Celebrating Shabbat Texas Style!

B'ney Yosef National Shabbat New

Fischer Park in New Braunfels, TX, site of the first Central Texas National Shabbat.
Fischer Park in New Braunfels, TX, site of the first Central Texas National Shabbat.

The National Shabbat movement arrived in the Lone Star State through a gathering of about 100 people on March 19 at Fischer Park in the city of New Braunfels.  As with National Shabbats in Georgia and South Carolina, some participants traveled many hours to get there, coming from as far away as Sabine Pass on the Louisiana border, Wichita Falls near the Oklahoma border, Arlington in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, and Corpus Christi on the Gulf Coast.  Most of those assembled in New Braunfels came from around Austin (Georgetown, Cedar Park, Round Rock, Kyle) and San Antonio (Boerne, Converse, Poteet, Adkins, Floresville), with a significant number from the Houston area (Katy, Sugarland, Pasadena). Please click here to continue reading

Fox Byte 5776 #2: Uncomplicated Good, Unrelenting Evil

Rocky, Bullwinkle, Boris, and Natasha. © Jay Ward Productions. Illustration accessed on Dishonest John's T.V. Toons.)
Rocky, Bullwinkle, Boris, and Natasha.  (© Jay Ward Productions. Illustration accessed on Dishonest John’s T.V. Toons.)

Great art retains its appeal through time.  This is true even with works created for children – including cartoons such as The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.  The success of this cartoon classic is due to the things children appreciate:  outrageous characters, simple story lines, a make-believe world that mirrors real life, and just enough irreverence to entice the mischievous streak in every youngster.  And yet those who grew up with Rocky the flying squirrel and his friend Bullwinkle J. Moose continue to appreciate the show because of its sophistication.  As children we could not possibly understand the clever references to the Cold War then raging between the United States and the Soviet Union, nor the endless puns and jabs at politics, literature, and popular culture. 

As children we did not need to know those things.  All we needed to know was that Bullwinkle and Rocky were funny.  Even the villains were funny.  Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, along with their Fearless Leader, soon acquired fame that rivalled the title characters.  As caricatures of Soviet spies and political figures they were the perfect foils.  Moreover, they established a clear line between good and evil for young viewers.  Every child knew that Boris and Natasha were bad.  Their ceaseless efforts at killing Bullwinkle to advance their evil country’s fortunes originated from nothing else than pure meanness (as explained by Fearless Leader himself in the story “Goof Gas Attack”).  If the plot were exceptionally evil the spies would receive orders not only to deal with Bullwinkle, but to kill moose and squirrel.  Even when they received a note from Fearless Leader saying, “DO NOT kill Moose and Squirrel”, we knew that this apparent kindness occurred only because at that point the evil plans would best be served by keeping Rocky and Bullwinkle alive.

Children may not understand such things completely, but they grasp them instinctively.  Understanding comes later, after they have become adults and acquired years of knowledge and experience, not all of which is good or pleasant.  Children in their innocence discern good and evil, but they take as established fact that there is no gray area between the two.  After a few significant encounters in the real world they begin to learn that people and things can be confusing mixtures of good and evil.  Some appear to be good, but are evil at the core.  Some may do evil things, but for good reasons – or so they maintain.  Some do good for selfish reasons.  The sad reality is that children soon learn there is no absolute good among human beings, which makes navigation of this world exceedingly hazardous.  It is easier to revert to childhood innocence and attempt to stay there as long as possible.

The childlike place is comforting and safe.  There we recognize that good and evil exist, but all we need do is cling to the one while avoiding the other.  We need not seek the origins of evil, nor try to understand why evil and good seem to be intertwined in every heart.  A child will take the word of its parents in faith and act accordingly.  If they say a thing is good or bad, the child will act on that.  It is only later that the child begins to inquire into the nature of good and bad.  In time that path of inquiry leads to a line that should never be crossed:  the point of defining good and evil on his own terms.  Unfortunately, it seems that this very line has marked the boundary between childhood and adulthood since the time of Adam and Eve.  That may be why Messiah Yeshua said this:

And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 18:2-4 NASB) Please click here to continue reading

Fox Byte 5775 #37: Sh’lach L’cha (Send For Yourself)

