Russ Resnik encountered Yeshua as Messiah in the early 70s as a young radical in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Later, he was drawn into the Messianic Jewish movement and founded Adat Yeshua, a Messianic congregation in Albuquerque, NM, which he led for nearly 20 years. Today, he serves as executive director of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC), an association dedicated to establishing, strengthening, and multiplying congregations for Yeshua within the wider Jewish community. Russ is ordained as a Messianic Rabbi through the UMJC and also maintains credentials as a clinical mental health counselor. He has an international speaking and teaching ministry, contributes regularly to Messianic Jewish publications, and is the author of Gateways to Torah: Joining the Ancient Conversation on the Weekly Portion,Creation to Completion: A Guide to Life’s Journey from the Five Books of Moses, and Divine Reversal: The Transforming Ethics of Jesus. Russ and his wife Jane live in Albuquerque and have four children and seven grandchildren.
Last week Jane and I saw the movie “Les Miserables,” and this week I’m reading Parashat Shemot, the first chapters of Exodus. They both shed light on the middah of order.
Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight . . .” (Ex. 3:3).
All of the middot are practical, and order might contend to be the most practical of all. It entails things like putting the car keys back on their hook as soon as you walk in the door, setting your alarm so you get up early enough the next morning, and keeping your desk tidy to eliminate distractions. Like all the middot, however, order must be practiced in balance. Order out of balance can become petty and compulsive, but there’s an even bigger issue of balance, which appears in Parashat Shemot (Ex. 1:1–6:1).
I’d hate to cite one of our patriarchs as a bad example, but at first glance our father Yaakov doesn’t seem to express gratitude when Yosef presents him to Pharaoh. The king asks, “How many are the years of your life?” and Yaakov answers, “The years of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns” (Gen. 47:8–9). Gratitude is hikarat ha-tov, recognizing the good, but Yaakov seems to focus on the bad instead.
When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them . . . (Gen. 42:7).
Of all the themes that run through the story of Joseph and his brothers, one we might overlook is Joseph’s patience. I’m not thinking of the tremendous patience he needed to get through twenty years of slavery, imprisonment, and estrangement without losing hope in God, but of the patience that brought him through what might have been even tougher—the testing of his brothers when they came down to Egypt to buy food.
For this round of middot, I intend to stay in the vicinity of the weekly parasha. We’re currently at the beginning of the story of Joseph, so let’s see what it might have to teach us regarding the middah of humility.
Joseph’s story turns on three pairs of dreams. In the first pair, Joseph sees himself symbolically as dominant over his brothers, and he foolishly tells them about it. Commentator Nahum Sarna says, “The predictive aspect of dreams was universally assumed in the ancient world, and this was reason enough for the brothers to take Joseph seriously.” Dreams are potent, but Joseph handles them carelessly, fueling his brothers’ resentment and earning a rebuke from Jacob his father, who generally appears to favor Joseph and not rebuke him for anything. The brothers decide to get rid of their obnoxious brother and sell him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph ends up in an Egyptian prison where, after years of bondage, he accurately interprets the dreams of two fellow inmates. One, the royal cupbearer, will be released, and the other, the royal baker, will be executed. Again, Joseph talks about dreams with little thought to the impact of his words. He tells the baker he’s about to die, without so much as a “Sorry to have to tell you this.” Joseph even employs a play on words, telling the cupbearer that Pharaoh will “lift his head” to restore him and the baker that Pharaoh will “lift his head” off to execute him. Oh well . . .
Finally, Pharaoh has a pair of dreams that no one can interpret until the cupbearer remembers Joseph. He tells Pharaoh about him and Joseph is summoned to interpret the dreams, which he does convincingly, wrapping it up with, “The doubling of Pharaoh's dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about” (Gen. 41:32). Then he adds some words of his own: “Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land . . . so that the land may not perish through the famine” (Gen. 41:33–36). As a result, Joseph is put in charge of the whole vast operation to save Egypt from the predicted famine.
In the foreground of the story, its big theme begins to move ahead, the restoration of the twelve sons of Israel. But in the background we can discern a lesson about humility.
