Who Do You Think You Are
Let's say the Ha-foke ba together.
I don't you know about you but around the Vowell house we have a great interest in our family ancestry. I am one of the over 20 million people who have logged into the ancestry.com to research my family story and my wife's story. I am one of the countless millions of Jewish people who has gone through the Polish databases and Israeli databases to discover more about where I come from.
And I love television shows that explore the ancestry of people. I remember the story of actress Gweneth Paltrow. She allowed NBC to air her ancestry discovery story. After searching through JRI Poland, the actress discovered that she comes from a long line of rabbis named Paltrowicz from northeastern Poland and the towns of Suwalki, Lomza, and nearby shtetl (She used the JRI-Poland, JRI = Jewish Records Index had 90 records for her family). She also learned about her relatives who perished in the death camps.
In all these shows, you watch these people go back to a starting point and that by going back to that starting point somehow it makes us want to live differently and understand ourselves differently.
Why is it that we have such a strong desire to know more about where we came from?
We want to know because knowing where we came from helps us to re-frame an answer to the question, "Who do I think I'Am"
Maybe somebody back there did something noble/hideous.
Maybe somebody back there will re-define me right now, right here.
Maybe what we are looking back to find is that "ideal" self.
We are here now as the sum total of all our choices (good and bad) and sometimes the choices of others that we had no control over.
What I love about attending a Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah is that it reminds me of a former time, when I was optimistic about the choices I would make and about life. A time before all of the seasons of choices, the blessings of good choices and well the heartache of some of the bad ones.
If I can some how better understand where I came from then I really get two things for the price of one. I get another chance to imagine, "Who do I think I'am?" I understand who I am in a new and sometimes exciting way. I have the opportunity to visioneer what could be and should be.
By looking back I understand better "Who do I think I'am" but also what I could be and should be doing going forward.
In Jewish tradition, we call this "zichron" or remembering or even renewal. We look backwards to know how to go forward. The generation that survived the Nazi death camps coined the phrase "Never Again" after they looked back on what happened they said never again in the future.
At no other time in the life of a Jew do we experience this remember and renewal than this season.
Have you ever wondered why, "For generations now, we end the Torah and then we go back to the Start of the Torah?"
Why not just finish the Torah and say, "Okay, on to the next book. Ready to read Animal Farm by Orwell." After all, even the best of books that I have in my collection maybe get a twice read but I have never finished one book and said, "Let's start over at the beginning" and then finished and repeat, repeat, repeat.
Yet, Rabbi Hillel who most people attribute this quote said, " Turn it and turn it, for everything you need is in it. Reflect on it, grow old and gray with it, and do not leave it, For you will have no better guide than it. (Pirke Avot 5:25)
But, "Why do we keep turning and turning it?" After all, it is a great guide but it does not tell me how to start my car, use google maps, understand the inner working of communism or capitalism. Listen, after a couple of read throughs I think I basically got the big idea of it. Seriously, I only needed to read the Narnia series one time and I got the big idea, and it is longer that the whole Bible. So why do I need to keep turning it and turning it?
Our ancient sages put a good amount of thought into this question. And our sages, our rabbis came up with an "ah-ah" kind of an answer. They said, "did you ever notice how the very last word of the Torah is "All Israel." Authors always choose their last words carefully:
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One! –Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)
Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody. –J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
He loved Big Brother. - George Orwell, 1984
Moses would not hap-hazardly just end the greatest literary accomplishment of Israel's history without any forethought, without any rhyme or reason.
All through the last parshiyot (par-shee-OTE) of Deuteronomy, Israel was reminded again-and-again that there choices against God and His Torah would result in disasterous calamities.
Remember, we talked about this in Ki-Tavo: the curses that reached to the heart of a person.
At some point, we all hit a breaking point, at some point we all wonder is there any room for a second chance, a third chance or a 1000 chance?
So at the end, there it is, "Israel still exists in the heart and mind of God, all Israel."
Maybe the way forward for Israel, and for all of us after so much suffering, pain and heartache is to go back to the "beginning."
Perhaps, the last word and the first word of the Torah are not separate but continious, a kind of remember and renewal. Perhaps what we are to learn is that "All Israel" needs to go back to the beginning" in order to answer the question, "Who do I really think I'am" and if I knew the answer to this question then perhaps I would know better what I should do and could do.
