He reminds them of the covenant, describes how He will fulfill that covenant, and then finishes His description with His name, showing the completion of His introduction.

According to the prophets of the Tanakh and Revelation, He will make His name known again.

Now let's get to the topics I mentioned above.

The Staff of God

This topic actually starts with last week's Torah portion. As we all know, when Yahweh spoke to Moshe at the burning bush, He got Moshe's attention through the staff that Moshe carried. As a shepherd, he would always have his staff when in the field. It made for a good teaching tool. It also shows us a pattern that Yahweh still uses today. Something ordinary, when used by Yahweh and for Yahweh, becomes extraordinary. A staff, a rock in the desert, a teenager too small to fight a giant. These are only a few examples. But there are times when even the extraordinary isn't quite enough.

In Sh'mot 4:2-4, we see Moshe's staff turn into a snake. When Moshe picks it up, it reverts back to a staff. This is important; Moshe is now holding his staff in his hand. Now read verse 17. It's OK. I'll wait.

Are you back? Good. If Moshe is already holding his staff in his hand, as verse 4 tells us that he is, what staff is Yahweh telling him to take? If you were holding a bottle of your favorite beverage (mmm... Mt. Dew) and said "Here, take this Mt. Dew", would you think I was referring to the one in your hand, or to a new one that I am giving you? If I wanted you to take the one in your hand, I would say "your Mt. Dew", not "this Mt. Dew." See the difference? Read verse 17 again. There is no use of "your". Now go to verse 20 and read the second sentence. I'm waiting again.

Welcome back. Did you see anything interesting in that verse. Whose staff did Moshe take with him to Egypt? Who's staff was needed to perform miracles in Egypt? Why did Moshe need to take God's staff to Egypt instead of his own? We already saw it turn into a snake once. Why couldn't it be used for the same purpose again? I think the better question to ask is, in who's authority was Moshe to act in Egypt?

In Midian, Moshe's staff was his tool for exercising power and control over his flocks. Moshe didn't go to Egypt to display his own power. He was given authority by Yahweh, and therefore needed a symbol of Yahweh's power. Hence, the staff of God.

The Hebrew word for staff is matteh. Interestingly, this word can be translated as rod, staff, branch, or tribe. It can refer to a rod of correction, a ruling sceptre, a lance, a walking staff, or figuratively as a support of life. In the case of God's staff in Egypt, we can see it being used for correction of Pharaoh, a ruling sceptre to show Yahweh's authority given to Moshe, and as a support of life in saving the Israelites from Pharaoh. Remember, Yahweh doesn't give us a single lesson to learn with each of His actions. Everything we read in Torah has many meanings and layers of meaning. I challenge you to spend some time rereading these chapters, substituting each meaning of matteh, and looking for new understanding. This is also a good way to find connections to other verses throughout the Tanakh and B'rit Chadasha that use the same word in different contexts.

Speaking of Moshe using the power of Yahweh in Egypt, that leads us to our next topic.

The Plague Pattern

Anyone who has studied Torah for any length of time or has heard me teach a time or two is aware that Yahweh uses patterns. The cyclical pattern is very clear and applies in micro and macro scale throughout scripture. As we continue to study, though, we can see other patterns emerging. In this Torah portion, we can see patterns in the order and types of plagues that are brought upon Egypt. The plagues in this portion are grouped into three sets of three. The final plague is a capstone that closes out the pattern while keeping itself separate.

Let's begin with the first three plagues. These three are different from the rest in that they affected the Israelites as well as the Egyptians. Within these three we can see a pattern that is unique to this set. The first plague, turning the water to blood, was duplicated by Pharaoh's magicians. It appeared from the start that Pharaoh was as powerful as Yahweh. It is important to remember that Yahweh allowed this to be seen by the Israelites. They needed to see the power of Pharaoh. The second plague, frogs, was also duplicated by the magicians. However, there was a problem. They could not get rid of the frogs. Pharaoh was forced to ask Moshe to have Yahweh remove the frogs. The Israelites and Egyptians began to see that Yahweh was stronger than Pharaoh. Now came the third plague, lice. This was the final plague to affect Israel. Pharaoh's magicians were forced to admit that they could not duplicate this feat. They had no choice but to acknowledge that this was a work of God. More importantly, Israel had no choice but to acknowledge it also.

When the fourth plague, insects (or flies, or wild beasts - the meaning of the word is unclear) comes, we begin to see another pattern. If you look at the first nine plagues in groups of three as I mentioned earlier, you will see that the first of each set starts with Moshe and Aharon speaking to Pharaoh at the river. These were very public pronouncements made to Pharaoh where everyone could see and hear them. They were public challenges to his authority and power. The second of each set is preceded by Moshe and Aharon approaching Pharaoh in his throne room. While the announcements are less public, they are more threatening to Pharaoh's seat of power. They are a direct confrontation where he is strongest. Finally, the third plague comes without warning. No proclamations are made and Pharaoh is given no chance to avoid the plague by releasing the Israelites. These plagues show Pharaoh that Yahweh can do anything he wants in Egypt, with our without Pharaoh's knowledge, and there is nothing Pharaoh can do about it.

Another pattern is seen in the types of plagues in each group and the escalating severity. In each group there is a large-scale annoyance plague, an all-pervasive plague, and a deadly plague, all increasing in intensity and severity. These do not stay in the same order in each group, possibly as a way of intensifying the fear and uncertainty gripping the land. The annoyance plagues consist of frogs, insects, and locusts. Each gets harder to deal with until the last destroys their food supply. The next group are the all-pervasive plagues. The lice, like the frogs, are everywhere. They are much smaller and nearly impossible to remove. The boils come upon everyone in a fine dust that is unavoidable. Finally, the darkness that was impenetrable. These escalated from very annoying, to painful, to terrifying. Finally, there were the deadly plagues. The first plague was turning the water to blood. We see that all the fish died. While unpleasant and rough on the seafood industry, it was not a long-term hardship for the Egyptians. The next was the livestock disease. Killing all the animals was a significant hit to the Egyptian economy and food supply. Finally, in group three, we have the hail. This is the first plague to kill humans and is therefore the worst of the death plagues. Until we get to the final plague which combines features of every group.

The last plague included an annoyance; can't go out after dark. It was all-pervasive; every Egyptian home was affected. And it was the most devastating death plague. It was a targeted killing that struck the very fabric of Egyptian society, including Pharaoh's own house. Yahweh pulled out all the stops. The message from this final plague was clear. Pharaoh tried to destroy Yahweh's firstborn, Israel. Yahweh succeeded in destroying Pharaoh's firstborn. He disrupted the line of succession and inheritance. The last plague had permanent effects for Egypt. And for Pharaoh.

The patterns don't end with the plagues themselves. Yahweh was also setting up a pattern for Israel's future. As I mentioned earlier, Yahweh will make His name known again. We read of a Greater Exodus that will take place. What patterns can you see in the prophecies of this time?