Tag Archives: death

Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: The Partisans

The kingdom of heaven prior to the final redemption can be likened to a partisan movement, such as Robin Hood and his men or the European freedom fighters that fought in Nazi occupied territory. The Partisans is a teaching on Hebrews 2 in light of Psalm 8 and the parable of Luke 19:12ff concerning all things in subjection to the Son and the revelation of the kingdom.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Eight: The Partisans
Originally presented on February 16, 2013
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

Lancaster’s sermons on Hebrews are always fascinating, but I really think he outdid himself with this one.

His goal for this sermon was to make it all the way through Hebrews 2. Last week we saw how Messiah is higher than the angels, and this week we explore, among other things, how Jesus had to be temporarily made a little lower than the angels, just as the rest of humanity is, in order to be elevated so that all things are put under his feet.

Lancaster cites this chapter as well as portions of 1 Corinthians 15 as something of a midrash on Psalm 8 and 110. In fact, Psalm 8 (I provided the link for your convenience) is a very significant quote used by the writer of Hebrews here:

For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying,

“What is man, that You remember him?
Or the son of man, that You are concerned about him?
“You have made him for a little while lower than the angels;
You have crowned him with glory and honor,
And have appointed him over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things in subjection under his feet.”

For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.

Hebrews 2:5-8 (NASB)

Along with Psalm 110, we see that literally everything has been placed under King Messiah’s control and authority, everything in Heaven, on Earth, and in the age to come. There are no exceptions and further, that Messiah’s Kingship and authority are not to be realized in the future, but they exist in the present (at the time of the writing of Hebrews), that is, right now.

OK. That’s incredibly cool. Jesus is King. I hear that a lot in hymns at church. Problem is, as I look around, I don’t see a world ruled by the Messiah King. I don’t see all of Israel’s enemies defeated, all the Jewish people returned to their Land, a world-wide reign of total peace, a Temple of God in Jerusalem, the Spirit of God poured out on all flesh, or any of the other things the Prophets of old said would accompany the Kingship of Messiah.

So how can everything already be under Messiah’s authority if the Earth is still such an awful mess?

Parable time:

While they were listening to these things, Jesus went on to tell a parable, because He was near Jerusalem, and they supposed that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately. So He said, “A nobleman went to a distant country to receive a kingdom for himself, and then return. And he called ten of his slaves, and gave them ten minas and said to them, ‘Do business with this until I come back.’ But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ When he returned, after receiving the kingdom…

…But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence.”

Luke 19:11-15, 27 (NASB)

You’ll probably want to read all of Luke 19:11-27 to get the full parable, but for the sake of the length of this missive, I quoted only the most relevant portions.

Jesus is speaking a parable about Herod, who escaped ancient Israel after being on the wrong end of a dispute, and ran off to Rome, and then due to circumstances you can learn in Lancaster’s sermon, was made King of Israel. Now he was King and given all authority as such while in Rome, but the people in Israel had no idea and they believed they were subject to their current pretender King.

D. Thomas Lancaster
D. T. Lancaster

Of course, as Lancaster said, Rome would have sent a dispatch ahead of Herod’s return announcing his Kingship and authority, but there would certainly be people who would not want to accept him. If it wouldn’t be more or less suicidal, the rebels could have sent a dispatch back saying, we don’t want to accept him as King. But the parable says that’s what happened.

Now Lancaster says we can apply this parable to Jesus as well. When he ascended, he sat at the right hand of the Father and at that point in time, everything was placed under his authority as King. But, he was (and is) still in a far away place, but he’s returning. It is also true that a “dispatch” has been sent to his Kingdom, that is, the world, saying that Jesus has been made King and that he already has authority, but people have responded that they want the current King and do not want the King who is currently far away and who will return only later (or as many atheists say, a King who does not exist at all).

The population under a not present Herod was divided into those who were loyal to the current King and those who were loyalist to the King who would return.

We are like that, too. Plenty of people, probably most people worldwide, are loyal to the current King of our world, but we who are believers are loyalists to the one we know is truly King and who will one day return.

Lancaster used the metaphor of Robin Hood and his Merry Men who were the Partisans or members of the Resistance movement of their day, working against the current King John but remaining loyal to the true King Richard, who one day would return. Only when King Richard returned would Robin and the loyalists be rewarded. Until that time, they were in constant danger.

And so it is with us. Actually, I was thinking of the Resistance movement in Nazi occupied France during World War 2 who were always in hiding, covertly committing acts of sabotage, struggling to make the way for the Allied invasion, and remaining loyal to the true authority over France. They were physically in a Nazi occupied land, living among them, eating, doing business, interacting with the occupiers, but they did not collaborate and were not of the subjects of the false “King”.

And so it is with us. Lancaster made great points about being slaves to the material world if you are a slave to the current King . But servants of the true King are free of the traps of the material world and fear of death in our loyalty to the King who has authority over Heaven, Earth, and the Messianic Age. Yet the Messianic Age is only a doorway to the furthest extent of Messiah’s Kingdom, the life in the world to come…eternity.

