Lech Lecha – The Syntax of Silence

These are anxious times. Many people are facing significant changes in their lives and the long-standing institutions that help inform their lives and lend them a sense of security. People often feel insecure regarding their safety, their finances and the social structures they have come to depend on.  Divisive politics have divided neighborhoods, communities and even families. Wars, rumors of wars and natural disasters proliferate, and social media casts blame and aspersions on everyone.  At times like this it is easy to ask, “where is God?” and “why is He so silent?”

A terse reading of Torah might unintentionally suggest that our biblical role models heard from God unceasingly and as a result proceeded on their journeys without question or doubt. In fact, our modern sensibilities understand faith as the absent of doubt. But the Torah instead demonstrates that our ancestors were filled with doubt. Abraham was filled with doubt. They worried about their lack of heirs, their relationship with neighbors, and the health, safety and welfare of their families. But over the long haul they continued despite long periods of apparent silence from Hashem. According to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel there is “syntax” to that silence, and when we learn it we can hear the voice of the soul and the voice of our God.

This week’s haftarah portion provides a paradigm toward understanding that syntax. In fact the first five verses of the haftarah (Isaiah 40:27-31) the inspired prophet offers consolation to Israel in the midst of their ongoing plight. The Assyrians have attacked and conquered the Northern Kingdom, and in the south the Babylonians will soon be knocking at the gates of Jerusalem and will destroy the city and temple, and will take the Judeans into captivity. Isaiah assures the people that the Holy One has heard their cries, and he will preserve them, but they need to learn how to hear Him, and act in obedience.

Why do you say, O Jacob,
and complain, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom. (27-28)

Step #1 – Interlocution with God

So the first step to hearing from God in the face of apparent silence is engagement. All to often we say God has not responded to us, when in fact we have been absent from the conversation. God is not angry at Israel for questioning His proximity. In fact we learn that when we cry out to God he hears our cries and answers. God apparently does not like to be ignored nor taken for granted. Nor does He like to be thought of as “old” or passé. Even Abraham called out to God with his cares, his concerns and his doubts. Abraham is so audacious as to question God’s judgment concerning Sodom and Gomorrah, querying, “ will not the judge of all the Earth judge righteously?” And doesn’t Yeshua himself in the fullness of humanity echo the impassioned plea of the psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Step #2 – Intervention of God

The next step is to develop and access a hard drive filled with memory of our past interactions with Hashem. I like to call this going to the video tape. I think we do ourselves a great injustice when we regard God’s redemptive work in our life as a one time decision that eradicates all doubts on our part. Rather I think it helpful to recall the many events of our lives when God’s deliverance seems so timely, when he seems to reach down and pluck us out of our immediate and insurmountable circumstance. The scripture records so many of these instances. Sarah Abraham’s wife getting regnant with his heir at the sprite young age of ninety, Moses by the Reed Sea declaring to Israel to observe “ the deliverance of your God,” and of course the many healings, feedings, and raisings of Yeshua. It is no wonder that Isaiah reminds Israel, “but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;” (v. 31)

Step # 3 – Interaction with God

The remainder of Isaiah verse 31 is rather counter intuitive. Everyone knows that first you crawl, then you walk and finally you run. But in God’s economy it is apparent that first you fly, then you walk and finally you are able to drag yourself along. The reason it would appear is that Hashem reaches into our world and plucks us out of our circumstances when it appears we cannot. But eventually He allows us to partner with Him. This is why he says to Abram in this week’s parsha Lech Lecha – Go yourself. God is essentially saying to Abram, you go and I will go with you. He does the same with Moses when He directs him to go to Pharaoh and say “Let My people go!” This is also true of the “The Great Commission”. Wedged between two great confirmations that all power has been given to Yeshua, and that He will be with us through out time, is the directive to go out to all people with the love of God.

Step #4 – Inner Action from God

The third step toward learning the syntax of God’s communication with us in the midst of apparent silence is recognizing when our Creator is trying to change us. God does not normally remove us from our situation, rather he allows us to change in the midst of our circumstance. Too often we try to change our own circumstances rather than allowing ourselves to be changes. So often I have observed people attempt to solve their problems with geographic adjustments. Unfortunately they always have to bring themselves along, completely unaltered, and with the same set of problems. The prophet Jonah attempted to flee from the presence of God, only to find that God’s immeasurable love pursues us and our bad attitude.

Rabbi Sh’aul of Tarsus speaks of a thorn in his flesh yet we do not know what that impediment is. He asks God three times to remove it, but the divine response is always, “My grace is sufficient in you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” One of the most enduring spiritual anecdotes is the “footsteps” story which has been marketed from shopping mall gift shops to Wal-Mart on everything from posters to lunch boxes. In this aphoristic story we are asked to consider that at the most difficult times in our lives God is not absent, rather he carries us. But Isaiah would suggest something slightly different. At the most difficult junctures of our life, when we are most unaware of God’s presence, He does not carry us, rather it seems he drags us along, allowing us to keep advancing, yet never disengaging us nor allowing us to quit.

but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

Some times we soar on the wings of eagles and it as though we can touch the sky. Yet other times we run and though there seems to be no end in sight it is as though we are carried by a supernatural strength. Still other times we walk, and are happy to be standing at the end of the day. But take heart, because as we walk, our God walks with us, and He reminds us that He will not grow tired or weary, and if only we learn the syntax of silence.

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