Tag Archives: courage

Paul Picks Up His Cross

pick-up-your-crossAnd when they came to him, he said to them:

“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again.

Acts 20:18-25 (ESV)

While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem.

Acts 21:10-12 (ESV)

Several days ago, in my blog post about my second conversation with Pastor Randy on D. Thomas Lancaster’s Galatians book, I discussed the possibility that Paul may have lied to the Jews in Jerusalem about teaching the diaspora Jews to not circumcise their sons and not follow the Torah of Moses. Was Paul afraid for his life and out of that fear, would he have lied or “bent the truth” about any portion of his mission in order to save himself?

I gave my opinion, based on my general understanding of Paul, that he would not have lied and he would have unflinchingly told the truth about his activities among the diaspora Jews and God-fearing Gentile believers, regardless of the consequences. I found the concrete proof (blame my failing middle-age memory for not recalling these verses earlier) in the passages of scripture I quoted above. Not only would he face many hardships to serve the Master, but he had a pretty good idea that once he entered Jerusalem, he might not be leaving again alive.

But he went to Jerusalem anyway, even after repeated warnings not to go. And once he was in Jerusalem and his adversaries among the Jewish people began to respond to the false rumors about him, he followed the advice of James and the elders to quickly reassure the Jewish population, including the believing Jews who were zealous for the Torah, that he had not forsaken the customs of their fathers, the Law of Moses, and was not teaching other Jews to abandon the Torah.

What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.

Acts 21:22-24 (ESV)

Later passages in Acts 21 and beyond tell us that the rumors continued and the prophesied troubles of Paul that were a consequence of his entering Jerusalem all came to pass. But Paul went to Jerusalem with high hopes:

Paul wanted to present these [God-fearing Gentile] men to the apostles and Jewish believers in Jerusalem. He hoped that the character and quality of the delegates would silence his critics and set all fears to rest about the type of disciple he raised in the Diaspora.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Commentary on Acts 20-21:14, read with Torah Portion Tzav (“Command”), pg 651
Torah Club Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles

Paul-ArrestedOne of those Gentile disciples that Paul wanted to present to the apostles was probably Trophimus the Ephesian, the man some Jews from Asia thought Paul had taken into the Temple, defiling the Holy Place. Again, this wasn’t true, but as Winston Churchill once said, “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Apparently that was true nearly 2,000 years before Churchill was born and I don’t doubt that it’s true today. The sad outcome is that Paul stood condemned before the Jewish population of Jerusalem based on a fabric of lies that whipped the crowds into a frenzied riot.

But Paul knew he would face hard trials before they actually happened and nevertheless, went ahead into Jerusalem to accept whatever God had planned for him.

And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.

Acts 20:22-23 (ESV)

The dedication of Paul to God was remarkable, but then again, a disciple always seeks to emulate the life of his Master, even unto death.

And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.

John 10:16-18 (ESV)

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

John 15:13 (ESV)

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”

Luke 22:42 (ESV)

Paul also emulated his Master by being a “good shepherd” to his own flock, and as such, Paul strived to make provisions for their continuation and guidance under other “good shepherds.”

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

Acts 20:8-35 (ESV)

Paul knew the dangers that the believing Jews and Gentiles in the diaspora were facing, particularly if Paul would no longer be alive or at least not be free to continue to visit them and support them with his letters. So he, like Moses before him, gave them a warning to watch out for apostasy and for “wolves” who would come in and surely lead them astray. He also very likely knew, just as Moses did, that apostasy was inevitable.

For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.”

Deuteronomy 31:29 (ESV)

In his letter to the mixed congregation of believing Jews and Gentiles in Rome, he tried exceedingly hard to give the same warning.

So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!

Romans 11:11-12 (ESV)

Read the entire chapter for the full argument, but it seems apparent to me that Paul was urging the Jewish and Gentile disciples to regard each other as equal before God in salvation and access, working as different parts with different functions and responsibilities, but all operating in a single body:

For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

Romans 12:4-5 (ESV)

So, in what he knew was his final journey to Jerusalem and possibly the last journey of his life, Paul encouraged the “shepherds” placed over the Master’s flocks, to “feed the sheep.”

