The story of Joseph and his brothers and of the long journey from pit to palace has always been a favorite of mine. Perhaps it is Joseph’s endless optimism that I love, or his ability to find and hear God in the worst circumstances and still find strength and grace to help others. It’s simply an amazing story. The book of Genesis, or B'reishit in Hebrew, is a book greatly focused on Abraham’s family, specifically the descendants of Isaac and Jacob, and ends with Joseph as head of Egypt directly under Pharoah. With the prophetic promise, “God will surely visit you,” Joseph says this twice and makes his brethren promise to take his bones with them when they go.
The next book, Exodus in English but Shemot, Names, in Hebrew, opens with the first seven verses accounting Jacob’s descendants saying “…the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly, multiplied and grew exceedingly mighty: and the land was filled with them.” Six power words in a single verse! In just seven more verses though, the reversal that took years is revealed:
“So the Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage – in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of service in the field. All their service in which the made to serve was with rigor.” -- Exodus 1:13-14.
I can hear the narrator's voice in The Ten Commandments as I read the verse! The word for work (and worship), avoda, is stressed five times. All work, all the time that should have also included worship, study, serving family and the community…was all gobbled up into fulfilling the Egyptian work requirements. Israel went from parah, fruitful, to perek, into oppression, tyranny, crushing.
Yet God heard, heard and visited, just as Joseph said.
“…Then the children of Israel groaned because of the bondage, and they cried out: and their cry came up to God because of the bondage. So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel and God acknowledged them.” - Exodus 2:23b-25.
Through this first parsha or Torah portion of Shemot, God’s intentions for His people and for the enemy who oppressed them becomes clear. “Israel is My firstborn…Send My people.” Basically, Hashem clues Pharoah in to this fact: Israel is separated to Me, and how you treat them is how I will treat you and your firstborn.” Pretty simple. You know the story and the king’s hard heart, and how it took the dismantling of all the Egyptian gods and self-trust before God’s family was released to become who they really were in Him.
The very statement of God’s naming of Israel as His Firstborn holds the clue to the root of the irrational, long-standing jealousy and hatred of Jews. Whether jealous of their prosperity through God’s blessing and hard work, or scared of their growing numbers in a nation, this hatred isn’t new and has manifested itself in regions worldwide for centuries. It’s still present and painfully visible in Israel through this Hamas War and in the antisemitic reactions seen in protests in cities all over the world. The relevance today is as clear as ever.
Yet God hears and He visits. The Holy Land and His people are just that – separated. His. He visits. He goes into captivity with them. He hears their cries, the groans, and He hears our prayers for them. To His opposite, the Pharoah spirit drives, harasses, beats and intimidates leaders, denies signs, calls their words false, kills children, and bullies others to stay in this lockstep – it’s the Final Solution playbook written right there in Exodus and sadly tries to play out again and again. In spite of it, Hashem’s mission is unflinching, His heart unchanging for His people, and His covenant promises unending in His eternal faithfulness.
In God’s hearing and answering, He charges people in the situation to respond for Him and represent, to stand up for His people, not by-stand during their marginalization and destruction.
Moses quite humanly had misgivings about his ability or inability to lead the cause, yet his brother Aaron was encouraging and ready to join the mission. Today we do no less. We stand up, speak up, seize opportunities to give and to represent our faith that the words and callings of God are what they say they are, and we enjoin the divine blessing for being watchful of His family.
“I will bless those who bless you” – Genesis 12:3
“I have set watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; they shall never hold their peace day or night. You who make mention of the Lord, do not keep silent, and give Him no rest till He establishes and till He makes Jerusalem a praise in the earth….Indeed the Lord has proclaimed to the end of the world: Say to the daughter of Zion, Surely your salvation is coming; behold His reward is with Him and His work before Him. And they shall call them The Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought Out, a City Not Forsaken.” – Isaiah 62:6-7, 11-12.