Being a “resistance fighter” is what it is to be a believer. We are loyalists to the coming King. We oppose the current King, who is the master of death, HaSatan, the adversary, “the devil.”

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.

Hebrews 2:14-15 (NASB)

deathSome midrashim equate HaSatan with the angel of death and others do not, but according to Lancaster, the writer of Hebrews spoke of the two as the same. If you thought this world was it and there was nothing else, then death is death and when you die, that’s it. Your reward is confined to this world so you might as well “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we all die.” Of course, that doesn’t mean all atheists are totally materialistic or can’t lead moral lives, but they are subjects only of the present world, so this is all they’ve got.

If we aren’t subjects of the King of this world but of the true King who has authority over everything, not just the Earth, and who is promised to return to deliver a Kingdom that is much finer and more just, a Kingdom of absolute peace and knowledge of God, then we don’t have to be afraid of or limited by the threat of death. We don’t accept death. Death is the enemy. Death can be personified. We oppose death.

Lancaster covered the Biblical rationale for why Jesus was made King and exalted over all, and it’s not just because he’s the Son of God and the Divine Logos. Believe it or not, he actually had to do something and he had a choice about whether or not to do it…that is he had to die. You can listen to the recording to get all the details and I highly recommend that you do, for it shows that in his victory over death, by dying for us all, we, as believers, also conquered and more, we became brothers (I’ll say more on that in a moment).

So the two interrelated themes of most of Hebrews 2 as Lancaster sees them, are that we, as believers, are loyalists to the coming true King and not the current pretender on the Throne, and that the defeat of death by Messiah not only was a choice on his part, but granted those of us who are his subjects eternal life. It was that conquest by Messiah that merited him a name above all names and his being granted authority over all things in existence right now, even though we can’t currently see his full control in our present world.

Lancaster delivered a fabulous interpretation of both themes and I strongly recommend that you listen to this sermon to get the full details.

What Did I Learn?

Although Christianity applies everything written in the New Testament as automatically applying to the Church, that is the body of Gentile believers that includes those Jewish people who have converted and assimilated into Gentile Christianity, Lancaster reminds us that the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews was Jewish and he was writing to an entirely Jewish audience.

Men's and women's section at Kotel (Wailing Wall) on Tisha B'Av- mechitza When the writer of Hebrews says Messiah refers to his followers as “brothers” (verse 12) and “children” (verse 13), he was talking about Israel, the Jewish people. There’s no direct connection that says he was applying those words to Gentile believers as well. Lancaster believes this ultimately includes all non-Jewish disciples of the Master as “brothers,” but I don’t think it’s that simple.

John 20:17 is one of the verses that shows Jesus referring to the disciples as “brothers” after his resurrection, so there was something in his death and resurrection that changed his relationship to the Jewish people, something the Jewish believers received as a result of Messiah’s trial in dying. However, Jesus and the writer of Hebrews are talking to Jewish people.

I’ve been having a conversation with a Jewish believer in the discussion thread on another of my blog posts about the role and relationship between believing Jews and Gentiles in the Messianic Jewish synagogue context. He believes in distinctiveness in identity, but that Gentiles should have equal access to resources and honors (aliyot, for instance) in the Messianic Jewish community. Others have commented that even if Jews and Gentiles should attend the same Messianic group, it would be justifiable for a separation (something like how men and women are separated in Orthodox synagogues, mirroring the court of the women in Herod’s temple) between Jews and Gentiles to exist.

My view is that Messianic Judaism, like the present and coming Kingdom of God, is a process, not a point event. There is going to be variability between different congregations based on tradition and history, at least until the coming of Messiah, just like there will be a slow revelation of evidence of Messiah’s Kingship, starting in the Gospels and ultimately culminating only with the King’s return.

Some months ago, I read Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, which I thoroughly enjoyed. At the point when Pi (you’ll have to have read the novel or have seen the film to understand what I’m about to say) realizes he’s sharing a small lifeboat with an adult Bengal Tiger, he realizes how unsafe this is (a huge understatement) and rapidly forms a small, makeshift raft, tying it to the lifeboat, and then launching it behind the larger vessel. This becomes his haven from the Tiger until he eventually learns how to “convince” the Tiger they can co-exist on the lifeboat.

I sometimes see that as the current relationship between Jews and Gentiles within the very specific context of Messianic Judaism. We are struggling with many things as “resistance fighters” in an unholy Kingdom and one of our struggles is how the different populations in the body of Messiah are supposed to interact, especially with the centuries long history of enmity between Jews and Christians. One way is to expect one population to assimilate into the other.

Historically, Gentile Christianity has demanded Jews to assimilate into them as a consequence of worship of the Jewish Messiah. In much more recent times, certain groups organized under “Hebrew Roots” have expected Gentiles to “assimilate” into a quasi-Jewish religious and cultural body (with varying degrees of “Jewishness”) becoming a single identity.