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

John 21:15-17 (ESV)

the-shepherdOther passages in the letters of Paul testify to his disregard for his own safety and even his life in the service of the Master. Consider 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10, 6:4-10, Philippians 1:19-26, 2:17, 3:8, and 2 Timothy 4:6.

No, Paul did not lie, bend the truth, or misrepresent any of his actions in order to protect himself. The Paul we see in Acts 21 is the genuine Paul, who was given a hard task by his Master and Lord, and fulfilled it with remarkable courage in the face of overwhelming hardships. He never told the diaspora Jews to not follow the Torah of Moses or the traditions. He never encouraged Jews to not circumcise their sons. He never taught anyone against the Jewish people, against the Temple, or against the Law.

Even when he knew that disaster awaited him in Jerusalem, he did not fail, he did not shirk his responsibilities, but instead, continued to follow where Jesus the Nazarene led him.

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Matthew 16:21-28 (ESV)

Should such a time come in our lives when the Master asks us to pick up our cross and follow him, to offer more of ourselves than we would like to give, even including our lives, may we remain as steadfast in our mission as Paul, the Jew from Tarsus, the good shepherd.

A Human Heart…and Courage

vicki-sotoWhen a crazed gunman opened fire inside a Connecticut elementary school – murdering 26 children and adults – first grade teacher Vicki Soto responded with an astonishingly selfless act.

Upon hearing the first rounds of gunfire in an adjacent classroom, the 27-year-old teacher went into lockdown mode, quickly ushering her students into a closet. Then suddenly, as she came face to face with the gunman and the bullets flew, she used her body to shield the children.

Vicki Soto was found dead, huddled over her students, protecting them.

We all mourn this unspeakable tragedy.

Yet where did this young woman get the strength and conviction to perform such an extraordinary act of bravery?

-Rabbi Shraga Simmons
“A Hero in Connecticut”

The world we live in is certainly broken. This broken state is causing us to ask questions on ways to begin to fix it. The issues are complex and go way beyond single issues or problems like guns, video games, violence in movies, etc. The generational problems and patterns have brought us to this place. It will take new behaviors and patterns to eventually repair it. It will not come fast, or easy.

I think the world has become increasingly rude and mean. This has devastating effects on our culture—and leads to permanent scars and horrifying behaviors.

I recently read an article by Dr. Douglas Fields entitled, Rudeness is a Neurotoxin, where he states, “A disrespectful, stressful social environment is a neurotoxin for the brain and psyche, and the scars are permanent.”

-Boaz Michael
“Why are Some People so Rude?”

Boaz wrote about one of my “favorite themes” on his personal blog earlier today, but in light of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (which he was obviously alluding to) and the resulting verbal response (onslaught) in the news media and on the web, he probably didn’t take it far enough.

I don’t mean to say that rude people are potentially dangerous and violent people, but on the other hand, the Master had this today about both situations.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

Matthew 5:21-22 (ESV)

Does anger equal murder? Certainly anger and jealousy has led to murder, including the first one ever recorded, but in adding rudeness to this discussion, am I taking things too far? Am I exaggerating my issues with rudeness? And what does any of this have to do with Vicki Soto and her courageous and selfless act of heroism?

One of the definitions of “rude” or “rudeness” at The Free Dictionary is “Ill-mannered; discourteous.” When we think of a rude person, it’s difficult not to think of someone who is more focused on their own emotional gratification than on the well-being of others. A rude person shoves and cuts in line. A rude person at a shared meal, takes the largest portion. A rude person reveals an embarrassing detail about a friend in public.

In other words, a rude person cares more about themselves than about others.

Kind of the opposite of 27-year old teacher Vicki Soto who purposely put herself in harm’s way and gave her life for the care and safety of small children. She literally used herself as a human shield, taking the bullets that would have otherwise penetrated the bodies of the tiniest, most cherished ones; our children (and they are all our children).

