Torah Tuesdays - Moses Our Mentor: Lessons for Living the Good Life - [Parshat Vaera]

February 19, 2014

These lessons are based on the parshiot, also called sedras, which are the 54 sections into which the Five Books of Moses are divided [simlar to chapters] in Jewish liturgical practice. This parasha covers Exodus 6 to 9, and it is called "Vaera' {"and I appeared").

This parasha may be seen to be teaching about the life of faith, and what it means to ACTivate our faith.   

Read Exodus 6:14-27

Moses has left Mt Sinai, and is now together with his brother Aaron in Egypt. They have been commissioned by God to confront Pharaoh the most powerful ruler in the known world, and through a series of confrontations and divinely ordained plagues, deliver the entire nation of Israel, 600,000 men, not counting women and children, from Egyptian slavery. It is quite an order.

Just before the "action" begins, we read in Exodus 6:14-27 a long and detailed genealogy of the Levites, a tribe to which Moses and Aaron his brother belong. We then read these words:

These are the Aaron and Moses to whom the Lord said: “Bring out the people of Israel from the land of Egypt by their hosts.” It was they who spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt about bringing out the people of Israel from Egypt, this Moses and this Aaron.

This brings us to our first mentoring principle from this parasha.

I. Heroes are ordinary people who don’t let that stop them—In studying Torah, and indeed all of Scripture, one must pay attention to what is said, what is not said, what is repeated. The intent of the placement and detail of this genealogy and the repetitive designation of Aaron and Moses in the two verses following could scarcely be clearer. It's purpose is to remind us that Moses and Aaron were mere mortals, that it was these ordinary men who led the most remarkable salvation of a nation that had ever occurred. Yes they would prove to be heroes, and among the greatest names in human lore, but such heroes are ordinary people who don’t let that stop them.

Take as an example Nicholas Winton. A British Stockbroker born in 1909, he was 29 years old and planning a vacation ski trip to Switzerland, when his friend Martin Blake asked him to come instead to Prague and to help with war relief of Czechoslovakian refugees.  Winton traveled to Prague and soon focused his attention on refugee children from the Sudetenland, Czech land claimed by Germany, and also on the resident Czech Jewish children. He says this of that time of assessing the situation:

I found out that the children of refugees and other groups of people who were enemies of Hitler weren't being looked after. I decided to try to get permits to Britain for them. I found out that the conditions which were laid down for bringing in a child were chiefly that you had a family that was willing and able to look after the child, and £50, which was quite a large sum of money in those days [about three thousand dollars in today’s terms], that was to be deposited at the Home Office. The situation was heartbreaking. Many of the refugees hadn't the price of a meal. Some of the mothers tried desperately to get money to buy food for themselves and their children.

UnknownIn terms of his mission, Winton was not thinking in small numbers, but of thousands of children. He was ready to start a mass evacuation. The man was about thirty years old, a stockbroker. An ordinary man who saw a problem crying out for someone to step in. He chose to be that man.

He set up his own rescue operation. At first, his office was a dining room table at his hotel in Wenceslas Square in Prague. He took pictures of the children, distributed them widely, sought to get governments interested in their plight. Only England and Sweden said yes. He came back to England, worked his day job on the Stock Exchange, and worked on this task evenings and week-ends.  He formed an organization with an impressive name--"The British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children's Section." The committee consisted of himself, his mother, his secretar, a few volunteers. He persisted. He saved 669 children from virtually certain death. Very few of their parents survived.

He never told anyone what he did, not even his wife. She found a suitcase with the records of these children in the attic fifty years later . . .  Sir Nicholas was eventually knighted by the Queen. He is still alive . . . 104 years old. And singularly unimpressed with himself.

images-6An ordinary man who did what needed to be done.

Many people imagine that those who perform acts of valor and outstanding character are a special kind of people, and that this is why they were able to win acclaim through their actions. However, more often than not, these great heroes are ordinary people who did not let their ordinariness keep them from doing what they could. These are people who showed up for what life demanded of them. Nothing more, nothing less.

