Due to the widespread famine in Canaan, Jacob and his family descended to Egypt to live under Joseph’s care. Before the journey, G-d appeared to Jacob and said “Don’t fear going down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you and I will also take you out (Gen. 46:3).” Wouldn’t this move to Egypt prove to be the beginning of hundreds of years of painful enslavement under ruthless taskmasters? Jacob knew of Abraham ‘s prophecy that his offspring would endure slavery and oppression in a foreign land for hundreds of years (Gen. 15:13). Why shouldn’t he have feared this impending horror?
The truth is that yes, Jacob had reason to fear. But G-d’s promise — that He would be with Jacob’s children all along and that ultimately they would emerge a great nation — gave Jacob the strength to overcome it. G-d, in His Wisdom, sent the Jewish people to Egypt to build them into a great nation. Life in Egypt would be difficult, torturous and deadly at times, but our Father swore to never let go of our hands throughout the surgery. He promised that the Jewish People would leave with new strength and a promising future. A nation committed to G-d, one that would introduce and instill spiritual purpose into the world, would come out at the other end.
Pain is commonplace, and it’s our Egypt. “That’s life!” as they say, but it’s far too glib. Take a moment to consider some of the difficulties you’ve gone through, where the pain has now subsided. Did that experience change the way you look at and value life, your family, or your community? Did you grow or learn from the trying times? Jacob learned the importance of remembering that G-d is with us throughout our suffering, and to focus on the rewards on the other side. We often merit seeing the blessing hidden in the sorrow, if we take a moment to appreciate it.
Experiencing continual anxiety and fear is a terrible thing. According to Rabbi Dixler, we should look back on some crisis we’ve experienced in life and see how we made it through it all, and then determine how we changed and grew as a result. Difficult times are often a “hidden blessing.” Yes, I suppose that’s true. But if we take the example of Jacob and God as we see in Genesis 46:3, even though Jacob knew that his family; his descendents would suffer slavery and oppression in Egypt for centuries, he had God’s direct assurance that they would rise up out of Egypt and become a great nation.
But what happens when you are the one facing a challenge in your life or in your family? God rarely gives us, as individual believers, His personal assurance as to how things will turn out. The vast majority of the time, we don’t have a clue what’s going to happen from day-to-day or even hour-to-hour. Did the parents of those 26 children murdered at their school in Newtown, Connecticut have any idea at all that when they sent their precious ones off on that fateful Friday morning, they’d never see them alive again?
Of course not. If they did, the parents would never have let them go.
We don’t know what’s going to happen an hour from now, a day from now, a year from now. When tragedy strikes or even threatens to strike, such as an ambiguous and disturbing medical test result requiring a visit to a specialist in the near future, you have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen and how it’s going to turn out. So you live with the concern and anxiety of not knowing, sitting on proverbial “pins and needles.” Rabbi Dixler has a suggestion for how we are to endure tragedy and I suppose, the threat of future tragedy as well.
It’s now just a week since the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, and we’re all afflicted with new fears and feelings of helplessness. We don’t know why this had to happen, but perhaps there’s one thought that can give us strength: Someone Who loves us is holding our hand, and the hands of our precious children. Turn to Him for reassurance. May we soon see the other end of this pain, and may we all find new strength and a more promising future.
In other words, there are no guarantees from God that we won’t suffer from tragedy and pain. The only promise is that God loves us and will stand with us, holding our hand, so to speak, while going through the anguish with us.
Supposedly, that’s exactly what God did with His people Israel every moment of their captivity in Egypt. Supposedly, that’s exactly what God did with His people Israel every moment during the Holocaust. And yet millions suffered and died, including many, many innocent children.
I’ve been reading the book of Job for the past couple of weeks and in the midst of all of his quite undeserved suffering, he had no idea what was happening to him or why. He was completely bewildered about why God should allow such terrible things to happen to him, since he could figure out no reason for it. His friends, on the other hand, were quite content to blame Job, most likely sincerely believing that the reason for Job’s pain and anguish was because of some sin. I haven’t gotten to the end of the book yet and I read Job very infrequently, but as I recall, it was only at the very end that God “explained Himself” and He also explained that “He who makes the universe also makes the rules.” In other words, you don’t get to question God. Sometimes God just “happens.”
