December 6, 2016

A Good Death

Parashat VaYishlach, Genesis 32:4–36:43

Now the days of Isaac were 180 years. And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him. Genesis 35:28–29

When a patriarch or matriarch dies the whole family suffers trauma. The family system becomes imbalanced with the loss of its dominant member, and the surviving members sometimes act erratically. The death of a father or mother figure often stirs up fighting and misunderstanding between those who are left behind. They might seem to be arguing over funeral arrangements or the division of property, but the real issues are far deeper. Underlying the surface conflict is often terror at death itself.

As a rabbi and counselor, I’ve learned to tread softly through the scene of bereavement and mourning. More than once I’ve seen the primary caregiver, the one child who cared for an ailing parent night and day, who sacrificed personal priorities to keep the parent safe and comfortable, get blamed for the parent’s death. I’ve seen respectable, well-to-do offspring descend on the family home hours after the death of a parent to snatch up an old photo or a sentimental heirloom before the other family members could get to it. It’s a mistake to take these actions at face value and try to intervene with an appeal to fairness. Instead, they’re the distorted outworking of fear, guilt, and anxiety over a loss that just doesn’t make sense, a loss that hangs over life from now on like a black cloud.

But sometimes the death of a patriarch brings the opposite response, peace among the survivors. So it is in Parashat VaYishlach, as Isaac’s two sons, his sibling-rival sons Esau and Jacob, join together to bury him. Of course, there was already a dramatic reconciliation scene between the two in our last parasha, when Esau “ran to meet Jacob and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (33:4). Then Esau graciously accepted Jacob’s extravagant gift of “two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milking camels and their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys” (32:14–15), and invited Jacob to journey with him on his way back to his home territory of Seir. But this scene ended with Jacob refusing Esau’s gracious offer, and the brothers going their separate ways (33:12–18).

Now the brothers rejoin at last to bury their father. The text, with the precision that we always need to watch for in the Torah, restores the original birth order—it’s “Esau and Jacob” not “Jacob and Esau” that bury their father. Esau’s disregard of the birthright and Jacob’s scheming to obtain it and the blessing that accompanied it are set aside at this final moment. In this scene it’s not Jacob the chosen and Esau the rejected, but Esau and Jacob, older brother and younger brother, joined together to bury their father.

Underlining this moment of resolution, the Torah immediately turns to list the generations of Esau, which takes up an entire chapter (36) of Genesis. Nahum Sarna notes that the list of generations serves “a theological purpose.”

Esau was the subject of a divine oracle and the recipient of a patriarchal blessing (25:23; 27:39–40), and the data now given show how these were fulfilled in history. The rise and development of the Edomite tribes, like the fortunes of Israel, are determined by the workings of God’s Providence and are part of His grand design of history.[1]

Esau is not Jacob, of course, and he will not bear the full legacy of Abraham and Isaac. But he is a son who receives blessing, including a homeland, and he is the ancestor of “kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites” (36:31). Somehow, the death of Isaac brings all this to the fore.

We can see a similar pattern at the death of Abraham.

These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life, 175 years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.  Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre. (25:7–9)

Here Isaac continues to be mentioned before his older brother, Ishmael, but the estranged brothers are together again for the moment. Immediately after noting God’s blessing on Isaac, the text goes on to list the generations of Ishmael, just as it lists the generations of Esau immediately after Isaac’s death. In this case, Ishmael fathers twelve sons, which become twelve tribes, paralleling the twelve tribes of Israel. And his death is described with the words “he breathed his last” [G’VIYAH], a term usually applied only to the righteous according to Rashi. It’s the same word that is used to describe the deaths of Abraham and Isaac, and we’ll see it again at the death of Jacob (49:33).

There’s another common thread between the deaths of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jacob’s death also provides for a moment of reconciliation between his sons.