Other more Jewish aspects of Messianic Judaism, in partial reparation for past injuries, require a wholly Jewish environment in which to live and be Messianic Jews. Gentiles are welcome, but with the understanding that they are entering a Jewish environment as Gentiles. No compromises, no assimilation.

Pi on the raft and the Tiger in the lifeboat…for now.

Life of PiThe writer of Hebrews didn’t account for the presence of Gentiles at all in his sermon and we should do the same. But while this sermon clarifies a good many things for us, well “me” anyway, it doesn’t paint a portrait of Jewish/Gentile relationships in Messiah. Israel is Messiah’s brother, and the Jewish people are his children. It is only faith that allows me to take some small comfort that as a Gentile disciple and subject of the Messiah King, for he has dominion over everything including all the Gentile nations, that I may be called a “brother” and “child” too, though not in the same way as Israel, for Messiah is Israel’s first-born from the dead.

Not quite as dramatic or heroic as being a partisan, a resistance fighter, or one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, but I’ll accept whatever seat at the table I’m offered. As Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) said in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), “At my age, I’m prepared to take a few things on faith.”

Advertisements

Remembering Newtown: We Live to Love

9-11 Flag“When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.”

Genesis 49:33

“How utterly different was the cruel fate of those who perished in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the hijacked planes on September 11. To its everlasting credit, The New York Times in its daily ‘Portraits of Grief’ has been compiling the fragments of eulogy for each individual whose life was so suddenly obliterated. Grief is compounded by the lack of preparation and by the absence of all remains. As I read these personal vignettes of largely young people bursting with zest, in pursuit of dreams and borne aloft by so many relationships, I must constantly remind myself that they are no longer. Nothing is left to mitigate the anguish of their loved ones but memories that need to last a lifetime.”

-Ismar Schorsch
“Portraits of Grief,” pg 180 (December 29, 2001)
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayechi
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

As I write this, it is the anniversary of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. As I write this, I recall reading earlier this morning that another school shooting has just taken place at a High School in Colorado, with the eighteen-year old shooter having killed himself and his fifteen-year old victim struggling for life in the hospital.

I have prayed for the victims in Newtown and I have grieved with their parents since I am both a parent and grandparent. The very idea of losing a child to a sudden and needless death is horrifying beyond imagination.

Schorsch’s commentary on the death of Jacob paints a portrait of a man who died with difficulty even as he lived. But he was also a man who had the time to prepare for death, to bless his children and grandchildren, and to be surrounded by a comforting family as he breathed his last and was “gathered to his people.”

In Judaism, there is a halakhic requirement to sit shiva or to mourn in solitude and withdrawal from the world for seven days following the death of a loved one. And on the anniversary of the loved one’s death, it is customary to observe yahrzeit by reciting the Kaddish, lighting a candle, and remembering the person who has died.

But these are not my loved ones nor am I Jewish, so what am I to do?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

Donne’s famous poem, which I learned forty years ago, reminds me that anyone’s death diminishes me because I am involved in humanity, because of my humanity and my mortality.

APTOPIX Connecticut School ShootingAccording to Schorsch’s commentary (pp 170-172), second century Jewish sage, Rabbi Meir’s midrash on the Creation account in Genesis was so controversial that it saw limited circulation during his lifetime. His interpretation of Genesis 1:31 where it is declared “And God saw all that he had made, and found it very good,” Rabbi Meir relates the Hebrew word “me’od” which is translated as “very” to “mot,” which is the Hebrew word for “death”.

In Christian doctrine, we believe that God introduced death into the world as a response to the fall of Adam and Eve. According to Rabbi Meir’s midrash…

…God did not inject death into the world later, as a punishment for human sin. Rather, death was part of life, for without its inescapable presence, humankind would never value or use life fully. The beauty of life flowed from its impermanence.

-Schorsch, pg 171

I’m sure this is little comfort to those who are mourning their children in this supposed season of joy. In abstract, we can philosophize that it is our mortality that defines our existence, and the shadow of death cast across our journey of life reminds us that every moment is precious.

But in reality, most people rarely consider their death until something shakes them out of apathy, such as a doctor’s dire report or the murder of a child.

There is a tremendous temptation to either sink into depressive despair or to cry out in anger and pursue the path of vengeance. We want and even need to do something, to respond in some way, either by withdrawal or violent projection, because of the senseless outrage of these deaths.

In the end, neither reaction does much good. The former honors no one and the latter is manipulated by the politicians and the media pundits to achieve their own agendas.

The only thing that makes sense to me, particularly in a universe where I acknowledge a loving, involved, and creative God, is to take the only option that remains…to love those who are left to me here and now, not just because I know they can be taken away at any moment, but because life has to be more than mere existence, pursuit of money, pleasure, and the consumable products in the latest ad campaign on television. If life isn’t the expression of love, especially to those who depend upon us for their every need (even as we all depend on God for our every need), then why were we given life in the first place?

