The Syntax of Silence
Haftarat Lekh Lekha, Isaiah 40:27–41:16
Rabbi Paul L. Saal, Shuvah Yisrael, West Hartford, CT
These are anxious times. Many people are facing significant changes in their lives and in the long-standing institutions that help inform their lives and lend them a sense of security. People feel insecure regarding their safety, their finances, and the social structures they have come to depend on. Partisan 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 superficial reading of Torah might 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 demonstrates that our ancestors were 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.
Isaiah 40:27–31, which concludes this week’s haftarah portion, provides a sort of style guide for this syntax. The inspired prophet offers consolation to Israel in the midst of their ongoing struggle for survival amid attacks and threats from hostile neighbors. Isaiah assures the people that the Holy One has heard their cries and 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. (40:27–28)
Step 1 – Interlocution with God
The first step to hearing from God in the face of apparent silence is engagement. All too 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 or 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?” (Gen 18:25b). 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?” (Matt 27:46b).
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 videotape. We do ourselves a great injustice when we regard God’s redemptive work in our life as a one-time decision that eradicates all our doubts. 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. Scripture records so many of these instances. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, getting pregnant 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” (40:31).
Step 3 – Interaction with God
The remainder of Isaiah 40:31 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 can 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. Therefore he sends Abraham out in this week’s parasha with a simple command, “Lekh Lekha—Go yourself.” God is 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” (Matt 28:18–20). 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 fourth step toward learning the syntax of God’s communication with us amid 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 circumstances rather than allowing ourselves to be changed. 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 the immeasurable love of God pursues us along with our problems.
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 that has been marketed from Spencer gifts to Wal-Mart on everything from posters to lunch boxes. In this story/aphorism 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. (Isa 40:31)
Sometimes 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, nor will his direction and care be absent, if only we learn the syntax of silence.