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.”  So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (50:15–21)

From this beautiful scene, and the beautiful burials of Abraham and Isaac, we can extract two lessons:

First, death and bereavement are part of life, and we can make of them good or ill. I noted the dysfunctional response to death of some families, but I’ve also seen grieving families draw together, forgive, and find deep reconciliation at their time of loss. I’ve attended funerals filled with tension, whispers, and discord, and I’ve attended funerals that genuinely honored the legacy of the departed and brought deep comfort to those left behind. It’s part of life on this earth to prepare for death, our own and also the death of loved ones. We can begin now to prepare for a good death.

The second lesson is really just a remez or hint in the burials of Abraham and Isaac. The death of the father brings reconciliation to his sons. So the death of the father’s perfect representative, Messiah Yeshua, brings reconciliation to all the sons that God has created. At his death the rivalry over who is favored and who isn’t, over who owns the birthright and who receives the biggest blessing, is terminated. The death of Messiah Yeshua is a good death, and from it flows life to those left behind.

In memory of Arthur Byers, a member of our chavurah, who passed away November 29 at the age of 90.


[1] The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, Commentary by Nahum M. Sarna (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989) 246.

November 21, 2016

Sibling Rivalry and the Articulated Torah

My friend and colleague Seth Klayman led a group discussion last week at the Messianic Leadership Roundtable in Phoenix, on “Building Trust While Approaching Gentiles and the Torah in our Communities.” Trust was the theme of the whole event, and Seth applied that theme to the thorny issue of Jews, Gentiles, and Torah within the Messianic Jewish community. He opened with the idea that we steward “two profound truths” in our community: “(1) God has cut an enduring covenant with Israel as a distinct people; and (2) Gentile believers are ‘brought near’ to Israel, resulting in a deep unity of Jew and Gentile in Yeshua. Therefore, we embrace both Jewish ‘distinction’ and Messianic ‘inclusivity.’”

Clear enough, but the discussion threatened to turn into train wreck. As soon as it left the station, participants jumped out of their seats, raised their voices at each other, and even pointed fingers once or twice. Rabbi Seth handled the controls calmly enough to keep the train on the rails, and bring it home with no evident injuries. On the surface we were talking about the “One Law” question; whether the Torah applies differently to Jews and Gentiles, whether some aspects of Torah are specifically given as identity markers for the Jewish people and aren’t intended for non-Jews, even within the Messianic Jewish community. Beneath the surface, though, there was clearly something else going on. At one point Seth asked us, “Why do you think this topic stirs up such emotions?”

Good question. The answer that popped into my mind was, “Sibling rivalry.” I’m currently working on a book that explores the story of Joseph and his brothers from a family systems perspective. The most visible family dynamic in the story is the rivalry between Joseph and his brothers, which is a rivalry over the favor of their father, Jacob. Sibling rivalry, however, doesn’t only shape what’s going on among our ancestors in ancient days; it drives current events in the religious world of 2016.

We usually refer to this long section of Genesis (chapters 37-50) as “The Joseph Story,” but as another friend and colleague, Jeff Feinberg, notes in his book Walk Genesis! (Baltimore: Lederer Books, 1998) it’s Judah (or Y’hudah) who really turns things around. “Y’hudah faces brotherly jealousies and the resulting sorrows caused to his father” (p. 196). In response, he offers himself in exchange for Benjamin, who is a sort of stand-in for Joseph, and potentially the target of all the same jealousies that had moved the brothers to get rid of Joseph years earlier.

Sibling rivalry is in play throughout Genesis, foreshadowed in Cain vs. Abel, and continuing with Ishmael vs. Isaac, Esau vs. Jacob, and now Jacob’s favored son Joseph vs. ten of his brothers. The remedy to sibling rivalry is not the 21st-century solution of unconditional equality and inclusion—in other words, not to eliminate the rivalry over the father’s favor by making all the sons equal favorites. The remedy is to repent of bucking the father’s favor of one son over the others and instead to embrace and support it. Y’hudah goes so far in this new and right direction that he’s willing to offer up himself in exchange for the evident new favorite, Benjamin.

