Weekly Torah Commentary – Yitro February 17, 2017

Torah reading:  Exodus 18-20

Haftorah reading: Isaiah 6: 1-7:9, 9:5-6

In this week’s Haftorah reading, Isaiah invites us to share his vision of God.

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.  6: 1-4


There are at least seven things about God to notice in these verses.

1. God Is Alive

First, he is alive. Uzziah is dead, but God lives on.  He was the living God at creation. He was the living God when Socrates drank his poison. He was the living God when William Bradford governed Plymouth Colony. He was the living God in 1966 when Thomas Altizer proclaimed him dead and Time magazine published the false news. And he will be alive ten trillion ages from now when all the foolish attempts to deny His reality will have sunk into oblivion.  “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw the Lord.” There is not a single head of state in all the world who will be there in one hundred years. In a brief 110 years this planet will be populated by ten billion brand new people and all four billion of us alive today will have vanished off the earth like Uzziah. But not God. He never had a beginning and therefore depends on nothing for his existence. He always has been and always will be…alive.

2. God Is the Ultimate Authority

Second, he is eternal King. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne.” No vision of heaven has ever caught a glimpse of God plowing a field, or cutting his grass or shining shoes or filling out reports or loading a truck. Heaven is not coming apart at the seams. God is never at wits’ end. He sits on a throne. All is at peace and He has control.

The throne is his right to rule the world. What utter folly it is to act as though we had any rights at all to call God into question!

Few things are more humbling than the truth that God is utterly authoritative. He is the Supreme Court, the Legislature, and the Chief Executive, all in One.

3. God Is Omnipotent

Third, God is omnipotent. The throne of his authority is not one among many. It is high and lifted up. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up.” That God’s throne is higher than every other throne signifies God’s superior power to exercise his authority. No opposing authority can nullify the decrees of God. What he purposes, he accomplishes. “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isaiah 46:10).  Indifference to his omnipotence simply means we haven’t seen it for what it is. The sovereign authority of the living God is a refuge full of joy and power for those who keep his covenant.

4. God Is Majestic

Fourth, God is resplendent. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” You have seen pictures of brides whose dresses are gathered around them covering the steps and the platform. What would the meaning be if the train filled the aisles and covered the seats and the choir loft, woven all of one piece? That God’s robe fills the entire heavenly temple means that he is a God of incomparable splendor. The fullness of God’s splendor shows itself in a thousand ways.

5. God Is Reverenced

Fifth, God is reverenced. “Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.” No one knows what these strange six-winged creatures with feet and eyes and intelligence are. They never appear again in the Bible — at least not under the name seraphim. They are hardly chubby babies! According to verse 4, when one of them speaks, the foundations of the temple shake.

The point is this: not even they can look upon the Lord nor do they feel worthy even to leave their feet exposed in His presence. Great and good as they are, untainted by human sin, they revere their Maker in great humility. An angel terrifies a man with his brilliance and power. But angels themselves hide in holy fear and reverence from the splendor of God. How much more will we shudder and quake in his presence!

6. God Is Holy

Sixth, God is holy. R“And one called to another, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!’

Every effort to define the holiness of God ultimately winds up by saying: God is holy means God is God. For example: the root meaning of holy is probably to separate. A holy thing is separated from common (we would say secular) use. Earthly things and persons are holy as they are distinct from the world and devoted to God. The Bible speaks of holy ground (Exodus 3:5), holy assemblies (Exodus 12:16), holy sabbaths (Exodus 16:23), a holy nation (Exodus 19:6); holy garments (Exodus 28:2), a holy city (Nehemiah 11:1), holy promises (Psalm 105:42), etc. Almost anything can become holy if it is separated from the common and devoted to God.

But notice what happens when this definition is applied to God himself. From what can you separate God to make him holy? The very god-ness of God means that he is separate from all that is not God. There is an infinite qualitative difference between Creator and creature. God is one of a kind. In a class by himself. In that sense he is utterly holy. But saying so, you have actually  said no more than that He is Almighty, Everlasting God.

What then is His holiness?

1 Samuel 2:2, “There is none holy like the Lord, there is none besides thee.”

Isaiah 40:25, “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.”

Hosea 11:9, “I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst.”

In the end God is holy because He is God and not man. His holiness is His utterly unique divine essence. His holiness is what He is as God which no one else is or ever will be.  “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20).

7. God Is Glorious

God is glorious. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” The glory of God is the manifestation of his holiness. God’s holiness is the incomparable perfection of his divine nature; his glory is the display of that holiness. “God is glorious” means: God’s holiness has gone public. His glory is the open revelation of the secret of his holiness. In Leviticus 10:3 God says, “I will show myself holy among those who are near me, and before all the people I will be glorified.” When God shows himself to be holy, what we see is glory.