שְׁלַח־לְךָ

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas Sir Nicholas Dance-Holland
The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas
Sir Nicholas Dance-Holland

About the time that Gideon of Manasseh delivered Israel from oppression of the Midianites and Amalekites (Judges 6:1-8:35), a war of (literally) epic proportions took place on the northwest coast of what is now Turkey.  The Trojan War really did happen, but the conflict was already wrapped in myth and legend when a Greek poet known only as Homer published The Iliad sometime around 750 BCE, four centuries after the war’s generally accepted dates of 1194-1184 BCE.  Homer’s epic inspired a number of classical works telling the tales of the Greeks and Trojans, including a sequel published in Latin seven hundred years later.  When the Roman poet Virgil wrote The Aeneid, he probably had a political agenda in mind.  His story is that of Aeneas, a Trojan hero of the royal family who escaped the destruction of the city and led a band of refugees in a journey that eventually resulted in their settlement at the mouth of the Tiber River in Italy.  There they became part of the story of Rome, a city which began as a colony of Alba Longa, the capital of the new kingdom Aeneas and his descendants founded.  Thus Rome could trace its origins at least in part to Troy.  More importantly, the family of Julius Caesar traced its genealogy to Aeneas, giving it a claim to royalty that helped Caesar’s nephew Octavian consolidate his power as Caesar Augustus.  Whether true or not, Virgil’s epic, written early in Augustus’ long reign, cemented the link of the Caesars with Aeneas and Troy in the minds of Romans, making it one of the most successful pieces of literary propaganda ever published.

Even if the Caesar’s claims were falsified, and even if Aeneas never existed outside of classical literature, his tale is an illustration of the remnant:  those who remain.  Whether it is Ishmael surviving to tell the story of Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, or Job’s servants fleeing disaster to report to him (Job 1:13-22), fact and fiction throughout the human experience have featured a fortunate few who escape.  The remnant has the task of carrying the memory of those who went before, of rebuilding what they lost, and of achieving their ultimate destiny.  These remnant tales would have little impact on us if they were not a common feature in reality.  The remnant is a continuous reminder in Scripture that God’s judgment is tempered with mercy in the expectation that a people will at last be able to step into the fullness of the promises YHVH has spoken from beginning of time.

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Fox Byte 5775 #32-33: Behar (On the Mount); Bechukotai (In My Statutes)

אַחֲרֵי מוֹת / קְדֹשִׁים

The search of the “Interstellar Other” in film.  Clockwise from top left:  A mysterious monolith enlightens pre-human primates in 2001:  A Space Odyssey (“Arthur C. Clarke's 3001 to become SyFy miniseries “, Wired.Co.UK, November 4, 2014); arrival of the alien spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)”, Steven Spielberg Movies, December 18, 2009); crop circles indicate alien activity in Signs (“Signs Movie Review”, MediaCircus.net, 2002); the end of the world according to Knowing (“Movie Review – Knowing”, Firefox.net, March 19, 2009).
The “Interstellar Other” in film.  Clockwise from top left: A mysterious monolith enlightens primates in 2001: A Space Odyssey (“Arthur C. Clarke’s 3001 to become SyFy miniseries“, Wired.Co.UK, November 4, 2014); arrival of the alien spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)”, Steven Spielberg Movies, December 18, 2009); crop circles indicate alien activity in Signs (Signs Movie Review”, Media Circus, 2002); the end of the world according to Knowing (“Movie Review – Knowing, Firefox News, March 19, 2009).

What is this fascination with the possibility of life beyond this planet?  Are we so insecure in our human existence that we cannot bear the thought of dwelling on the only inhabited territory in the entire universe?  Or is it, perhaps, a deep-seated sense of being incomplete in ourselves?  Whatever the reason, since the dawn of human existence we have sought for something, or Someone, beyond ourselves who shares our experience of sentience and can explain it to us.