Jeff Feinberg asks, “In what way do messianic gentiles face feelings similar to Y’hudah’s?” Is he alluding to the potential for sibling rivalry within the Messianic Jewish community, where gentile members might feel like all the emphasis is on the Jewish members? Or is he thinking of Christians in general as “messianic gentiles,” and noting the long and terrible history of Christian antisemitism, which is indeed rooted in sibling rivalry? The first possibility brings me back to the roundtable discussion last week, where the intensity reflected an unresolved, present-tense sibling rivalry. In fact, during that discussion someone (or was it more than one?) invoked the charge of gentiles as second-class citizens within our community. Y’hudah’s example is helpful here too: “He is even prepared to accept Leah, his mother, as a less loved wife—though at some level, Ya’akov’s favoritism must make him feel like a second-class son of Leah (Gen. 42:38).”

Here’s the verse that Jeff cites, Genesis 42:38 (with my added emphasis): “And Jacob said, ‘My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he alone is left: if mischief befall him by the way in which you are going, then you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.’”

Jacob is speaking to Reuben here, but all the sons are listening in. Their father is refusing to send Benjamin down to Egypt with them, as the still-unrecognized Joseph is demanding, and favoritism is very much alive in his language. The 21st-century response would be, “What do you mean, My son? We’re all your sons!” or “What do you mean, He alone is left? You have ten other sons, and one of them is still in jail in Egypt!” But this response won’t fly here. It’s only as the brothers accept Jacob’s favoritism and, through their representative Judah, pay the price to protect it, that the story can move forward.

I see what the rabbis call a qal v’homer (light and heavy) or a fortiori interpretation here. If the brothers are supposed to embrace, support, and even sacrifice for their father’s favor of Joseph—even when their father displayed that favor unwisely and then openly transferred it onto a new favorite, Benjamin—how much more should all the gentile brothers support the Father’s favor upon Israel. The remedy for religious sibling rivalry isn’t to eliminate all distinctions within the Father’s family, but to support and honor the distinctions he has made. If there’s a call for Gentile members in the Messianic Jewish community to take a secondary role in support of ongoing Jewish calling in Messiah, I don’t see that as demeaning at all. Instead, it reflects the meaning of “Messianic” on a level far deeper than religious branding, “Messianic” as in emulation of Messiah Yeshua, who forsook status and the competition for status, and made it clear that second-class would be first.

Of course, there’s also a “Messianic” role for Messianic Jews to play on behalf of the Gentiles in our community. Like Messiah, we’re supposed to be a “light to the nations/Gentiles” (it’s the same word in Hebrew), who come to the house of the God of Jacob to learn his ways (Is. 2:3), and grab the cloak of a Jew saying, “We want to go with you, because we have heard that God is with you” (Zech 8:23). The Torah that we teach is articulated differently toward different groups, but it carries divine instruction for all. If Judah represents the Gentiles in this reading of Genesis, Joseph represents the Jews, especially Messianic Jews. God didn’t raise up Joseph to become a celebrity, but to serve his brothers. Perhaps our service means sharing an articulated, distinction-honoring, and life-giving Torah with all.

November 9, 2016

The “Right to Die” on Election Day

Amid all the excitement and dismay of the Trump upset on Election Day 2016, it was easy to miss a lopsided victory in Colorado for Proposition 106, legalizing “Medical Aid in Dying” or assisted suicide. And I suppose the story wasn’t all that newsworthy, since Colorado joined five other states (Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana and California) that already have similar laws. Besides, the Colorado law seems rather tame, at least as described in the Nov. 8 Denver Post: “Colorado passed a medical aid in dying measure Tuesday that will allow adults suffering from terminal illness to take life-ending, doctor-prescribed sleeping medication.”

 But newsworthy or not, Proposition 106 highlights one of the great underlying questions of our age: What gives value and meaning to human life?