When the Seraphim say, “The whole earth is full of his glory,” it is because from the heights of heaven you can see the end of the world. From down here the view of the glory of God is limited. Someday, God will blow and turn away every competing glory and make his holiness known in awesome splendor to every humble creature. But there is no need to wait. Job, Isaiah, David and and so many others have humbled themselves to go hard after the Holy God and have developed an intimacy with His majesty. To you who have yet to feel it, I hold out this promise from God, who is ever alive, authoritative, omnipotent, resplendent, revered, holy, and glorious: “You will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me (go hard after me) with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:12–13).

In Tune with Torah this week = the greatest achievement of any human on the face of the earth is to experience intimacy with the Lord of glory, the Almighty, the Holy One of Israel.  Intimacy with God comes through the same path as intimacy with your spouse, or a best friend.  It requires time in His presence, meditating on His greatness and goodness and humbling ourselves before His incomparable mercy and graciousness.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayishlach November 15, 2013

Beresheit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Abraham began the Jewish journey, Isaac was willing to be sacrificed, Joseph saved his family in the years of famine, Moses led the people out of Egypt and received the Torah. Joshua took the people into the Promised land, David became its greatest king, Solomon built the Temple, and the prophets through the ages became the voice of God.

So why are we called the House of Jacob, the children of Israel? As we read the life of Jacob in the Torah, in some ways it appears to be less illustrious than the heroes mentioned above. At times he seems gripped by fear and some of his actions raise eyebrows.

Perhaps the easiest way to answer the question we have posed: Why are we called the children of Israel? is to ponder the idea of a journey.

The faith of Judaism is the faith learned and developed through a journey. It begins with the departure of Abraham and Sarah from their “land, birthplace and father’s house”. As a people we are defined by the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses. In fact, that journey is recorded in very specific detail in parsha Massai so that every generation would remember it. Moses warned, “When you have children and grandchildren, and have been established in the land for a long time, you might become decadent” (Deut. 4:25).

Therefore Israel is enjoined to always remember its past, never forget its years of slavery in Egypt, never forget on Sukkot that our ancestors once lived in temporary dwellings, never forget that it does not own the land – it belongs to God – and that we are merely there as God’s “strangers and sojourners” (Lev. 25: 23).

Why? Because to be a Jew means not to be fully at home in the world.

To be a Jew means to live with the understanding that there is a tension between heaven and earth, between creation and revelation, between the world that presently is and the world we are called on to repair; between exile and home.

Since we can describe ourselves as a combination of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, we live with the constant reality of making choices and decisions that will make us grow into our magnficient calling and destiny, or, if we choose wrongly, will cause us to shrivel into petty and self-absorbed creatures obsessed by trivia. Life as a journey means striving each day to be greater than we were the day before, individually and collectively.

If the concept of a journey is a central metaphor of Jewish life, what is it about Jacob’s journey that makes us in every generation the “children of Israel”?

Jacob experienced his most intense encounters with God – they are the most dramatic in the whole book of Genesis – in the midst of his journeys, alone, at night, far from home, fleeing from one danger to the next, from Esau to Laban on the outward journey, from Laban to Esau on his homecoming.

In the midst of the first he has the blazing epiphany of the ladder stretching from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending, moving him to say on waking, “God is truly in this place but I did not know it… This must be God’s house and this the gate to heaven” (Gen. 28:16-17). None of the other patriarchs, nor even Moses, has a vision quite like this.

On the second, in our parsha, he has the haunting, enigmatic wrestling match with the man/angel/God, which leaves him limping but permanently transformed – the only person in the Torah to receive from God an entirely new name, Israel, which is interpreted, “one who has wrestled with God and man” or “one who has become a prince [sar] before God.”

Jacob’s meetings with angels are described as “a chance encounter,” as if they took Jacob by surprise, which clearly they did. Jacob’s most spiritual moments are ones he did not plan. He was, as it were, “surprised by God.”

Jacob is someone with whom we can identify. Not everyone can aspire to the loving faith and total trust of an Abraham, or to the seclusion of an Isaac. But Jacob is someone we understand. We can feel his fear, we can understand his pain at the tensions in his family, and sympathize with his deep longing for a life of tranquility and peace.

It’s not just that Jacob is the most human of the patriarchs but rather that at the depths of his despair he is lifted to the greatest heights of spirituality. He is the man who encounters angels. He is the person surprised by God. He is the one who, at the very moments he feels most alone, discovers that he is not alone, that God is with him, that he is accompanied by angels.

Jacob’s message defines Jewish existence. We journey through life, restless, rejected by one country after another with only brief periods of peace in our history. But in our darkest hours, we have found ourselves lifted by a force of faith we did not know we had, surrounded by angels we did not know were there. If we walk in the way of Jacob, we too may find ourselves surprised by God.

In Tune with Torah this week = look back at your life’s journey and note the many times when God was at work though you didn’t realize it til later. Thank Him for your personal journey, confident that He who has cared for you and led you thus far, will not every leave you alone in the future.