Some cynics say that religion is a crutch for people who fear death. That may sometimes be the case, but it certainly does not apply to those who study Torah. The Torah does not say much about life after death. It’s really not a book about how to go to heaven or what happens after we die. The Torah is more concerned with how we live in this lifetime, not the next. It is possible to read the entire Torah and conclude that there is no afterlife or resurrection from the dead. In the days of the apostles, a sect of Judaism called the Sadducees did exactly that. They read the Torah, did not see anything about an afterlife, and concluded that there is no afterlife, no heaven or hell, no resurrection from the dead.
There isn’t even the promise of life after death, at least as far as a plain reading of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) is concerned, which is what led the Sadducees to their conclusion. However, as the FFOZ commentator points out, a study of the Torah tells us more about how to live than how to die, or more accurately, it is a study of how to live in this life not the next one.
But now we have a puzzle. If the foundation of the Bible is a lesson on how to live our lives as we exist in this world and there are no guarantees as to how this life will turn out for us, shouldn’t we continually be in fear, trembling all of the time about what apparently random circumstance is going to happen next? It’s either that or live in denial of everything I just said and either pretend that we have control of our lives or that God, being in control, will never, ever let anything bad happen to us.
Death would almost be preferable, because then, there’s no uncertainty, no fear, no pain (assuming there is no life after death). Just an end and nothingness.
But the FFOZ commentator continues.
Once, a Pharisee named Rabbi Simai was arguing with the Sadducees. They asked him to prove from the Torah that the dead would be raised.
Rabbi Simai said, “From where in Torah do we learn the resurrection of the dead? From the verse, ‘I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan.’ It doesn’t say ‘[to give] you’; it says ‘to give them.’ Therefore [since Abraham, Isaac and Jacob haven’t yet received the land] the resurrection of the dead is proved from the Torah.” (b.Sanhedrin 90b, quoting Exodus 6:4)
Rabbi Simai’s point is that God promised to give the land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—not just to their descendents. Yet, as the writer of the book of Hebrews points out, the patriarchs “died in faith, without receiving the promises” (Hebrews 11:13). God must keep His promise, but in order to do so, He will have to raise the patriarchs from the dead. This explains why Jacob was so adamant about being buried in the tomb of his fathers in the land of Canaan.
Rabbi Simai’s argument with the Sadducees sounds similar to Yeshua’s. When the Sadducees asked Yeshua to prove from the Torah that the dead are raised, He pointed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:
But regarding the fact that the dead rise again, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. (Mark 12:26–27, quoting Exodus 3:6)
There is a hope of a life after this one, both in Jewish and Christian tradition. Sure, there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge and we don’t really know exactly how it all works, but I guess that’s where faith and trust comes in.
Faith and trust also “fills in the gaps” of our lives in this world and this life as well. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Life is a mystery and not always in an exciting and fun way. The mystery can be horrifying and terrible. Disaster has struck. We tell ourselves we can only go up from the bottom, but what if the bottom drops out? We can still fall further. We can still suffer more. After Hurricane Sandy devastated New York and New Jersey, it’s not like everything got immediately better for the victims. Many are still struggling to recover. It may take years for some people to restore everything they lost. Maybe some of them never will.
Where is God?
I ask that question a lot. If Rabbi Dixler’s interpretation is correct, then God is with us all the time, even in the midst of hideous pain and suffering. According to Rabbi Dixler, God is not just an impassive observer, watching us as we writhe in agony or shiver in fear. He’s an active if unseen (and unfelt) participant in our pain, experiencing it with us, expressing compassion, demonstrating love, though we may not be consciously aware of it.
We just have to believe He is there and that He somehow helps. We just have to somehow trust in His presence and His concern, that He will not leave us alone, even though we can feel very much alone.
Not a great message to start out your week with, especially since this is Christmas Eve (for those of you who celebrate Christmas). A message of uncertainly with only faith to hang on to in a season most Christians believe is one of ultimate hope, joy, and glory.
That’s the “official story” of Christianity at this time of year. I didn’t go to church again this Sunday. I have my reasons, but basically, I just didn’t feel like it. I didn’t feel like listening to and singing Christmas Caroles, hearing the “oh boy, isn’t it great that Christmas is almost here” messages, and “joy, joy, joy to the world” and all that jazz.
God, I would love some “joy, joy, joy” in my life and in the world, but I’ll settle for the knowledge and assuredness that no matter what I and my family must face now and in the future, that you will truly be with us all, strengthening us and comforting us in the bad times, and rejoicing with us in the good times.