If we can’t give a definitive answer to this question, then we’ll have to deal with other questions: Who sets the limits on “Medical Aid in Dying”? On what basis would such limits be set? Should there be any limits at all?

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November 4, 2016

Innocence is Not an Option

God’s original plan was to hang out in a garden with some naked vegetarians.

At least that was the plan according to a poster by New Mexico artist Diana Bryer that I own. Before you object or roll your eyes, though, remember this verse in last week’s Torah portion:Adam and Eve

Then God said, “Here! Throughout the whole earth I am giving you as food every seed-bearing plant and every tree with seed-bearing fruit. And to every wild animal, bird in the air and creature crawling on the earth, in which there is a living soul, I am giving as food every kind of green plant.” And that is how it was. (Gen. 1:29–30, CJB)

Originally not only humans but animals too were all vegetarians. Meat eating entails violence and apparently there wasn’t any of that until after Adam and Eve got booted from the Garden. In fact, even vegetarianism might not have been peaceful enough in this place of primal peace. According to The Jewish Study Bible, “Humankind, animals, and birds all seem originally meant to be neither vegetarians nor carnivores, but frugivores eating the seeds of plants and trees.” Seeds and fruits fall off the plants on their own, making this the ultimate non-violent diet, and leaving humankind radically innocent.

Jewish commentator Dennis Prager tells about being on a long flight on which the woman sitting next to him was served a vegetarian meal (while he was given a kosher one). He asked her why she was a vegetarian and she responded, “Because we have no right to kill. After all, who are we to claim that we are more valuable than animals?”

Prager is okay with that first sentence, and it does seem consistent with the frugivorous Shangri-La of Eden. But Prager is shocked at the second sentence: “Who are we to claim that we are more valuable than animals?”

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October 7, 2016

Shabbat Shuvah 5777

In recent years I’ve often taught on Teshuvah, or Repentance, as a four-step process, which can be traced throughout Scripture. It’s clearly pictured in Messiah Yeshua’s story of the Prodigal Son, the iconic picture of teshuvah in the Gospels. This year I’m working through an excellent book, Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah, by Dr. Louis E. Newman, which outlines seven steps of repentance. (See my post Teshuvah Translated.) In this blog I’ll see how those steps fit in with the four steps I’ve outlined.

Rambam (or Maimonides, 1135-1204), identified four components of teshuvah: recognition of sin, regret, restitution, and resolve.

And how does one repent? A sinner should abandon his sinfulness, drive it from his thoughts and conclude in his heart that he will never do it again, as it says, “Let the wicked man abandon his way… (Isaiah 55:7). Additionally, he should regret the past as it says: “For after I repented, I regretted (Jeremiah 31:18)…. And let the sinner call to Him who knows all hidden things to witness that he will never return to sin that sin again. (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:2)

Recognition of sin: Teshuvah begins with a wake-up call, which Rambam compares to the wake-up call of the shofar at Rosh HaShanah: Continue reading

September 30, 2016

Teshuvah Translated

Last Saturday night I attended a community-wide Selichot service here in Albuquerque. The service itself was to include a talk on teshuvah (return or repentance) by Dr. Louis Newman. Since this was a nice Jewish event, we started out with some nice eating before it began, and Dr. Newman himself sat down at our table with a few copies of his book Repentance: The Meaning & Practice of Teshuvah. I’m a definite introvert, but I pushed myself to launch a conversation, since teshuvah is so central to my own writing and counseling practice.repentance

After a friendly opening (“You must be the visiting dignitary . . .”), I asked Dr. Newman if “repentance” was really the best translation for teshuvah, and he explained (very plausibly) why it is. This led me to ask whether he uses the term “sin” in his book. I was wondering whether the book entailed a genuine engagement with the traditional Jewish sources, which definitely grapple with the ugly reality of sin, or was a modern recasting of the whole issue that would use terminology like “making a mistake”, “not being true to yourself,” etc. Dr. Newman assured me that he uses the term “sin”—although he often substitutes with “transgression,” since “sin” sounds so Christian.