Boaz says on his blog, Rude people are not godly people. Then he continues:

A reminder from a biblical source:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful …” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5 ESV)

A reminder through Jewish wisdom:

It is a mitzvah for every person to love every Jew as himself, as it is written “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Therefore we must relate his virtues. To be concerned about his property the way we are about our own, and about his honor the way we are about our own. If a person glorifies himself in the shame of his neighbor even if his neighbor is not there, and the shame does not reach him, and is not embarrassed, but he compared his good deeds and his wisdom to compare with the good deeds, and wisdom of his neighbor, so that from this it may appear that he is a very honorable person and his neighbor a despicable person. This person has no share in the world to come, until he repents with complete repentance. (Kitzure Shulchan Aruch 29:12)

A reminder through apocryphal literature:

Yeshua said, “Love your brother like your soul, guard him like the pupil of your eye.” Gospel of Thomas 25

Rabbi Simmons summed up the life of Vicki Soto and her inspiration to us in this way.

Vicki Soto’s great act of devotion should inspire us to take 10 minutes today and ponder: “What am I living for?”

Finding the answer is a big project. But there’s no better use of our time and energy. Because if we don’t know what higher purpose we’re pursuing, then we’re living like zombies, just going through the motions.

Vicki Soto was up to the challenge. “She didn’t call them her students,” her sister Carlee told NBC. “She called them her kids. She loved those students more than anything.”

She loved her students so much that she referred to them as her “little angels.” In reaching the ultimate level of devotion and saving their lives, Vicki Soto reached beyond the angels.

APTOPIX Connecticut School ShootingWhen we get into our little “Internet spats” in the blogosphere, in discussion boards, or in social networking applications such as Facebook, we often believe we are fighting for what is really important to us. Somehow, we use that as a way to internally justify our rudeness. But as Rabbi Simmons points out, when we find something or someone, some small collection of “little angels” who really are important, then exhibiting behaviors indicative of selfishness and self-gratification doesn’t even enter the picture. Quite the opposite. Courage, like love, is selfless, patient, and kind. Like Vicki Soto, love and courage bears all things and endures all things.

And it never ends even though life may end.

But everything else we do ends. As Paul says, “As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. “ (1 Corinthians 13:8-10 ESV)

I have been trying to stop being so foolish as to participate in online interactions with human attack dogs. Vicki Soto’s remarkable self-sacrifice has provided me another reason not just to cease such fruitless activities, but to strive to become a better person, both in my private life and in my “blogging persona.”

Nothing I can say, no goal I could ever achieve, both professionally as a writer or in any personal sense could equal Vicki’s greatest qualities, which writer Archie Goodwin once described as:

“A human heart…and courage.”

Most of us will never find ourselves in a situation where we have to choose between our life and someone else’s, but as Rabbi Simmons suggests, we can take a few minutes out of our busy day to ask ourselves, “what am I living for?” If you want to give Vicki’s life and the lives of all who have suffered and died for the sake of love, caring, and compassion any sort of meaning, let your answer be to help another human being in some way, great or small.

And, to go Paul McCartney one better, in the end, may the love you make be greater than the love you take.

Visions of Inner Pain and Beauty

When dealing with a person you find difficult, keep in mind that this person’s way of behaving and thinking might be causing him to suffer even more than he is causing you to suffer. See life from his point of view – and be compassionate.

“Understanding Difficult People”
-for more essays on this topic
see Rabbi Pliskin’s “Gateway to Self Knowledge,” p.203
quoted from Aish.com

Last week I wrote on this topic in my “meditation” Blessing the Nudnik. But since the term nudnik has negative connotations, and since I have dedicated all of my meditations this week to topics and themes that are positive and uplifting, I thought I’d take advantage of a few quotes from Aish.com to come at this concept from a different angle.

First of all, I’m willing to believe that the vast, vast majority of people I consider to be “difficult” don’t see themselves that way at all. In fact, in any disagreement between them and me, I don’t doubt for a second that they see themselves as “in the right” and view me as the difficult person.

And I probably am a difficult person to deal with, at least sometimes (see my wife for a full and unedited list of my faults…I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek).

I’m not a perfect person. No, not even close. I can be wrong. And I have been wrong.

So, as I said yesterday, an awareness that we can be difficult people, that we can have shortcomings, that we can feel hurt and disappointment, and that we can be unfair and unkind, should allow us to feel empathy for those people who are like us and sometimes act in a “difficult” manner.

But of course, that requires a great deal of painful personal honesty and the ability to publicly make use of that awareness, thus becoming vulnerable to others who may take advantage of our self-exposure.