As I write this, I mourn the loss of the young innocents, not just in Connecticut and Colorado, but everywhere, and for every person, because like God, I must be involved in humanity. It is said that when Jacob and the seventy went down into Egypt, God went with them. How He must have grieved knowing just how far down Israel’s children would descend in the following years and decades. It is said that when millions of Jews and other “undesirables” entered the Nazi camps, God entered with them and was imprisoned with them. How He must have grieved as He witnessed each individual death of the six million of His chosen little ones.

The only thing we have to keep us going in the face of death and disaster is our faith in God, that there is something more to life than what we can detect with our five senses, and that there is a greater meaning to it all. When a child dies, even great faith is shaken, for how could a loving God allow such a heinous act to occur?

But where we have faith, God has certainty of perception and knowledge. God knows. He knows the placement of each individual soul in this life and beyond. We live in a universe that is broken and under slow repair. In that universe, death occurs, injustice occurs, tragedy occurs. Tears and grief occur.

landonBut there is also hope.

I took a few days off of work last week to spend time with my grandson. We played with legos, I made him pancakes, we had “sword fights” in my snowy backyard, we went to the playground and slid down slides covered with melting ice. I dropped him off at pre-school and had the wonderful privilege of picking him up again as he ran toward me grinning and gleefully yelling, “Grandpa!”

I can’t say anything that will comfort the grieving and the dying except that if you still have someone precious in your life who needs you and who loves you, then they are the difference, the hope, and the faith that makes life more than just living day-to-day. This is what God does to open our eyes. This is what God does to open our hearts, to turn stone into beating flesh. This is why we are alive. We live to love.

Encounter with Now

Moses at SinaiNow Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, and all Naphtali and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, and the Negev and the plain in the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows his burial place to this day. Although Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, his eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated. So the sons of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses came to an end.

Deuteronomy 34:1-8 (NASB)

The final verse of the final portion of the Torah refers to “the strong hand and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.” According to the Talmud, the phrase “before the eyes of all Israel” alludes to the incident when Moses smashed the Tablets of the Covenant when he found the Jewish people worshiping the Golden Calf.

An odd conclusion for the Five Books of Moses! The whole Torah ends by recalling the destruction of the Ten Commandments by Moses! Another interesting point to consider is that after completing the reading of this portion in the Synagogue, we immediately begin reading from the first portion of the Torah (Gen. 1:1): “In the beginning, G-d created…”

The reason that the Torah ends as it does – by alluding to the breaking of the Tablets of the Covenant – is the same reason that we start over again once we’ve finished. Both ideas are rooted in the same principle; we never just finish up and move on. Just when we think we’ve reached the end – when we get to the very last line of the very last portion – we are reminded that the Tablets of the Covenant were once destroyed and had to be remade.

Rabbi Ben A.
“Starting Over”
Chabad.org

In many ways, the start of a new Torah cycle is about starting over. But like the Children of Israel at the death of Moses and being poised to cross the Jordan with Joshua as their leader and prophet, it’s also a continuation and even a radical change…or it can be. It probably should be, otherwise, you’re just recycling the Torah and spiritual learning year by year and as a result, not actually learning anything new.

As the Children of Israel discovered when Moses died (and Aaron and Miriam and an entire generation of Israelites before him), change inevitably means loss, sorrow, and grief, even as change can mean growth, progression, and fulfillment.

broken-tabletsWe know that after Moses destroyed the first set of tablets as a result of the sin of the Golden Calf, at the command of God, he made a second set. But it was God who made the first set and it was God who wrote on it. The second set was created by Moses and Moses wrote on it at the command of God. God gave the Israelites a “second chance” but it wasn’t the same situation as the “first chance.” Even if God grants you “do-overs,” you lose something, even if you don’t lose it all.

Rabbi Ben A. is the most famous anonymous rabbi. Using his pen name, Ben A. draws from his personal experience in recovery to incorporate unique Chassidic philosophy into the practice of the 12 Steps. He tells us that our spiritual journey is never complete and we are always starting over, but not quite with fresh start. There is not perfect “reset” button for our lives.

As newcomers looking at the Steps for the first time, many of us wondered what we were supposed to do once they were completed. The answer is that our recovery is never finished; it continues by beginning again. We remember that the life we now have was once in a state of apparent destruction, just as the Tablets containing the Word of G-d had been smashed. In our despair, we agreed to let go, and let G-d give us a new life. We learned to trust G-d. We cleaned house; and we repaired our relationships with others.

We remember that it is He who takes away our pain and gives us joy. It is He who takes away our sickness and gives us health. It is He who instills renewed energy into our desolate lives…it reminds us how the spiritual lives we now have began out of darkness, chaos and void. It is now our job to once again transform our lives with light, order and fulfillment.

Spiritual growth is like a 12-step program? A Spiritual recovery program? It seemed a strange thought when I first encountered it, but actually, it makes perfect sense. Who are we without God but human beings on a path to destruction. We repent, but repentance, forgiveness, and atonement are not accomplished in a single act. It takes time, perhaps a great deal of time…perhaps all of our lives, over and over, year by year, like the Torah cycle.