As we saw in an earlier post,  Moses' battle at this time of his life was between who God was willing to be for him--what He promised to do, and Moses’ own doubts. The Torah characterizes Moses’ attitude at the inception of the greatest national deliverance the world has ever seen in these words that follow immediately after what just discussed:

On the day when the Lord spoke to Moses in the land of Egypt, 29 the Lord said to Moses, “I am the Lord; tell Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I say to you.” 30 But Moses said to the Lord, “Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips. How will Pharaoh listen to me?"

Moses is still so hung up on what a nobody he views himself to be that he cannot see what a somebody God is.

This brings us to our second principle.

II. Our perception of ourselves colors our perception of God. In this case, Moses is a microcosm of his people in Egypt, but with a difference. Neither he nor they believed much in their chances. But the people failed to believe God while Moses, haltingly, and slowly at first, did believe. Notice what it says about Moses as he performs before Pharaoh the three signs that Pharaoh directed him to perform.

In Exodus 7, Moses and Aaron begin their conversations with Pharaoh. Here we read about their first confrontation, and the subsequent first plague, turning the waters of the Nile read like blood.   The text reminds us that they were eighty and eighty-three years old. Why? To again underscore the fragility, the powerlessness of these men before Pharaoh KIng of Egypt, except for one factor: the power of a faithful God.  Considering what the text has been reporting about Moses, it is just about certain that he, and his brother Aaron, are trembling and uncertain in the presence of the Great Pharaoh who held the power of life and death over all in his kingdom. Yet, the text tells us two times "Moses and Aaron . . . did just as the LORD commanded [verses 6, 10], and once "Moses and Aaron did as the LORD commanded" [verse 20]. Despite the fact their faith was still in the beginning stages, and their fears very real, they did one very important thing--they did what God said to do.

This brings us to our third mentoring principle:

III. Even when your faith is very weak, you can still act as though you believe, and God may very well meet you there. In other words, don’t wait until you believe and then act. Act your way into faith. Let’s call it ACTivating our faith. Look at Moses: even when he was struggling with himself, he acted like he believed . . . and eventually he did.

This is what might be termed the “na’aseh v’nishma principle” of Jewish life. When the people of Israel met God at Sinai and he laid before them his covenantal demands in view of his having delivered them from Egypt, they responded, “Na’aseh v’nishma—We will do and we will understand.” Contrary to many who think that faith must come first before action, Jewish spirituality understands that we often act ourselves into faith. It is like a car which needs to be pushed down the hill so it can start. It must start to go so it can start. The same with faith: you can activate and build your faith at any time by acting as if you believe what God has said. In the pathway of action you will meet him.

Yeshua put it this way: Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (John 14:21, ESV)  It is in the keeping of his commandments that the love of God is manifest, triggering God’s reciprocity rewarding this faith-activity, this ACTivated faith.

Read Exodus 8:1-13

imagesIn this section we begin to see how Moses and Aaron's faith is growing. After the plague of frogs on the land, Pharaoh beseeches Moses and Aaron to make the frogs go away. Moses then says something startling, an evidence of a higher level of faith than he had demonstrated so far.

Moses said to Pharaoh, “Be pleased to command me when I am to plead for you and for your servants and for your people, that the frogs be cut off from you and your houses and be left only in the Nile.” 10 And he said, “Tomorrow.” Moses said, “Be it as you say, so that you may know thatthere is no one like the Lord our God. (Exodus 8:9-10)

Certainly this is remarkable. He is now so confident in the power and engagement of God that he can ask Pharaoh, "Just say when," and then go back to God and ask for it, expecting that God will do so!

And so, another principle.

IV.  When you employ this kind of “action-faith” which co-exists with your own doubts and insecurities, you will gain experience with God which will grow your faith.  See here how Moses now asks Pharaoh “When do you want this to happen?” And having gotten an answer, goes out and cries out to God for this, and it happens. As I said, and never tire of saying, the details of the text are very important. With that in mind, one is blown away by verse 13—“And the Lord did according to the word of Moses.”  This is extraordinary.  At the beginning of this saga, Moses is timid and insecure, but, to his credit follows through on God’s word to him. Now his faith has grown to much so that he has the confidence to ask Pharaoh to name the time, with the text coming back with this declaration which turns things around: Now God is doing the word of Moses!  Moses is now fully in, a full partner with Hashem in what He is doing. And in such partnerships, even for us, sometime the Major Partner will do as the minor part asks. Amazing. Moses would not have been able to exercise such faith earlier in our story, swimming in insecurity and a constant need for reassurance. People GROW in faith as they exercise it.