But then again…

There is no person on earth so righteous, who does only good and does not sin. –Ecclesiastes 7:20

Reading the suggestions for ridding oneself of character defects, someone might say, “These are all very helpful for someone who has character defects, but I do not see anything about myself that is defective.”

In the above-cited verse, Solomon states what we should all know: no one is perfect. People who cannot easily find imperfections within themselves must have a perception so grossly distorted that they may not even be aware of major defects. By analogy, if a person cannot hear anything, it is not that the whole world has become absolutely silent, but that he or she has lost all sense of hearing and may thus not be able to hear even the loudest thunder.

In his monumental work, Duties of the Heart, Rabbeinu Bachaye quotes a wise man who told his disciples, “If you do not find defects within yourself, I am afraid you have the greatest defect of all: vanity.” In other words, people who see everything from an “I am great/right” perspective will of course believe that they do no wrong.

When people can see no faults in themselves, it is generally because they feel so inadequate that the awareness of any personal defects would be devastating. Ironically, vanity is a defense against low self-esteem. If we accept ourselves as fallible human beings and also have a sense of self-worth, we can become even better than we are.

Today I shall…

be aware that if I do not find things within myself to correct, it may be because I am threatened by such discoveries.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Av 25”

Paul’s commentary on Solomon goes like this:

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” –Romans 3:9-12 (ESV)

Given the opinions of these two sage authorities, I think we can conclude that no matter how self-assured, or perhaps even self-righteous, we may feel, even the best of us (and I’m hardly that) has some sort of flaw, especially when in contrast to a perfectly Holy God.

A long time ago, I used to think that people who were (at least in public) perfectly self-confident were either really good people who had it all together or total egomaniacs who thought they were “all that and a bag of chips,” as the saying goes. Only later on did I begin to realize that many of these “self-confident” individuals were really very vulnerable and injured people desperately defending themselves against being hurt again. They say the best defense is a good offense, but a lot of these folks defend by being terribly offensive.

And remember what I said before that even the most difficult of these people almost universally sees themselves as “good” and sees their opponents (which can sometimes include pretty much the rest of the world) as “bad” or as “a threat.” As much as their reaction to the world can cause other people pain and hardship, imagine how difficult it must be for them to feel as if they are about to be hurt and tortured by everyone they encounter.

On some level, we’re all injured. We all have our vulnerabilities; those areas of our lives where we experience fear or shame or humiliation; those domains of our inner being we are terrified people will discover and drag into the light, exposing our deepest darkness and weakness.

However, human beings have different means of coping with vulnerabilities. I don’t believe that we are all injured to the same extent and so we each have different levels of pain and inner opposition to manage and overcome. On top of that, some folks have tremendous coping skills and can manage enormous obstacles and difficulties with seeming ease, while others may struggle mightily all of their lives to barely stay afloat above troubles that don’t seem that tough to the rest of us.

But who am I to judge?

This isn’t about judgment of the frailties of others, it’s about recognizing where we ourselves are lacking and letting that “weakness” function as a strength. Seeing another person who we think of as “difficult,” we should examine ourselves to see how we are like that person and what pain may result from our own “difficult” behavior. For some people who may have reconciled with their “inner demons” so well that they don’t actively perceive themselves as having defects, it might take an extra effort to overcome the barriers that separate them from what they may be afraid of seeing in themselves.

As it turns out, the way to best help another person who is hurt inside but defending that hurt by pushing against others, is not to “come on strong” but to approach with compassion and even a little vulnerability.

That isn’t easy.

When someone pushes us, we want to push back. If we think someone is aggressive and even hostile, the last thing we want to do is “expose our throat” to them. But mercy, grace, compassion, and even “turning the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) is exactly what the Master requires of us in dealing with injured and imperfect people. Your “olive branch” may not always be accepted and reconciliation may not always be possible, but you at least have to try…we all must make our best efforts, even knowing they won’t be successful all of the time.

We were created to overcome the difficulties in other people with the best and most decent qualities in ourselves (Romans 12:21). Overcome evil with good, not only in “difficult people” but first, within yourself.

“Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weaknesses of men. Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God, for perhaps it is your own coldness and avarice, your mediocrity and materialism, your sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith.”

-Thomas Merton

As Rabbi Twerski says, “Today I shall be aware that if I do not find things within myself to correct, it may be because I am threatened by such discoveries.”

It is only by learning to be at peace with the greatest pain within you, that you learn to be at peace with others and with God.

May the Prince of Peace come soon and in our days, and may his peace heal us all.

Exodus: Challenge in Exile

On one hand, people shy away from challenges. There is a danger of failure were there not, it would not be a challenge and no one likes to fail. On the other hand, we seek challenge, for confronting a challenge lifts us out of the doldrums of ordinary experience.

Similar concepts apply with regard to our Divine service. G-d does not want our Divine service to be merely routine. And so, He presents us with challenges. Some of these challenges are limited in scope, and some are more daunting, forcing us to summon up our deepest resources.

This is the nature of the challenge of exile. During the Era of the Beis HaMikdash, the open revelation of G-dliness inspired Jews to serve G-d with heightened feeling and intent. In the era of exile, by contrast, G-dliness is hidden, and we are presented with many obstacles to our observance of the Torah and its mitzvos. We can no longer rely on our environment to deepen our feeling for G-dliness. Instead, our focus must become internal. In this manner, exile arouses our deepest spiritual resources, and strengthens our connection to G-d.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of the Torah
“Challenge, Growth, and Transition”
Commentary on Torah Portion Exodus
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. III, 843ff; Vol. XVI, p. 36ff;
Vol. XXVI, p. 301ff;
Sefer HaSichos 5751, p. 240ff

In yesterday’s morning meditation, I wrote about some of the challenges of serving God, particularly in how Christians and Jews differ in understanding such service. I also talked about some of the things a Christian can learn about serving God from a Jew, such as preparing our souls to perform a deed in His Name, and approaching such a deed with awe and fear of our Creator.

In today’s commentary on the Torah Portion, we see that God sometimes presents challenges to our service, so we don’t become lazy and complacent. After all, how many religious people advance just so far in their faith and then “rest on their laurels” so to speak? Probably a lot. Could that describe you for certain parts of your spiritual life? Have you ever suddenly faced inconvenient and troubling problems just when you thought you had your life together? Did you ever cry out to God, “Why are you doing this to me?” Maybe this is the answer.

But what does any of this have to do with this week’s Torah reading and the beginning of the Book of Exodus? Let’s continue with Rabbi Touger’s commentary.

These concepts are reflected in our Torah reading, which describes the successive descents experienced by the Jewish people in Egypt. As long as Yosef and his brothers lived, the Jews enjoyed prosperity and security. But with the death of the last of Yaakov’s sons came forced labor, the casting of Jewish infants into the Nile, and other acts of cruelty. Even after Moshe brought the promise of redemption, the oppression of the Jewish people worsened, to the extent that Moshe himself cried out: “Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people.”

Nevertheless, the Torah reading also tells how the Jews cried out to G-d, awakening His attention. In response, G-d conveyed the promise of Redemption and His pledge that, “when you take this people out of Egypt, you will serve G-d on this mountain,” i.e., G-d committed Himself to give the Jews the Torah. This revealed the possibility of a higher and deeper bond with G-d than could have been reached before.

There’s a lot going on here that answers our questions. For the first forty years of his life, Moses experienced relative ease as a “Prince of Egypt” (much like Joseph before him) while his brothers and sisters labored as slaves. The next forty years, he labored as a simple shepherd, but life was still good and without undo complications as Moses married and raised a family and lived a meager but satisfying existence. Then came God and His challenge, and the life of Moses was thrown into turmoil.

Then Moses returned to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.” –Genesis 5:22-23 (JPS Tanakh)

While Moses was closer to God than he had ever been in his life up to this point, he was also extremely upset, frustrated, and miserable. Everything he had done to try and help his people had blown up in his face. Things were worse for the Children of Israel than they had been before Moses showed up at the behest of God. When we are serving God, we usually expect things to get better right away. For Moses, they didn’t. They don’t always get better for us right away, either. Even when God says:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land.” –Exodus 6:1 (JPS Tanakh)

In theory, we know we should trust God completely and whatever He says He will do, He will do. On a very human level however, we tend to have doubts, especially when we feel like we’re up to our neck in hot water, or in Moses’ case, up to his neck in angry and beaten down kinsmen. We can feel trapped in such situations and even lost.