But doesn’t repentance sound Christian too? I asked.

Actually, Christianity tends to downplay repentance and focus more on atonement, he responded. Atonement is something that’s done for you, but repentance is something you need to practice every day.

Right, I said, “Repent one day before you die.” [Pirke Avot 2:15]

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September 24, 2016

Day Six, Hour 11.5

Rosh Hashana is one of our most significant Jewish holidays, but the Torah doesn’t say much about it. It’s only mentioned twice, and briefly at that:

And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial of terua, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work of labor, and you shall bring near a fire offering to Hashem.” Lev. 23:23-25,

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any work of labor. A day of terua it shall be to you, and you shall offer a burnt offering, for a pleasing aroma to Hashem. . . Num 29:1-2,

I’m providing a literal translation for both these passages to highlight the fact that the Torah doesn’t call this day “The Feast of Trumpets” as it’s often termed in Bible studies. (It also doesn’t call it Rosh Hashana, but that’s another discussion.) These two passages actually don’t mention a “trumpet” or a shofar at all, but only the sound that a trumpet or shofar might make, which is called terua. And it’s not a “Feast”. But it is a Shabbaton, or day of solemn rest, and a mikra kodesh, or holy convocation, so we know the day really is significant. But the Torah doesn’t tell us why it’s significant. Or does it?

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September 17, 2016

Unprepared and Ready

Not long before my old friend Rube (Rabbi Richard Rubinstein, that is) passed away, I had the privilege of visiting him at his home in Sacramento. He was already in bad shape from the cancer that eventually killed him, but his spirits were remarkably fine, so when he happened to recommend a book to me, I paid attention. The title grabbed my attention too: This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, by Rabbi Alan Lew. The subtitle explains that it’s about “The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation,” and “You are Completely Unprepared” is a sort of unifying theme.

In this book, the Days of Awe comprise the whole season of Teshuvah, Return or shofarRepentance, which culminates in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but this is not a manual on liturgy or customs to help us get ready for the High Holy Days. Rather, Rabbi Lew is telling us that we’ll never get ready; we’ll never be prepared for the central experience of the Days of Awe, which is an encounter with the real and living presence of God. The season of Teshuvah, in Rabbi Lew’s guidebook, begins with Tisha B’Av, the “day when we mourn the fall of the Temple, the day precisely seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah when we begin our preparations for reconciliation with God by acknowledging our estrangement from God.” It’s an estrangement that we can’t fix, says the rabbi, but only recognize, as “we begin to acknowledge the fact that we are utterly unprepared [there’s that word again] for what we have to face in life.”

Recognizing that we are truly unprepared and empty is inherent to teshuvah, as expressed in the prayer Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King): Ein banu ma’asim, We have no good deeds, or literally no deeds at all, that we can invoke in God’s presence. There is nothing we can say or do in response to his awesome holiness. Recognizing our helplessness, our utter deficit in the presence of God, is essential to genuinely returning to him.

Not long ago, I read another book, A Praying Life, by Paul E. Miller. One of the early chapters is  “Learning to be Helpless.” Under the heading, “Prayer = Helplessness,” Miller writes, “Prayer is bringing your helplessness to Jesus,” and then quotes the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton: “Prayer is an expression of who we are . . . We are a living incompleteness. We are a gap, an emptiness that calls for fulfillment.” Prayer isn’t something we do to overcome our helplessness; it is a gift that arises out of the helplessness that will always be with us. But unless we can acknowledge that helplessness, we won’t even want the gift.

Which invokes a third book in my recent reading: God of our Understanding, by Shais Taub, a Chasidic rabbi who is intimately acquainted with addiction and recovery. His subtitle is “Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction,” and Rabbi Taub expounds on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous from the perspective of Torah, beginning with Step One: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol [or whatever we were addicted to] and that our lives had become unmanageable.” He writes,

The idea of surrender presented in the First Step . . . seems to turn many people off from even giving recovery an honest go. Yet, that’s probably just as well, because the admission of powerlessness and unmanageability is not an aspect of recovery—it’s the very basis of it. Nothing else seems to work very well without complete and unconditional capitulation first.