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, prosperity within your palaces. For the sake of my brethren and companions, I will now say Peace be within you.” – Psalm 122:6-8
“When you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me…” - R. Yeshua in regards to visiting the imprisoned, feeding and clothing and caring for the destitute, naked and sick. The positive carried reward for fulfilling, and a penalty for neglecting to fulfill these actions of loving one's neighbors. For the bystander, according to his teaching, there is not only no reward, but there is penalty for failing to care for God's family. (Matthew 25)
We cannot be like the ones in the parable of the good Samaritan who walked past the wounded to stay clean and remain on the way to our place of worship. We must be like the one who took in the wounded, dressed the wounds, paid for his care, took the time, trouble, and finance to step into a destroyed victim’s life and make a difference. We can’t turn away from looking and realizing nearly 200,000 Israelis in the north and south are displaced as refugees, living in shelters and in others’ homes because communities are destroyed and relentlessly fired upon. Thousands live in small communities who have generously absorbed them, tackling the need to feed them all day by day, educate and care for the children, give aid and medical care to the wounded and elderly, furnish therapies for the thousands of traumatized, transport those without cars, and much more. North, south, and in the middle of West Bank or Judea, soldiers and families in Israel are sacrificing daily.
Listen to this bit of optimism and gratitude, expressed by one of my dear friends serving so exhaustingly in Eretz Israel among the evacuees:
"We are still in full emergency mode here, I am currently working to provide housing and everything else in solution for 22 families from Kibbutz Sivon on the Lebanese border who have had to relocate. I am in awe of their resiliance, 22 families made up of a 105 souls. Despite the fact that every day they receive news that more damage has been done to their community, they are full of positive energy, they are working on the kibbutz, trying to create joint workshops with residents here...they are grateful to the host community that has loved and received them since arriving here. I am learning from all of the evacuees here that I am incredibly priviledged to be able to play a part in this, no matter how heartbreaking it can be."
When our friends and brethren are going without sleep, running on fumes, extending their homes, fighting enemies on multiple fronts, how can we NOT support, encourage, pray, and give? We have to do and continue to do all that’s in our hands to do, all we can, no matter how small it seems. We can support our Jewish friends and let them know we’re here, and we’re with them. We can financially support the groups we see taking action like my amazing friends in JNF-USA and their staff and affiliates in Eretz Israel. We can dispute the false narratives perpetrated by people in our circles and make it clear where we stand.
“Strengthen the hands that hang down and the feeble knees and make straight paths for your feet….Remember the prisoners as if chained with them – those who are mistreated – since you yourselves are in the body also….For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you, so we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper; I will not fear, what can man do to me?” Hebrews 12:12-13; 13:3, 5-6.
As believers, we remain committed to the call to serve, heal, give, and pray for our brethren in Israel and the Jewish communities around us. We give when we cannot go, and we pray always; we can't slack or be afraid to do something. The idiom of drooping hands in the Hebrews' verse above means to stay active and stirred, not lax or weary in well-doing. Tottering knees is fear...fear of man, fear of failure, fear of the unknown...and keeps you from stepping out...or running your race. It's all rooted in a deeper lack of trust in God.
On November 30, 2023, I had the honor of standing on stage at the Opening Plenary of Jewish National Fund Global Conference for Israel along with great Jewish leaders, a rabbi and a war hero, and with another leading Christian supporter of Israel. The 4 of us led moments of prayer and remembrance for the hostages, for the destroyed communities of October 7, and for the State of Israel. Here is the prayer I was honored to lead, for the release of the hostages. We prayed agreeing on these words that we put together. Would you continue to pray and agree with our mutual community:
God of Israel, our Rock, and our Redeemer, God of Mercy, of Compassion, Matir asurim, we pray that you return these precious and beloved people, the captured and the missing, who have cruelly and heartlessly been torn from their homes and their land and carried off to our enemy’s territory.
We plead before You: Hashem, be at their side, strengthen & support them, keep & comfort, rescue & deliver them from evil, and protect them and quickly bring them back to the embrace of their familiesand all who love them, Return them to Shalom, out of narrowness to expanse, out of darkness to light, as You have declared: “Thus says the Lord; Behold, I will restore the captives of Jacob’s tents, and have mercy on their dwelling places…”
We beseech you, Adonai Melek Olam, quickly fulfill Your word in Torah: “Here, I am with you, I will watch over you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land, indeed I will not leave you until I have done what I have said to you.”
Amen Amen. One of my dear friends afterward said, "God spoke to us through you." That's the beauty of the Word. It's voice resounds.
Thank you for all you have done to help us help our friends, and thank you for all you help us do in the weeks and months ahead. Never again, Never alone.