As many of you know, I just returned from a trip to Israel. While there I thought many times about how the holiness of the place is hidden. What is Jerusalem but noisy streets, a cacophony of offensive noises, a melting pot of Jews of all varieties along with Muslims and Christians of varying kinds, and stones both old and new?
The day before I left for Israel, I taught my congregation from the Torah portion Sh’lach, Numbers 13:1-15:41. I chose to focus on the story of the spies returning to the wilderness carrying a pole between them with a giant cluster of grapes as well as figs and pomegranates. This story is symbolic to me of the hidden revelation of blessing in the world. In Israel I saw many figurines and carvings, metal and olive wood, of the cluster of grapes being carried from Eshcol. It is an image that has great meaning for me now.
Everything is mixed, blessing and curse, in this world. If we think about it, this is because of the double truth of the world — it comes from God and it has been marred by evil. Jerusalem, whose streets I just walked, is like the land the way the spies saw it. There is much there to curse about. You can come away from a trip there and be like the spies who said, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers” (Num 13:23). You can get swallowed up by the curse and your faith can shrivel like a raisin in the sun.
My next trip to Israel is January 2017. Approximate cost will be $4,500 including everything except lunches and water bottles. Want to see the sites and join in daily discussion about the early believers in the Land of Israel? Email me to get on the info list: AncientBible at gmail dot com.
Abraham Joshua Heschel points out (God in Search of Man, ch. 5, “The Sense of Mystery”) that the word which came to mean world (olam) can be said to derive from another root (alam), which means “concealed.” He says, “The world is something we apprehend but do not comprehend.” That is, we sense more to the world than what we see. The fact that there are facts is itself a miracle. But we forget the miracle of existence and take it for granted. The meaning of the world is hidden in its existence: “Inaccessible to us are the insights into the ultimate nature of reality.”
Many choose to ignore the mystery. They feel satisfied with a minimalist “scientific” explanation of it: “life is inevitable given time and chance.”
The world shows us both blessings and curses. The spies, except for Caleb and Joshua, did not learn the lesson of the cluster of grapes. They saw only the signs of curse. Your enemies will rout you. Famine and drought will overtake you. You will feel like a grasshopper beside the giants of life’s difficulties. There are giants in the world.
Nearly everything in life has its impossible odds and great difficulty to overcome.
Sometimes we look at life and we feel defeated already, even before the battle. “I can’t do that. I shouldn’t even try. That is the kind of thing that happens to a better person than I am.”
The land of Israel today is, among other things, an agricultural wonder. Millions of trees, markets overflowing with the largest, ripest fruit, nuts and halvah and hummus abounding, make Israel a healthy paradise of Mediterranean cuisine.
But to get where it is there was a battle. The indigenous people rejected the plan in 1948 of dividing the land. Five nations larger than Israel made war to prevent us Jews from having a homeland. But from the perspective of a people beaten down by the Holocaust, any odds, including war, were better than remaining passive victims. It took a great sadness to awaken the Jewish people. But that generation was awakened and the very existence of Israel is a miracle.
Just like the existence of the world, it is a miracle you can overlook and forget about. Its meaning can be lost on you. The sense of mystery at the grandeur of history and God’s hand in it is easy to ignore. You can instead hear the sounds of buses and Muslim calls to worship. You can see all the ways Israel is not in the state of redemption.
Faith in this life is hard. The human struggle to pursue education and career, to marry, to have and raise children: almost any endeavor can seem too hard to try. Life seems rigged. Those who have get more. Those who do not remain empty. Why try for anything big? Why believe in any overarching purpose?
There are discouragements in life because we live in a cursed world. Out of the blue something terrible happens. A layoff. A marriage-killing crisis. A child has a major disaster or setback. The curse is terrible. It afflicts all humanity in every place in this world.
“I will make the land desolate. I will bring against you war and the sword. I will leave your sanctuaries desolate. I will strike you seven times for your sins. You will suffer disease and hunger. You will fear life and even a shadow will frighten you.”
If you let it, the curse of this world can get the better of you. You can be angry at God. You can say God doesn’t care. You can say it is better not to have faith or to even try.
I don’t know about you, but that hasn’t been my experience in life at all. Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” (Num 13:30).
We can overcome our blindness to the blessing. We see curse, curse, curse. But too often the blessing is invisible to us. There is a love between a man and a woman that is a blessing. There is a joy that comes from children which no pain in this life can erase. There is a joy in education and work that makes even life in a cursed world worth living. There are glimmers of the world to come in this world. There are stars and waterfalls and giant clusters of grapes.
“I will give you the rains in their season. The land will yield its produce. I will grant peace in the land. I will chase your enemies and they will fall before you. I will turn toward you and make you fruitful. I will confirm my covenant with you. I will make my dwelling among you. I will walk among you and be your God. And you shall be my people.”
The cluster of grapes at Eshcol is a symbol of a deep truth in life: hidden in the difficulties are blessings that more than make life worth living and faith worth having.
I’ve not sent a Messianic Jewish Musings weekly email for the past two weeks while I have been in Israel. A great update is coming Wednesday. Sign up now if you are not already on the email list so you won’t miss it.
God is in Jerusalem. He is concealed. When the Second Temple was destroyed some sages discussed where the Shechinah (the Presence of God) went. R. Eliezer used some creative interpretation of a few Bible verses to prove that the Shechinah is still there, hidden in the Western Wall, the Kotel, where daily thousands of Jews and also some Christians are praying (J. Abelson, The Immanence of God in Rabbinical Literature. New York: Hermon Press, 1969 ed. (1912 original), pg. 120).
As Heschel says, “Everything holds the great secret.” Look around you. God is there. The meaning of all meaning is a mystery but what will we do with it? Will we take the coward’s way out and say, “It’s too hard; there is no reason for faith”? Or will we say, “I believe; help my unbelief”?
To get in touch with the mystery, Heschel recommends three ways to enter in: nature, scripture, and deeds of lovingkindness. All are needed. Some resonate more with one or two of them than the other. Enter in by doing, not by avoiding. Nature can evoke in us wonder. Scripture can speak. Lovingkindness can change our perspective. The grapes of Eshcol make great wine.
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