Rabbi Taub is undeniably correct in thinking that surrender is a turn-off to many people in a day that is obsessed with success, techno-mastery, and the elimination of pain and unpleasantness. But what ties these three books together, and ties them all to the Days of Awe, is the notion that this despised reality of helplessness, incompletion, and powerlessness is not limited to addicts, but is part of our humanity. It’s not a problem to overcome, but a platform for genuine spiritual development. The books don’t call on us to recognize our helplessness so that we can fix it, but rather so that we can thereby recognize our dependency on God. We’re not going to return to God only after we solve these problems, but somehow from within them, in the negation of the self-reliance and self-assurance that our secular culture continually seeks to promote. As Rabbi Lew would argue, only when you really get that “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared,” can you begin to enter the Days of Awe with any kind of authenticity, authenticity that in turn authenticates our whole life with God.

This is a picture of real teshuva—turning away from self and its inevitable outcome, sin, and turning to God. But it’s up to the Christian author, Paul Miller, to put this all into the context of the message of Messiah Yeshua: “The gospel, God’s free gift of grace in Jesus, only works when we realize we don’t have it all together.”

Occasionally I’m asked by some Christian friend or another why I, as a follower of Yeshua, continue to keep Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement, when Yeshua has provided atonement once-for-all. Or why we, as Messianic Jews practice the annual confession of sin and appeal for mercy during the Days of Awe, since we’ve already been forgiven through Yeshua’s once-for-all sacrifice. To paraphrase Rabbi Taub, it’s because repentance and forgiveness are not just an aspect of new life in Messiah, but the very basis of it. I’m not accusing my friends of this, but there’s a tendency in the religious world to conform to the values of the dominant secular culture, which in our times includes the value of human competence and sufficiency. Feeling insufficient? God can fix that and send you on your way. But that’s not the gospel. Instead, it says, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. We don’t do teshuva once to get into this kingdom, and then leave it at the door. Rather, the continual recognition of our spiritual helplessness and need, paradoxically enough, keeps us spiritually healthy and strong. Perhaps that’s how my friend Rube could seem to be doing fine even as his body was caving in to the ravages of cancer.

I’ve already invoked the traditional prayer, Avinu Malkenu. It’s a powerful assembly of words, set to a haunting melody, especially fitting for the Days of Awe, but bearing truth for every day:

Avinu Malkenu chanenu v’anenu ki ein banu ma’asim, aseh imanu tsedakah v’chesed v’hoshienu.

Our Father, our King!

Be gracious to us, and answer us, for we have no good works of our own;

deal with us in charity and kindness, and save us.






September 12, 2016

The Silence of Abraham

I wrote this commentary the day before 9/11/2001 and it seemed particularly relevant in the days that followed. I reposted it on this blog site a few years ago, and it still seems current to me, as we approach Rosh Hashanah 2016. 

During the time of self-examination and spiritual preparation leading up to the Days of Awe, it is essential to examine our speech, what we say to and about others. Our Messiah taught, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Our speech reveals the condition of our heart, and taming our speech is essential to preparing for these holy days.

David writes in Psalm 34 (vss. 12-14),

Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.

Who is the man who desires life, and loves days, that he may see good?

Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile.

The nineteenth century commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch notes at these verses that the fear of the Lord begins with “control over our words.” He continues,

…there is no better task that we can set for ourselves, leading to the fear of God and to be done in the fear of God, than to resolve tacitly and before Him alone never to speak ill of one’s fellow-men. The fulfillment of this one task requires a constant self-observation and affords a unique opportunity for attaining that control over oneself which is the essential basis of all God-fearing moral behavior…. In instances where we really know of nothing good to say, we must practice the difficult art of keeping silent.