Joseph doesn’t just interpret Pharaoh’s dream, but now he takes responsibility for his interpretation and suggests a response. One could say that Joseph is just trying to get out of prison, and maybe even get himself a paying job (which you can hardly blame him for), but perhaps there’s more to it. In the past, Joseph didn’t even seem to be aware of the impact his words might have, as he talked about the various dreams. But now he’s learned to pause and consider the impact of his words, which is an integral part of humility. Sarna points out that “Joseph is extremely tactful and cautious. . . . [His] repeated emphasis on ‘Pharaoh’ . . . accords with the ancient Egyptian concept of government, which stressed the ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent nature of the king.” When Joseph advises the king to “proceed to appoint overseers,” he “deliberately uses the same verbal stem [asah] he used three times before in connection with the impending divine action (vv. 25, 28, 32), as though to imply that Pharaoh is the human counterpart of God.”
Now, you might think this sort of language is basic protocol when you’re talking with Pharaoh, but Joseph has shown himself to be oblivious to basic protocol in the past, both with his older, and higher ranking, brothers and with his two high-ranking fellow prisoners. Now, I believe, he’s learned something about humility that might be helpful to us as well. Humility is the ability to step back and see the impact of your potential words, to consider them, not just from your perspective, but from the other person’s perspective. Humility is willing to modify, to be careful, to hand-carry our words for the sake of the other. Humility overcomes the belief that my perspective, and my way of expressing it, is always just fine, and others will have to learn to like it. Humility replaces such self-delusion with sensitivity, and makes the effort to meet the needs of the other, instead of just meeting the need to express myself.
You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people. -- Lev 19:16
A talebearer reveals secrets, "But he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter" (Prov 11:13)
Have you ever been in on a conversation that started like this: “Can you keep a secret? I’m really not supposed to talk about this, but . . .” or “So-and-so made me promise not to tell anyone about this, but . . .”? This opening line is usually followed by an explanation of why it’s OK to not keep the secret, but to share the forbidden information with you, often in flattering terms. But don’t yield to flattery; the right response to this opening line is, “Wait, don’t tell me! If it’s supposed to be a secret I don’t want to know it.”
For the Torah was given through Moshe; chesed and truth came through Yeshua the Messiah. -- Yochanan 1:17
Chesed is one of those rich Hebrew terms that defy a direct one-word translation into English. We often translate it as lovingkindness, which is actually two words jammed together, and not a word we’d commonly say in modern English at all. Other terms are mercy, love, or grace. But perhaps we can get closer to the meaning of chesed by considering it along with another Hebrew word with which it’s often paired, emet or truth. This combination appears in the Torah when the Lord proclaims to Moses in Exodus 34, “Adonai, Adonai, God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in chesed v’emet—goodness and truth.”
The prophet Jeremiah denounced the men of his generation for their heedlessness. “No one repents of his wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Everyone turns away in his course as the horse rushes headlong in the battle” (Jer. 8:6). They were driven on by the force of habit, never stopping to realize what they were doing, until they came to grief. (Luzzatto, The Path of the Upright, chapter II)
We live in an age that praises spontaneity and action, that considers “just doing it”, to paraphrase the Nike ad, a great virtue. But the character change that lies at the heart of Mussar requires awareness of our own behavior and reactions, or what Luzzatto terms “watchfulness.” Instead of going with habit or impulse, we are to be aware and watchful of our behavior.
“Enthusiasm,” for most of its history as an English word, has had a mixed connotation. The word literally means “being possessed by a god” and by the 18th century had come to mean “ill-regulated religious emotion or speculation.” The Oxford Universal Dictionary gives a 19th century example: “Everywhere the history of religion betrays a tendency to enthusiasm.”
During the month of Elul and throughout the Days of Awe, our tradition recommends reading Psalm 27 twice each day. In this Psalm, David stirs us up to hope, courage, bold confidence in HaShem, and one other trait that is especially relevant for the High Holy Days, and for the middah of simplicity as well. “One thing,” says David, “have I asked of Hashem, and that will I seek: that I may dwell in the House of Hashem all the days of my life” (Ps. 27:4a).