The silence of Abraham

Here’s something I originally wrote for Rosh Hashanah 5762, just before the 9/11 attacks. It seemed particularly fitting back then, and I think it’s also fitting for this blogsite dealing with ethics. May 5771 be a year of excellence in pursuit of God’s kingdom!

During the time of self-examination and spiritual preparation leading up to the Days of Awe [the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur], 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.

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 indeed be King over our lives.

For more on the Akedah, see “The sacrificed son” at http://umjc.org.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s