Rabbi Hirsch’s comments are especially apt during the Days of Awe, as we practice t’shuvah, a return to God and His ways. If we will focus on controlling our speech, we will go a long way toward restoring the rest of our behavior. Ya’akov writes, “If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body” (James 3:2b). If we resolve not to speak evil of our fellow human beings, we will gain mastery over other evil behavior as well. And sometimes, as Hirsch points out, this task will require that we practice silence.akedah

This observation brings us to another element of the Days of Awe, the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), which we read during Rosh Hashanah. One of the mysteries of this story is the silence of Abraham. Translator Everett Fox comments:

Most noticeable in the narrative is Avraham’s silence, his mute acceptance of, and acting on, God’s command. We are told of no sleepless night, nor does he ever say a word to God. Instead he is described with a series of verbs: hurrying, saddling, taking, splitting, arising, going (v.3; similarly in vv.6 and 9-10). Avraham the bargainer, so willing to enter into negotiations with relations (Chap. 13), allies (Chap. 14), local princes (Chap. 20), and even with God himself (Chap. 18), here falls completely silent.

Abraham pleads on behalf of others, but is silent when God tells him to offer up his own son. After his initial response to God’s call – “Hineni!” – Abraham does not speak to God at all. Perhaps, after receiving this command to offer up his beloved son, he struggles so greatly with the question of God’s goodness that he must keep silent to avoid transgression. This is the great trial that Abraham must endure; not only to obey such a terrible commandment, but also to refrain from questioning the God who issued it.

The silent Abraham, however, does make one statement about God. As he is walking to the place of offering with his son Isaac, the lad says, “Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham answers, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:7-8). “God will provide” – this is Abraham’s sole comment in the midst of his great trial. And this statement becomes the theme of the whole story. God does indeed provide a ram as an offering in the place of Isaac. Abraham therefore names the place Adonai Yireh, The-Lord-Will-Provide; “as it is said to this day, ‘In the Mount of the Lord it shall be provided’” (22:14).

Rosh Hashanah is the commemoration of the Lord as King. He was King from the moment of creation; He is King over Israel; and He shall be King over all nations through the Messiah Yeshua. On Rosh Hashanah, we must examine whether He is truly King over our lives as well. If God is our King, we trust Him even when we can barely endure our trial. Even when we do not understand, we know that God will provide.

Abraham allows himself no word that would call into question the Lord’s Kingship. Instead, he limits himself to the most basic statement of divine sovereignty – the Lord will provide. He is our ultimate source and overseer, the King over every aspect of our lives. At other times, Abraham dares to negotiate and even argue with God, thus inaugurating a great Jewish tradition of argument with the divine. There is a time to discuss the difficult questions of spiritual life, but there is also a time when the only issue is God’s sovereignty. It is when we are in the midst of the greatest trials that we must affirm this truth most clearly.

Who is the man who desires life, and loves days, that he may see good?

Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile.

During these days of spiritual preparation, we must examine how we speak of our fellow human beings, and even how we speak of God Himself. Do we really affirm Him as King, the One who always provides, or do we give into words of fear and insecurity? Abraham chose silence over doubting God’s perfect Kingship. Perhaps we need to return to a quiet trust in God as Sovereign over all things, even things we do not understand.

Out of speech that is right about God will come speech that is right about our fellow man and out of right speaking will issue right behavior. Then the Lord will be King indeed over our lives.




September 3, 2016


I spent a few days last week in the Gila Wilderness of Southwestern New Mexico, with my two sons, Luke and Danny, and two old friends, Ed and Don. In 1924 the half million acres of the Gila became the first stretch of land in America—and probably the world—to be set apart as off-limits to all human development. It was the first designated wilderness within the US Forest Service and it’s not hard to see why. It’s remote, a drive of three hours off the main highway on winding mountainous roads to reach the trailhead, and spectacular, with some of the most rugged mountain terrain in New Mexico and tall craggy cliffs nestling the verdant headwaters of the Gila River.