It is now as it was now a moment before. It grew no older. It was not touched, not moved nor darkened by the events that flickered upon its stage. They have vanished; it has remained. It perpetually transcends.

And it is immanently here. Tangible, experienced, real and known. For what can be more known than the moment in which you stand right now?

Yet, what can be so utterly unknown?

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Now”
Chabad.org

Rolling the Torah ScrollLike the continual Torah reading cycle, we are constantly moving forward, continually experiencing and re-experiencing what we need and what God understands we need. But also, we only live inside of one instant in eternity at a time. It is always “Now.” We look to the future and remember the past, but it is always now. When you read Beresheet last Shabbos (if you follow the traditional Torah readings), it was “Now” and when you read Noah next Shabbos, it will also be “Now.”

It’s what we do inside of each instant of life that creates or inhibits the progression, the growth, the journey toward drawing closer to God. We may have done terrible damage to ourselves and to others in the past, but the past is just that. It’s gone, though the consequences can still be with us. It is now. It is always now. You are always in now. Living inside of now is like guiding a ship by working the tiller to move the rudder. Now you move it one way. Now you move it another. Now the tiller moves the rudder and now the ship moves in response. Moment by moment, every action you take in an endless progression of “now events” creates the sequence of our lives and results in consequences for us, for our loved ones, and in our relationship with God.

Rabbi Freeman concludes:

If you are here only now, what is the purpose?
And if all is transient, why be here now?

Grasp the now by both ends and every moment is divine,
every experience is precious.
For you have grasped G‑d Himself.

I will tell you a secret that can be told, and within it a secret that cannot be known: Take the Hebrew present tense of the verb to be, and prefix it with the letter yud to indicate a perpetual state of now-being—and you will have the name of G‑d.

G‑d is now.

Over two weeks ago, a friend of mine challenged me to experience God more fully. I felt backed into a corner knowing that I should want such an experience but dreading it as well. I didn’t want to change and I knew God would require it if I turned to Him. Now…yes, right now, God is also backing me into a corner. The choice of whether or not to turn to Him is still mine but God is limiting my options. The consequences for not accepting His challenge are becoming more dire, and I see that He has been allowing me enough rope and may yet let me swing if I continue in that direction.

ancient-sail-boatSo what do I do? I do what God wants, I do what God requires, not because I have no choice, but because God has made it abundantly plain what the result of my choices will be.

I know there is a future, a wonderful and terrible future. Where I’ll be standing when that future becomes “Now” depends on which direction I move the tiller, which direction I choose to turn the ship. The wood is in my hands, I can move right or left, the ship is traveling forward into the storm. Moving one way leads to disaster, with my ship and everyone on it being broken apart on jagged rocks, and moving the other way leads to safe haven. I may have seen this before but I chose to ignore it, believing I had time before I had to make the final decision. Now, what I once saw vaguely and disregarded has become a present reality viewed with absolute and crystal clarity.

Now I grasp the ship’s tiller, I apply pressure. I feel resistance. The tiller moves and with it, the rudder. Now the ship begins to change course and…

…and Moses dies. And the Children of Israel mourn. And the Ark goes ahead of the Assembly into the Jordan. And Joshua leads. And we read the last few lines in Deuteronomy. And we hastily re-roll the scroll. And we read, “When God began to create heaven and earth…”

O Hashem, You have scrutinized me and You know. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought from afar. You encompass my path and my repose, You are familiar with all my ways. For the word is not yet on my tongue, behold, Hashem, You knew it all. Back and front You have restricted me, and You have laid Your hand upon me.

Psalm 139:1-5 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

And now…

On the 40th Anniversary of Roe vs. Wade

unborn-babyI was still an atheist and a liberal when my wife became pregnant with our twin sons (now 26 years old). That’s when I started questioning my assumptions about abortion. From the start, my wife and I started relating emotionally to our child (we didn’t know she was having twins until about twenty weeks gestation) as a personality. I started bonding and loving long, long before they were born. I just couldn’t imagine in my wildest dreams ending their lives at any stage, including before birth. How could I do that?

I know that, in theory, the pro-abortion advocates are supporting “pro-choice.” That is, when a woman becomes pregnant, she can choose to go through being pregnant and give birth, or she can choose to have her unborn child medically “terminated.” But let’s look at this. My guess is that most people who are pro-choice are either parents or will be parents someday. They don’t hate children and they don’t hate people who love their own children. They see their position as one where they want to have control of when they become parents.

But let’s say that the first time a woman becomes pregnant, for whatever reason, she doesn’t want to have the child (financial difficulties, under-age, unmarried…) and has an abortion. In order to be able to successfully have an abortion, she cannot relate to her unborn child as a child. She has to relate to it as a “thing.” Otherwise, how could she go through with it?

