Are You Letting Miracles Pass You By?

Why did Moses stop at the burning bush? This may seem like a foolish question. It was a sight to behold. A bush burning but not being consumed— that would stop all of us in our tracks.

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Later Jewish commentary, however, suggests otherwise. The bush, the Jewish sages say, was always burning. Everyone simply walked by, blissfully unaware. Only Moses stopped and looked.

Moses knew something we often forget. Miracles surround us everyday. We just need to be present to them.

Do You Remember My Name?

Do you appreciate when someone remembers your name? Probably. Names convey identity. When someone knows our name, they know us as a unique individual. We are not just another customer or patient or member.

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The Bible teaches this same idea. The Hebrew name for the Book of Exodus is “Names.” The reason is that the Hebrew title of each book of the Bible is based upon the first significant word in the book. For the Book of Exodus, the first significant Hebrew is Shemot, which means “names.”

How Does God Use Names?

The power of names is a central theme throughout Exodus. God uses names to teach values and character. Today we look at three early examples  of the way God does this, and we will return to this theme over the next several weeks:

1. To Establish Continuity: In the first verse of Exodus we recall the names of the leaders of the tribes of Israel who journeyed to Egypt. We knew their names already. Why do we need them again?

The names provide a feeling of continuity between Israel and Egypt, and between the book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus. Lest we think each book of the bible is separate and unconnected with the others, we read the names of the same Israelites chieftains from Genesis.

Names are a source of continuity. Even as our character may change, our name stays with us. They bring a continuity to our lives and, in the case of the Israelites, connect us to those who came before us.

2. To Predict the Future: According to the Bible, the name Moses is derived from the Hebrew root word m-s-eh, which means “to draw out.” Pharaoh’s daughter drew Moses out of the water, and thus named him as “the one who is drawn out.” Some scholars suggest the root is really Egyptian, and that the name Moses is derived from the Egyptian root M-S-S, which means “child.”

In any case, Moses is a child who is drawn out from the water. His name points to his eventual leading the Israelites across the water (the Red Sea) into Egypt. Just as he is saved from drowning, he will save his people from slavery. 

3. To Demonstrate Character: Ironically, the woman who names Moses is never given a name in the Bible. We simply know her as Pharaoh’s daughter.

Later Jewish commentary, however, gives her the name Batya. This is an especially beautiful choice, as Batya means “daughter of God.” Even though she is biologically the daughter of a wicked Pharaoh, her actions show that she is a true daughter of God, a person willing to do right and care for a helpless Hebrew child.

Each of us has a name given by our parents. We also have a name given by our deeds. The Bible teaches that this is the name that matters most.

Does Your Name Have Any Special Meaning for You? 

Did the Exodus Happen?

In the Jewish Bible reading cycle, this week marks the beginning of the book of Exodus. Subsequent articles will look at the stories and their interpretations.We begin, however, with a look at history.

Did the Exodus happen? Yes.

Where’s the proof? In our hearts.

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When Did the Exodus Happen? 

Scholars have not pinpointed a precise date for the Exodus. Jewish tradition holds that it began around 1313 BCE. The early twentieth century biblical scholar Edwin Thiele used the dating and genealogies of the various kings in the Bible to arrive at the date 1450 BCE.

Later archaeologists, however, disputed this date, pointing to the lack of any concrete evidence of a mass exodus of Jews in the Egyptian records. Continue reading

Fox News Appearance After Newtown Shooting

 

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Friends, The shootings in Newtown shook our faith and our country a year ago. Below is the article I posted immediately after the shooting, as well as a poignant interview on Fox News. We are still trying to put together the broken pieces. 

Franz Kafka tells the story of a little girl who was late arriving home one day. Her mother asked her where she was. The girl said that she saw her friend Ruthie on her way home, and Ruthie’s doll had broken.

“Did you help her fix it?” her mother asked. “No,” the girl replied, “I don’t know how to fix it. I stopped to help her cry.”