So every year for almost 4,000 years we keep turning it and turning it because this is not just a book it is God's words but it is also our ultimate family story. It is the story about our starting point. I want to spend just a couple of moments today looking at our parashah (pah-rah-SHAH) in Bereshit (Gen 1:1-6:9). The original starting point. Whether you are Jewish or from the nations, this is all of humanities starting point.
Adults often need a brand new starting point. Starting off with faith as a child is not the same as starting off with faith as an Adult. What we experienced and what we believe grew further and further apart because of experience. The way we even read the Torah suggests we are supposed to back to the starting point to renew our faith and remember that all of the choices you have made, all of the problems or joys you have entertained for the last year do not adequately answer the question, "Who do I really think I am?" but Bereshit does.
I am a person who knows, "How is God's Speciality." (Gen 1:2-3).
Now the earth was chaos and waste, darkness was on the surface of the deep, and the Ruach Elohim was hovering upon the surface of the water. - Genesis 1:2
You may think we were the first generation to really wonder about how everything came into be but that is not the case. From the dawn of humankind we have wondered "how" did everything end up this way. How did we get a sun and moon and stars. How did we get life and all that entails.
The Scriptures tell us that before anything had any shape every thing was a mess. It was chaos, not good for anything, and filled with darkness. The Hebrew vocabulary in this one verse is an arsenal of words that provoke images of an area utterly uninhabitable.
I don't know if all in this room remember the The Chernobyl disaster, also referred to as the Chernobyl accident. It was a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986. The Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear power plant accident in history in terms of cost and casualties. It is one of only two classified as a level 7 event (the maximum classification) on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the other being the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011. If you can just picture the wasteland that was left in Chernobyl and how know one can even live there to this day and then multiply it by a million x a billion that is the image of Genesis 1:2.
If you could have been there in Genesis 1:2 the first question you would have asked is, "How" can this ever become something viable for life of any kind? You probably need to put this one on your bathroom mirror for a month or two. Just meditate on this one idea. How is never a problem for God. It is usually a big problem for us. But How is God’s specialty.
At the starting point, at the beginning people just knew that God specializes in the how. He has that totally under His control. The challenge is that most people gave up trusting God for the how because they did not like waiting on the God of when. Since we never know exactly when or how God is going to intervene, and since some of us in the room have gone through long stretches of time waiting on God to act and others seeing circumstances turn out in a way they did not want or choose, they start to give up believing that God's speciality is "how."
Show me a person who has given up on God, who has abandoned faith for something practical, who has said religion is a bunch of old stories and myths at the level of Santa Claus and I will show you someone who believes that "how" is a problem for God and that "how long" is an ever bigger problem.
How is God’s specialty.
He knows how to reach your husband/ wife/ boss/ neighbor.
He knows how to protect your children even though ...
He knows how to get you that promotion.
He knows how to get your business venture off the ground.
He knows how you can pay for school.
He knows how to get you over your hurt.
He knows how to put your marriage back together.
He knows how to get that ministry started.
He knows how to get you out of that mess.
When we turn back to the beginning and wonder, "Who do I think I am?" I am the kind of person who knows "how" is God's speciality.
Here is the second thing I learn about Who do I think I am? I am made in the image of my heavenly father. (Gen 1:26-28)
God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness!...God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the land, and conquer it." - Genesis 1:26-28
God set Adam and Eve up for 100% success. He made humanity in his image and likeness. That does not mean that our physical appearance is somehow the representation of God's physical appearance. No, rather it means we reflect His attributes - love, faithfulness, justice, wisdom, creativity - in a way that lines up with his moral character.
Our origin story tells us that human dignity and worth was more than a legal decisional rather, it was a universal and inalienable right since all were made in the image of God.
Our problem today is that we live in a world where supposed tolerance has trumped human dignity. We are tolerant with no sense of human dignity. Everybody should be able to do anything and nobody should be to blame. Reality is, we don't have dignity.
If we had any real dignity, no one would be tolerating Bill Clinton's or Donald Trumps harassment and treatment of women.
If we had any real dignity, we would spend more time upholding the dignity of purity, sexual purity than we spend condemning abortion as horrible as that is.