So she has the abortion. A few years later, she purposefully becomes pregnant and begins bonding with her child from the first moment she discovers she’s pregnant, probably within just a few weeks of conception. How can she decide to love one child from the very beginning but totally emotionally and physically disregard the other child? The abortion industry has been very successful in selling this strange dichotomy and mindset, but to me, it is so completely alien.

What’s the difference between a precious unborn baby and a fetus (a term which is used as a synonym for “thing”)? The only difference is that the first is wanted and the second is not. No quality the unborn child possesses makes it more or less worthy of life in the mother’s eyes or in any pro-choice advocate’s eyes. More’s the pity.

I wrote the above commentary on Facebook after reading a New York Times blog post on the topic. In consulting the blog again, I ran across this comment:

We fought and (thought we had) won the war against compulsory childbearing decades ago, so that our daughters would have agency over their own bodies and the ability to make decisions about their health care without government interference. Just as we fought for our daughters’ right to apply to medical school, and law school, and to compete fairly for jobs in any number of professions. We fought for our own and our daughters’ right to own real estate, to buy and own stocks and have bank accounts and credit in their own name, to be free of groping and sexual demands on the job, or to keep a job.

These battles were won within my adult lifetime. And our daughters don’t know a time when they couldn’t not open a bank account, buy a home, attend the medical school of their choice, be a bartender or carpenter or police officer as well as a barmaid.

I think we who fought the battles got complacent, or just plain tired. Maybe the neanderthal right has done us a favor this past election season, reminding us and our daughters and granddaughters that freedom and liberty must be constantly nurtured and protected like a perfect rose.

The phrase “compulsory childbearing” in the above empassioned declaration caught my attention, as if people or organizations outside of the woman’s control were somehow forcing them to engage in sex, become pregnant, and have children against their will. I could go on and I know this is a complex subject, so I won’t say too much more. Some believers treat all this as black-and-white without seeing the anguish many women go through when facing the decision of whether or not to abort their children. A woman having an abortion isn’t a terrible or bad person, she’s someone facing a very difficult choice, and one that is not as simple and clear cut as either the pro-abortion or the pro-life movements make it out to be.

I used to work at a Suicide Prevention hotline in Berkeley in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I typically worked midnight until 8 a.m., so I spoke with many people who felt all alone in the night. Sometimes, I would end up talking to a woman who would be crying inconsolably (there were more than just a few of them) because she had just done the unthinkable sometime yesterday…killed her unborn child.

Nat'l Organization For Women Marks Roe V. Wade Anniversary At Supreme CourtThis is the side of Roe vs. Wade that the media, the abortion industry, and the “pro-choice” political advocates never talk about. What it does to a woman after the abortion is over. What is it like when you have exercised what you’ve been told are your “reproductive rights,” taken control of your own body and your own destiny, done what fifty plus years of modern feminism have told you that you must do when you are pregnant and you don’t want to be, and had an abortion? What is it like after it’s all over, the “medical procedure” was successfully performed, you’ve gone back to your home, and you have time to realize what just happened? You’re alone now. It’s the middle of the night, but you can’t sleep. You always imagined having children someday and you know someday you will. But there is one little cry in the night you’ll never hear, one voice you’ll never respond to, one baby you will never feed and comfort. There is one child you’ll never nurture, support, love, hug, kiss, cherish, and help grow and thrive.

What about him? What about her? Your baby wasn’t an “it.” Your baby was a little boy or a little girl. What would you have named him? What would you have called her?

“Happy Anniversary,” Roe vs. Wade. In forty years, how many mother’s hearts have you broken? How many babies never took their first breath because of you and because of the illusion that you’ve drawn over the eyes of all their mothers? How many? Why is this a good thing?

Why?

Addendum: The Woman Behind “Roe” and why she has dedicated her life to overturning Roe vs. Wade.

Nobody Ought to be Alone on Christmas

aloneThings are different since you’ve been here last, Childhood dreaming is a thing of the past

Maybe you can bring us some hope this year, Visions of sugar plums have disappeared

I’m all grown up but I’m the same you’ll see, I’m writing you this letter ’cause I still believe

Dear Santa, I’ve been good this year, Can’t you stay alittle while, with me right here?

Nobody ought to be alone on Christmas

-from the song All Alone on Christmas (1992)
Written and arranged by Steve Van Zandt
Recorded by Darlene Love with members of
the E Street Band and the Miami Horns

This song is one of my guilty pleasures. I love it. I didn’t particularly like the film Home Alone 2 (1992) in which the song is featured, but it has a killer sax solo. No, I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I still like the song.

But I can’t listen to the song this year without tears welling up in my eyes (particularly embarrassing, since I’m at work as I write this). I can’t remember which news story I read it in, but I keep remembering something a reporter wrote about how some children’s Christmas presents will never be opened this year in Newtown, Connecticut because the light of those children’s lives was removed from the world last week. Because someone found it necessary to kill 26 children in Newtown, there will be parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, and friends who will feel all alone this Christmas.