Shock

As we hear the news about the horrific school shooting in Connecticut, we can sympathize with Kafka’s little girl. We do not know how to fix, or even explain, the evil that causes a person to shoot innocent young children. We stand in shock, in pain, in bewilderment.

We turn to one another and ask “What can we do? How can we bring God’s healing presence into this moment?”

Collecting the Pieces

Perhaps we can take some guidance from the words of the 18th century Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. He once saw a man whose house had burnt down. The man had been crying terribly about his losses.

As he began looking through the rubble, he found bits and pieces of wood and metal to start rebuilding. One by one he made a pile of pieces.

Rabbi Nathan said, “See how he is collecting pieces to rebuild. Even when we think there is no hope, we are already collecting pieces to rebuild.”

It will take a long time to collect the pieces we need to rebuild. With open hearts and ready hands, we need to start now.

The Gospel of Yo Gabba Gabba

Yo Gabba Gabba has long been my four-year-old son’s favorite television show. One of its theme songs begins with the words, “All my  friends are different but I love them all the same.” The song continues by describing unique aspects of all the singer’s friends.

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Aside from its catchy beat,  the song conveys an important message. We cherish our friends not because of who we want them to be. We love them because of who they are. 

Put more broadly, people are not means to an end. They are ends in themselves.

The Bible’s Ancient Message

This message is an ancient one. It is introduced in Genesis 1:26, where we learn that every human being is different, yet each of us is made in the image of God. Indeed, God does not love us in spite of our differences. God loves us because of them.

We also see this truth in Jewish parable from 2000 years. When a coin-maker makes coins, the Jewish sages taught, they all look the same. When God makes human beings, they all look different.

Each of us is different. Hence, each of us is special. How can we discover what makes other special? We can ask the following questions:

1. What special skills do they have? 

The Talmud tells us that a wise person learns from all people. In other words, every person has something to teach. A wise person searches for it. We search for what makes another person unique, and we learn from and cherish it.

2. What special experiences do they have? 

Earlier today I rode in a funeral hearse with a cemetery worker. He told me of his hikes in the woods of Northern Wisconsin, and the beautiful streams and wildlife he has seen there. I taught him a few words of Hebrew. By sharing our gifts, we formed a relationship with one another.

3. What nuggets of wisdom do they have? 

Socrates said that wisdom begins in wonder. When we approach others with a sense of wonder and of brobeeopenness, we can discover and grow from their gifts.

The model for this truth in Yo Gabba Gabba is a baby monster named Brobee. According to the song, what his friends love about Brobee is that he “is so small and soft, [and] he has a great big heart.”

That great big heart makes all the difference.

Is the Biblical Story of Joseph a Fairy Tale?

In the Jewish Bible reading cycle, we are in the midst of the story of Joseph and his brothers. From one perspective, it is a tale of accidental success. A bright and spoiled young man is hated by his brothers. They sell him into slavery.

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But he always seems to bounce back.  Soon, through a combination of smarts and happenstance, he becomes Prime Minister of Egypt, the superpower of its time, second only to the Pharaoh. He uses his position and smarts to save Egypt from a massive famine.

This famine then brings his brothers and fathers to Egypt, and he reunites with them, saves their lives and provides them a prosperous place to live. The family lives happily ever after.

What Joseph Really Proves

If we read this story this way, it resembles Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. It is no wonder Joseph became the subject of a successful musical. Yet, as people of faith, we know that Joseph is so much more than that.

The most important verses in the story are ones Joseph utters in Genesis 45 . He has just revealed himself to his shocked brothers.

“Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” 

In other words, Joseph did not rise to power and save his family on the basis of mere luck or random events. His life was a working out of God’s providence. It is proof of an old adage: God works in mysterious ways.

How the Bible Teaches Truth

The Bible teaches profound truths. And more often than not, it teaches them through stories. Reading and teaching it yesterday in Bible class reminded me of a story about the power of story. It is a parable from a nineteenth-century rabbi.