If we had any real sense of human dignity, we would live like everything is downstream of this one thing: we are His creation, no an accident, mistake, mishap or cosmic chance.
While the image defines our role, the blessing indicates the generosity of God to make us vice-regents with very little experience or skill but with one expectation: rule bearing His image. Turn chaotic things into "good" things.
Unfortunately, we don't always see this potential producing great results. Religion is often the means for great evil, violence and injustice. That is not the fault of God's image but of men and women reflecting the image of religion and not the image of God.
Even deeper than that it is the deeper problem of sin that has destroyed the original image and only from time to time do we catch glimpses, images, sparks of it. For some reason we really believe we are just a bunch of mistakers, accident makers or victims. When we look back to our starting point we realize we are sinners with a great potential for evil. The first children got into fight that led to the death of Abel by the jealousy of his brother Cain. Murder was a new invention for Cain, he came up with it on his own. That is the depth of evil and sin.
The greatest Light of All, Yeshua, showed the world what we had not seen in generations. He is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being, upholding all things by His powerful word (Hebrews 1:2). He showed us the image in HD clarity.
Remember the story of the fish getting the coin.
Remember the story of the donkey he sat on entering Jeremiah.
Remember the people he loved and the enemies he embraced and prayed for.
He showed us that the image of God could be restored by Him. He could restructure the moral fabric of our soul through his death and resurrection so that you and I should and could bear the image of God right now.
You may not be commanding fish but you may be restoring dignity where it has been lost, you may be in a place as a leader to turn chaos into goodness.
Who do I think I am? I think I am made to reflect the image of God.
Last, who do I think I am? When we look at our origin story, our starting point we see that we can be easily tempted and moved away from the image of God and moved a way form our faith in God. Usually this happens because at the root of sin is this one idea: I can initiate something before I Investigate it with God's help.
The serpent said to the woman, “You most assuredly won’t die! For God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” - Gen 3:4-5
Now the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a thing of lust for the eyes, and that the tree was desirable for imparting wisdom. So she took of its fruit and she ate. She also gave to her husband who was with her and he ate. - Gen 3:6
It is neither heroic nor smart to take bold, uninformed action to further a vision— regardless of the source. And, on the flip side, it is not evidence of a lack of faith to ask the hard questions wisdom dictates you ask.
It is wise to know what you are up against. Initially, you may not want to investigate before you initiate because you feel like you have to act now, must do something before somebody else gets its (buyers impulse). But even at the risk of missing out or having to wait, it is important to know everything that can be known before moving ahead.
We have been accused around her of moving at about a turtle's pace when it comes to making decisions.
Investigation will accomplish at least one of three things. It will confirm the divine origin of your decision, give it further definition and focus, or tip you off that you that there is a snake in the grass.
Everyone has a starting point. Your starting point can help to define who you are and shape the choices that you make. Some of you are here today hoping, praying that somehow you could just back to this starting point. You just need something to trigger your faith again.
Karen Armstrong Quote
"...many of us have been left stranded with an incoherent concept of God. We learned about God at about the same as were told about Santa Claus. But while our understanding of the Santa Claus phenomenon evolved and matured, our theology remained somewhat infantile. Not surprisingly, when we attained intellectual maturity, many of us rejected the God we had inherited and denied that he existed." - Karen Armstrong, The Case of God
Adults often need a brand new starting point. Starting off with faith as a Bat Mitzvah is not the same thing as starting off with faith as an Adult. What we experienced and what we believe grew further and further apart because of experience.
For those hoping to find that thing that sparks that faith thing, I know you can have that back. For some it is going start with the recognition that God still specializes in "how." He has got the how taken care of, you need to get the relationship taken care of. For others, you doubt that you resemble the image of God very much because if anyone knew what you did last night, or last week. You need to know that God made a provision for your forgiveness and reconcilliation in our Messiah Yeshua. I know some of you have tried all kinds of ways to get back into the good graces of God but He has given us just one way, the Messiah Yeshua. For some of you, you have been told that you are basically a good person and you don't need that whole salvation thing. But, you and I both know from experience that is not true. We all need a savior and God has given us his. Last, some of you need to remember to investigate with God before you implement.