Imagine anticipating the “thumping” sound of little feet coming down the stairs before dawn on December 25th to see if Santa had brought the presents and then never hearing that sound. Imagine having wrapped each gift for your little boy or girl with care, decorating the package, and writing something loving and special on the Christmas card…but now there’s no one to rip open the wrapping paper and scatter it all over the living room in glee. As a parent, could you bear to unwrap the new toys and donate them to Toys for Tots? What would you do with them?

What would you do with “Christmas?” As a parent and a grandparent, the deaths of these 26 children tears me apart. In my imagination, I’d pull down the Christmas tree and burn it, rip all of the lights from my home and shatter them, eliminate any trace of this “festive season” from my environment, and perform the modern, moral equivalent of putting on sackcloth and ashes (whatever that might be).

But what if your small missing child has brothers and sisters? What do you say to them? How can you “celebrate” with them, or can you? Do you destroy their Christmas because of your grief? What about their grief? How can you comfort your other little ones and your spouse when pain and anguish crowd out everything else in your heart?

I’m normally pretty neutral about Christmas these days but this year, I hate it. I hate all of the expectations people have for “the season to be jolly.” In retrospect, I probably should always have hated it. Who is happy and cheerful now? Doesn’t every home know death? Don’t thousands of children die all over the world every day? Aren’t their tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of hearts in the world right now who feel alone and empty for so many reasons? This “season” tells you that you must be happy and joyful and festive.

Eat heaping plates of turkey or ham on Christmas this year if you so choose. I’ll be dining on ashes.

No, that’s too cruel.

I don’t celebrate Christmas but maybe you do. Maybe you have many reasons to be happy and grateful (I’m grateful that my family is alive and safe this year). I have no right to take that away from you. I have no right to believe that the victims and mourners in Newtown haven’t come together to comfort and console each other. I have no right to believe that anyone will be alone this Christmas in Newtown, though I know without a single doubt that there will be an emptiness in each of those homes.

Today, we observed a moment of silence for the victims. Also, bells tolled 26 times, once for each child who died. On Christmas, if you celebrate Christmas, I don’t want to take away from your joy, but in the midst of your joy, take a moment, or two, or twenty-six, or twenty-eight.

And remember them.

Charlotte Bacon, age 6, Daniel Barden, age 7, Rachel D’Avino, age 29, Olivia Engel, age 6, Josephine Gay, age 7, Dylan Hockley, age 6, Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, age 47, Madeleine Hsu, age 6, Catherine Hubbard, age 6, Chase Kowalski, age 7, Jesse Lewis, age 6, Ana Marquez-Greene, age 6, James Mattioli, age 6, Grace McDonnell, age 7, Anne Marie Murphy, age 52, Emilie Parker, age 6, Jack Pinto, age 6, Noah Pozner, age 6, Caroline Previdi, age 6, Jessica Rekos, age 6, Lauren Rousseau, age 30, Mary Sherlach, age 56, Victoria Soto, age 27, Benjamin Wheeler, age 6, Allison Wyatt, age 6.

You can find out more about each of them at wptv.com.

Not everyone on that list celebrated Christmas but that’s not really the point. The point is that each of them had the right to live. The point is that each of them was someone’s son or daughter and that each one of them was loved. The point is that there are people left behind to grieve and to mourn and to cry. And the point is that, in spite of all the multi-colored lights that sparkle on homes and businesses and trees right now, the little more darkness has entered our world and a little more light has been taken away from each of us.

sandy-hook-victims

And nobody ought to be alone.

Asking for Help in the Aftermath of Death

joseph-and-pharaohIn this week’s reading, the time for Yosef’s redemption finally arrives. Pharoah has dreams, his sommelier (wine butler) suddenly remembers Yosef, and Yosef is hastily pulled from jail, given a haircut, and sent to interpret the dreams of Pharoah.

Two weeks ago, I spoke about the need to make our own efforts, while knowing that in the end it is G-d who determines the results. But I closed with a question: what was wrong with Joseph’s efforts? Why was he punished for asking the sommelier to remember him?

It’s clear that is what happened. Last week’s reading concludes with the verse, “and the sommelier did not remember Yosef, and he forgot him.” Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki explains that he did not remember him that day, and forgot him afterwards — because Yosef had placed his trust in the sommelier rather than G-d. That is a startling indictment of the only one of Yaakov’s sons who was the forefather of two tribes. For someone of his exalted standard, we are told, what Yosef did was wrong. But why — what was wrong with trying?

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Commentary on Chanukah and Torah Portion Mikeitz
Director, Project Genesis

2 dead after shooting at Las Vegas hotel Gunman Wounds 3 at Ala. Hospital 28 Dead, Including 20 Children, After Sandy Hook School Shooting

Brent Spiner on twitter

I am angry/disgusted. Amazing that some think the solution is more guns. Madness. Even NRA members want more control. LLAP

Leonard Nimoy on twitter

Late Friday I said a prayer for the victims of the horrible shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. On the same day, 22 school children were attacked by a man with a knife in China but thank God, none of them were killed. As Actor Brent Spiner’s “tweet” on the micro-blogging site twitter indicates, there have been other tragedies in the world as well. Actor Leonard Nimoy laments the response to these events among some elements of our society to take control, in this case by replying to gun violence with gun violence.