One of the unique challenges we have as believers is the challenge that the Children of Israel had in the time between Joseph and Moses. Both of these men are considered “Messianic” figures in relation to their people and the world and during their lifetimes, both provided rescue and safety (though perhaps not in an absolute sense) for God’s chosen ones. Rabbi Touger explains it this way.

The cycle of Jewish exile and redemption is significant for the world at large. The purpose of creation is to establish a dwelling for G-d. This dwelling is fashioned by the involvement of the Jewish people in different aspects of worldly experience. During exile, the Jews are scattered into different lands and brought into contact with diverse cultures. As such, as the challenge of exile brings the Jews to a deeper connection with G-d, it also elevates their surroundings, making manifest the G-dliness which permeates our world.

The saga of exile and redemption is not merely a story of the past. On the contrary, heralds of the final transition from exile and redemption are affecting all dimensions of existence today. To borrow an expression from the Previous Rebbe: “Everything is ready for the Redemption; even the buttons have been polished.” All that is necessary is that we open our eyes, recognize Mashiach’s influence, and create a means for it to encompass mankind.

The Sages liken the times of Joseph and Moses to the time of the Beis HaMikdash; the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Their times are also like the time of the Mashiach. People are able to serve God with great fervor and zeal and experience a particular closeness because both the Temple and the Mashiach, for the Jewish people, act as points of “access” of Jews to God. In contrast, the days between Joseph and Moses and the times of slavery are like the time of the great exile after the Second Temple. These are times when people feel a tremendous separation from God and must summon up great courage to go on and to serve God. We know that during their slavery in Egypt, the Children of Israel did not hear from God at all and felt very much alone. Only when the Prophet Moses was raised up did God speak to His people again.

How does all this relate to us? During the earthly lifetime of Jesus, people began to have a unique access to God in the form of a human being that had never happened before. How this was possible, we cannot say for sure, but Jesus himself confirmed it.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” –John 14:6-7 (ESV)

He also said:

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. –John 5:19 (ESV)

When people were able to see and hear Jesus, they were able to experience access to God in a unique and unprecedented manner.

And then he was killed.

And then he rose and was among his people for forty days (Acts 1:3).

And then he left. And we’ve been waiting for his return ever since.

Like the Children of Israel in slavery and after the destruction of the Second Temple, we who are the disciples of Jesus are in a kind of exile. God promised Jacob (Genesis 46:4) He would go down into Egypt and into exile with Israel and He would surely come back out with them. That is also like us. Our Joseph, our Moses, our Messiah is not with us today. We have the Spirit, so God is with us in exile. Many times we speak to God and He speaks to us in some manner, but it is not the same as if the Messiah were present in the world in a physical manner. We know this because he has promised to return and we await his return. It matters if he is in the world because once he comes back, everything will begin to change. It won’t be so much like we will be taken out of our exile but that our exile will be transformed into our home, though this will not occur in its final form until the end of days.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. –Revelation 21:1-3 (ESV)

In Eden in the beginning, God dwelt with man in the Garden until the fall. For a short time, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). God dwelt among His people in the desert (Exodus 40:34-35) and in the Temple of Solomon (1 Kings 8:10-11). God desires to dwell with us again and to that end, we have faith in the promises of the Messiah that when he returns, it will be so.

At the end of last week’s Torah Portion, the readings from the book of Genesis were concluded and this week we begin the readings from Exodus. At the end of the readings in any book of the Torah during the annual Torah cycle, the last reader, by tradition, recites a phrase that we also need to hear as we who are in exile await the return of our King. Let these words be instilled in our hearts and give us courage and hope as we face the challenges of God.

Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazeik! Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!

We also have these words of encouragement.

There are no things. There are only words. The Divine Words of Creation.

The words become scattered and we no longer understand their meaning. Only then are they things. Words in exile.

If so, their redemption lies in the story we tell with them. Reorganizing stuff into meaning, redefining what is real, and living a life accordingly.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Good Shabbos.