For over a century the search for the Interstellar Other has found expression in science fiction.  Novelists like H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke have made their marks on several generations of impressionable youth, yet the massive explosion of science fiction onto popular consciousness came not with books, but with movies.  Clarke’s collaboration with Stanley Kubrick in the 1968 film 2001:  A Space Odyssey took science fiction movies to a new level.  It combined world-class writing with world-class filmmaking to proclaim to audiences that we are not alone, but in so doing left more questions than answers.  Ten years later, Steven Spielberg sought to answer some of those questions in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, proposing that the Interstellar Others have been visiting earth for a long, long time, and asserting that humanity had reached a point where these advanced beings could take us into their confidence and educate us further.  Movies produced over the next generation investigated different aspects of this question.  Some, like M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 thriller, Signs, explored the dark possibility that alien visitors are not friendly.  Signs clings to the hope that humanity can defend itself from alien intruders, and that the hostile encounter restores a sense of purpose we did not know we had lost.  And then there is Knowing, a 2009 drama in which Dr John Koestler, played by Nicholas Cage, embarks on a search for the meaning behind clues predicting one global disaster after another.  He learns at last that he can do nothing about the disasters; they themselves are clues all-knowing alien watchers have tracked through time to warn humanity about the imminent destruction of our planet in a massive solar flare.  The aliens have no intention of letting the human race pass into extinction.  Their clues guide people like Koestler in gathering children so the aliens can take them to a place of safety where humanity can begin again.

A recurring motif in these science fiction films is the search for meaning behind the evidence of alien presence.  In 2001 the evidence is a mysterious monolith, and in Close Encounters it is the connection of unexplainable phenomena across the globe.  In Signs it is the appearance of crop circles, and in Knowing it is the incomprehensible code of numbers and letters scratched by a child and left in a time capsule.  The story tellers would have us believe that the answers to human existence are all there if we can only decipher the patterns.

The science fiction story tellers are correct in that an Interstellar Other has left patterns for us to decipher.  What they have missed is that the Interstellar Other is the Holy One of Israel.  His clues are in Torah, and His answers are in the rest of Scripture.

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Fox Byte 5775 #21: Ki Tisa (When You Take)

כִּיּ תִשָּׂא

The Battle of Waterloo: The British Squares Receiving the Charge of the French Cuirassiers Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux
The Battle of Waterloo:  The British Squares Receiving the Charge of the French Cuirassiers
Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux

At the distance of two hundred years the specter of Napoleon Bonaparte is no longer frightening.  Now he is nothing more than a historical figure often depicted as a comic caricature of the man who once ruled most of Europe.  In his lifetime he inspired admiration to the point of worship not only for his genius at the art of war, but for his genius at bringing responsible government out of the chaotic revolution of France.  Yet his ambition pushed him beyond the limits of himself and of France, and in time he lost everything.

We have a picture passed on through the years of a bitter Napoleon who blames everyone but himself for his setbacks.  That is the picture C.S. Lewis invokes in his description of Napoleon in hell in his classic work, The Great Divorce.  A similar picture appears in Waterloo, the 1970 movie about Napoleon’s final battle starring Rod Steiger as the Emperor.  In the midst of the battle, illness overcomes Napoleon and compels him to leave the field briefly.  During that time Marshal Michel Ney (played by Dan O’Herlihy), Napoleon’s trusted subordinate, orders the French cavalry to attack when he believes the enemy is retreating.  What he does not realize is that the Duke of Wellington (played by Christopher Plummer) has ordered his infantry to shift their position to the other side of the hill they occupied.  As the French cavalry charge, the British infantry form squares, a tactic designed for defense against cavalry.  In charge after charge, the French horsemen expend their lives to little effect, eventually crippling that arm of Napoleon’s force and contributing significantly to his ultimate defeat.  In the movie, Napoleon returns to the field just as Ney is leading the charge.  In rage and dismay he says,

What’s he doing?  What’s Ney doing?  What’s happening?  Can’t I leave the field for a minute?  What’s he doing there?  How can a man go forward with the cavalry without infantry support?  What’s the matter with you?

To the military mind this outburst is perfectly understandable.  Napoleon the general trained his men well and expected them to act not only with initiative, but also according to his commands and within the parameters of good order and discipline.  It is no surprise that he became angry at learning that a trusted and experienced subordinate acted impetuously, violating a cardinal principle of war and endangering the entire army.  It is the same reason our God becomes very angry when His people disregard the good order, discipline, and sound judgment He expects of them.

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