And according to midrash, Joseph condemned himself to additional prison time by desiring to take control of his situation (asking the “chancellor of cups” to remember him to Pharaoh, King of Egypt) rather than relying solely upon the King of the Universe.

But as Rabbi Menken asked above, what’s wrong with trying to take control of a situation with our own efforts, especially when the situation, the world we live in, seems to be totally out of control? Rabbi Menken’s commentary continues.

I saw an interesting explanation attributed to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a world-renowned religious leader who passed away barely 25 years ago. He said that Yosef’s high standard was very much part of the issue. Yosef, being who he was, should have recognized immediately that the peculiar circumstance of his being imprisoned together with Pharoah’s personal sommelier and baker, and them having dreams, and him knowing exactly what to tell them — all of that was clearly not coincidence. It should have been obvious to him that G-d’s Plan was already in motion. As we see this week, he was rushed from prison to tell Pharoah that fat cows mean times of plenty, and starving cows mean times of starvation, and was instantly appointed second in command over the whole country. With “20/20 hindsight” it’s obvious that this was all planned out — and enough signs were there that Yosef should have seen it coming.

But we, alas, are not Yosef. Very rarely could we be confident that we are in a situation where our efforts aren’t needed, before the gift of hindsight. We always have to do our best. When should we be idle? When we have done everything humanly possible.

reading-torahWe can read last week’s Torah portion and as we review each word, we know in advance what’s going to happen, because we’ve read and studied these pages many, many times over the years. The story of Joseph’s redemption and rise to Messiah-like authority and position is like an old friend to me. But while Joseph, at his exalted spiritual level (according to midrash), should have known better than to forget to rely on God alone, as Rabbi Menken wisely points out, that is hardly ever the case for you and me.

We are faced with an insurmountable problem, a terrible tragedy, children have been injured and murdered, and what are we going to do about it? The blood of the victims cries out to us, demanding that we respond. Should we ban private ownership of all firearms in this nation? Should we pour more tax dollars into mental health research and treatment? What can we do to prevent this from ever happening again? What could we have done to prevent the deaths of those 20 small lives in Newtown, Connecticut?

Experts of every type, from political pundits, to psychologists, to the clergy are all weighing in with their opinions. Some people feel that the strict separation of church and state in our nation, which “bans God from our schools” is to blame, but for others, that response seems cheap, shallow, and hurtful. Other people and groups want to arm school officials with firearms so that, should such a situation happen again, teachers and school counselors could fire back, protecting the children.

To be perfectly honest, I haven’t the faintest idea what to do. I don’t know if these sorts of attacks are happening more frequently or if we just react as if they are every time something like this happens.

Joseph’s situation and Rabbi Menken’s commentary on it doesn’t seem to help, but then again, neither one was facing what we are facing right now as a nation…as a world. It is said that everything is in the hands of Heaven except fear of Heaven. Christians are fond of saying that God is in control. Tell that to the parents of the 20 dead children in Newtown and see how they answer you…if you dare.

No one knows what the right thing to do is but everybody has an opinion about what they think the solution should be. We people of faith rely on God but it is a bitter thing to lose a child and if I were the father of one or more of the dead children, I would be asking where God was when they died. Rabbi Menken reminds us that faith is not blind, but while that makes for interesting intellectual discussion, how does it help when a parent’s heart is being torn to shreds as they cry bitterly over the loss of a son or daughter?

Don’t look for my opinion or my answer to this disastrous mess. I don’t have one to give. I’m still too angry and too sad and too miserable to render one, and even when I manage to tame my emotional response, my intellect and wisdom will still fail me here. Like Joseph, I want to take control. I want to do something. I want to prevent even one more child from dying. I don’t have the power to even begin to make such and effort and as I’ve already said, I wouldn’t know what to do if that power were mine.

school_shooting_in_connJoseph rose to a position where he had power to save a starving world. His authority was second only to the greatest King who ruled over the most civilized and prosperous nation of his day. Joseph saved Egypt, and he saved Canaan, and he saved everyone who came to him, and he saved his family. He finally reunites with them, provides for them, takes care of them, and sees his aging father before he dies.

And yet, Joseph died just like all men must.

And none of us is like Joseph…or like Jesus…or like God.

God is in control but He rules over a broken world. We broke it. Only God can fix it. But as I’ve mentioned numerous times over the years, according to Jewish thought, human beings are partners with God in tikkun olam, repairing the world. That may mean our human desire to want to act when disaster strikes is built into us by God and part of who we are as His “partners.”

God, what can we do to help? What can any of us do in the face of such an unimaginable pain? I don’t know. All I know how to do is ask for help. Help us. I’m not the only one asking for help.

Please.