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One day, he said, Truth was walking naked through the streets. He looked depressed and forlorn.When people saw him, they turned away in disgust. He turned down an alley. There he saw his friend Story.

Story was dressed in beautiful clothing. He had a big smile on his face. He was clearly a popular guy.

Truth said to his friend, “Nobody listens to me. I’m depressed and alone.”

Story replied, “The problem is not with you. It is with your appearance. If you took the time to dress as I do, you would find many friends who would listen to you. If you simply appear the way you are, no one will listen.”

From then on Truth took the advice of his friend Story. He was welcomed with open arms.

What Nelson Mandela Taught Us About Ourselves

In late June 1997 Rabbi Cyril Harris received an important phone call. As the chief rabbi of South Africa, Harris had been an outspoken supporter of the anti-apartheid movement. The phone call was from his long-time friend, Nelson Mandela.

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Mandela called to ask Harris to keep an important secret. Mandela was getting married on July 18, his 80th birthday. The date was not yet public. Mandela told Harris he knew that the rabbi could not attend because it was the Jewish Sabbath. So, Mandela asked, would you be available to my home and the week before and give us a special blessing?

Harris later noted this was one of many times in which Mandela displayed tremendous empathy and understanding. What drove this modern-day Moses? How could we withstand decades of imprisonment and emerge with a commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation.

Mandela’s Secret

Mandela’s secret, I believe, is that he knew and lived the truth expressed by philosopher Frederic Nietzche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Mandela had a why. He lived to achieve a free and democratic South Africa. He would do whatever was necessary to achieve it. He suffered. He forgave. He negotiated. He challenged. He did not give up.

A Modern Moses

Mandela was like Moses not only in the way he led his people to freedom.  Just as Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, Mandela came from an African royal family. Like Moses, who had to flee Egypt for the wilderness of Midian, Mandela was in exile from his people, imprisoned for 26 years on a remote Island. Like Moses, Mandela also faced internal tensions and struggle over his legacy.

Moses left us with a renewed religion and people. Mandela leaves us with hope and possibility. He leaves us an example of vision and conviction inspiring a people to change the world. His legacy is not esoteric. It is immensely practical and applicable to us all. Here are three examples:

1. Look for the best in everybody: Mandela writes in his autobiography about a vicious prison guard who turned to him as he left and, for the first time, treated him like a human being. The guard said to him, “I just want to wish you people good luck.” Mandela looked for the sincerity and humanity even in those who hurt him.

2. Be generous:  As a lawyer, Mandela helped his fellow prisoners—included the white ones who despised him—when he was on Robbin Island. He even helped the prison guards. Mandela knew giving knows no boundaries, and one who gives often receives even more.

3. Forgive: Any student of history know the cycle of violence. One group is persecuted. Then they gain power and inflict horrors on their former persecutors. That cycle threatens Syria at this very moment.

Mandela prevented it in South Africa. He had the vision and influence to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that acknowledged the pain of apartheid while preparing a peaceful way forward.

It is one of the most remarkable projects of our time. And his was one of the most remarkable lives of our time. Nelson Mandela gave us insight into the best within ourselves.

May his memory be a blessing. 

Hanukkah Night #8: The Miracle of the Future

Tonight we light the full Hanukkah menorah. Jewish homes are filled with brightness. Yet, the eighth night was not always the culmination of Hanukkah.

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2000 years ago, one rabbi said we should begin with eight candles, and end with one. He contended that we have moved farther away from God.

The past was glorious, with Moses ascending to the top of Mount Sinai. The future looks bleak, he said, as people turn away from God’s law. The Hanukkah candles should symbolize this decline.

A Brighter Flame

Another rabbi named Hillel disagreed. The past was glorious, he conceded. Yet, even as we struggle, the future will be greater still. To symbolize his hope and vision of the future, Hillel ruled that we begin with one candle and build up to eight. 

Jewish tradition sided with Hillel. The past was wonderful, and the future will be brighter still.

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