In 2012 the Gila was devastated by forest fires that burned 300,000 acres in the Wilderness and surrounding National Forest. This damage to the watershed led to unusually violent flash floods later in the year. Four years later, the trail up the West Fork of the Gila, where we hiked, remains washed out at many points. One of the chief of the many virtues of the Gila is that most folks don’t make it that far. We saw just a party or two each day of our sojourn, and we were in one of the most breathtaking parts of the Wilderness, camped out by Jordan Hot Springs, a big, clear, blue-bottom pool of 94-degree water—and no one else was using it all weekend. The Gila is hardly trafficked, so its trails are in stretches reverting to the wild. How quickly the wilderness reclaims its own.

In response, hikers and perhaps Forest Rangers as well, occasionally pile up neat little stacks of stone called cairns to mark the trail. There are plenty of trees in the Gila, but to mark the trail with blazes on the trees you’d need an axe or hatchet and such gear is too heavy for backpacking. Stones are readily available and easily stacked into cairns as Early2011-010-cairnneeded. For a cairn to be effective, though, it has to be trustworthy. The hiker who places a cairn had better be sure it marks the real trail, and if we spot that little stack of rocks we have to believe it’s right. Near our campsite by the hot springs, someone had placed a cairn to mark another campsite, which wasn’t on the trail. An innocent hiker who might be heading a few miles further up the West Fork could be sidetracked by that cairn into a nice sandy-bottomed grove of trees that did nothing to help him on his way. I moved that cairn back to the trail itself, and set up a couple more as we hiked through the day.

We like to talk about life as a journey. I wonder what the cairns might be as we make our way on that journey. Is there really a trail, a right trail, that someone might mark off? In a postmodern world defined by skepticism and enraptured with finding your own way, who will trust the cairns anyway?

It might be a defining feature of religious community that we believe there are cairns out there, marking the way, that we’re responsible to set up a cairn now and then or to move one that’s in the wrong place, and that sometimes we’re only going to advance if we trust a cairn that someone else has set. That’s a counter-cultural thought isn’t it? A cairn does not repeat the current mantras about following your own heart and being true only to your own sense of things. A cairn implies you might well get lost without it. A righteous hiker might pause now and then to stack up a few rocks to mark a particularly obscure passage. So it is with the journey of life.

14141482_10154067432313043_4492779569394505214_nHiking the Gila headwaters requires multiple crossings of the river. The stone walls of the canyon tower right into the water, sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other, so the trail has to cross from side to side. I had read in a guide book that between our first-night campsite and Jordan Hot Springs, we’d have to ford the river 14 times. So, when we were hiking back the same way on day four I kept track of the river crossings, which totaled17. I figured that we might have crossed over and back unnecessarily at one point, so the real total was 15—not far off from the 14 mentioned in the guide book. I guess I was keeping track to know when we’d get back to our earlier campsite, from where we’d leave the river, hike up Little Bear Canyon and over a saddle, and then a couple of miles on a high ridge to get back to our minivan.

On that return hike we ran into two younger couples on their way into the Wilderness—a traffic jam! We asked where they were headed and they said Jordan Hot Springs, which of course made sense. Then we asked if they knew how to find the spring. One young guy said, “Sure, we have a map,” and we had to tell him that the map, which we had too, wasn’t detailed enough and the trail had changed since it was printed. They’d have to cross the river 15 or 16 times to get to the hot springs. But if they kept track of their crossings and started watching for the springs after 14 or so, they’d find them. If they were looking for it they’d see a little trail to the hot springs across from a nice open camping area with a couple of fire rings (where we’d spent the night).

Two things struck me as we wished the hikers good luck and walked off: It was worth keeping track of the number of crossings, so that we’d be able to give someone else a sure way to find the hot springs. And it was basic backcountry responsibility to give them the details—to provide a cairn—even though they didn’t realize they needed them. Sometimes life’s journey is that way too.

jordan hot springs.jpg