Read Exodus 8:25-32

In the case of the fourth plague, flies, we see some of the same dynamics in operation. Again Pharaoh asks that the plague be reversed, and again Moses says when this will happen, but without Pharaoh first naming the time.  But there is a bit of an escalation here too, which brings us to our next point.

V. Walking in faith with the God of Israel inevitably involves a confrontation with the world as it is and people as they are.  Moses and Pharaoh are heating up. In this confrontation, Moses says, “”Only let not Pharaoh cheat again [from a word meaning to deceive or to mock] by not letting the people go and sacrifice to the LORD.” To warn Pharaoh against cheating again is extraordinary. Only a man who was very certain of the backing of the Living God could ever imagine doing such a thing. But also, clearly, Pharaoh is getting annoyed, and as subsequent events will show, he never fully gets around to seeing things Moses' way, and he gets increasingly angry.

This will be true for us too. There are things we do and will not do that are frustrating and incomprehensible to others. This is inevitable. For this reason, Yeshua could say to his disciples, “I send you out as sheep among wolves; be wise as serpents and as harmless as doves,” or say also, “In the world you shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world,” or Paul could say, “Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Messiah Yeshua will suffer persecution.” There is a clash of worldviews and of values, and the life of faith involves us relinquishing an autonomy which is axiomatic for most others—and they will think us fools. But notice, as Moses is growing in faith, he is sharpening his confrontation with Pharaoh—he is growing in his sense of authority and now his confidence in what God is doing and in how God will back up his act is strong. But he grew into this. And so can we.

We end with this passage:

13 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. 14 For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth. 15 For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. 16 But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. 17 You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go. 18 Behold, about this time tomorrow I will cause very heavy hail to fall, such as never has been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. 19 Now therefore send, get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them.”’” 20 Then whoever feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh hurried his slaves and his livestock into the houses, 21 but whoever did not pay attention to the word of the Lord left his slaves and his livestock in the field.

22 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, so that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt, on man and beast and every plant of the field, in the land of Egypt.” 23 Then Moses stretched out his staff toward heaven, and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire ran down to the earth. And the Lord rained hail upon the land of Egypt. 24 There was hail and fire flashing continually in the midst of the hail, very heavy hail, such as had never been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. 25 The hail struck down everything that was in the field in all the land of Egypt, both man and beast. And the hailstruck down every plant of the field and broke every tree of the field.26 Only in the land of Goshen, where the people of Israel were, was there no hail.

27 Then Pharaoh sent and called Moses and Aaron and said to them, “This time I have sinned; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. 28 Plead with the Lord, for there has been enough of God's thunder and hail. I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer.” 29 Moses said to him, “As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the Lord. The thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord's. 30 But as for you and your servants, I know that you do not yet fear the Lord God.” (Exodus 9:13-30, ESV)

Here is what we should take away from this:

VI. Our lives of faith or lack of it become a theology lesson for those who observe us and know us well. Notice how what is happening between Pharaoh and Moses is meant to teach Pharaoh and the Egyptians about the God of Israel, and how God speaks of having raised Pharaoh up that he might best him in this confrontation. This is heavy theological discourse.  Similarly, how we live, for good or for ill, teaches people about the God whom we claim to serve. In a sense, to the extent that we are living for God, our life is a theology lesson for others. Paul picks up on this thought and speaks of the people in the Corinthian congregation in these terms:

“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on oura hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”

We too are letters of recommendation for what we believe . . . or we are not.

Some Questions Before You Go

  1. Can you recall people in our life who taught you about God through how they lived and exemplified a faith in God that you then aspired to?
  2. Can you think of other aspects of life where one can only learn by doing, and where prior explanations will not do the job of helping you learn what you need to learn—you must first do and then you will understand.
  3. Sometimes God puts us in situations where our faith is being stretched, but whereby our faith will grow. Consider this story .

images-5 22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:22-33, ESV)

 Is your faith being stretched right now?  Are you going to get out of the boat and allow yourself to grow? Are you going to ACTivate your faith by taking action prior to feelings of security?  That’s what Moses did, and look where it got him!





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