On Being Told By God

I have been receiving of late weekly Bible commentaries from the Aleph Institute (the link to the institute itself is broken), a Jewish chaplaincy outfit based in Florida that specializes in military and prison chaplaincy as well as “family ministry.” (I put that in quotes because I’m not sure what it means. I’m not suspicious — I like just about everything I get from these folks — I just don’t know what “family ministry” is.) And I get these because I have befriended Dr. Joel Dreyer, a former employer of mine who is currently in Federal Prison.

He’d been sentenced to 10 years after pleading guilty to drug offenses, but his sentence was tossed out more then a year ago, and now he’s doing indeterminate time until a federal court judge rules on whether he is competent enough to assist in his own defense.

Aleph is associated with the Chabad Lubavitcher, and Doc Dreyer recently sent me a couple of a Lubavitcher pamphlets — Geulah (literally, “Redemption,” though it refers specifically to the coming of Messiah) published by the Chabad World Center to Greet Moshiach, and a little thing called “Reflections of Redemption: Essays on the Weekly Torah Reading and Moshiach, Based on the talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menacham M. Schneerson” and published by Moshiach Awareness Center, an operation of Enlightenment for the Blind.

Before I quote what I want to quote, a couple of things. It’s interesting just how much these Jewish pamphlets reminds me of a certain kind of Islamic publication I saw a lot of long ago when I was Muslim. (I’m thinking specifically of some of the material that came out of South Africa.) It’s very heavy in Hebrew cognates, so much so, that parts of don’t really feel written in English. This is very true of the “Reflections on Redemption,” which has the following sentence:

[T]he Shabbos of Re’eh is also Shabbos Mevarchim — the Shabbos on which is recited the blessing for the new month.

Not so bad, except that the use of the transliterated Hebrew words is something of a stumbling block. There’s a lot of that in this short essay, mostly because the essay deals with a word-by-word examination of a particular Hebrew phrase from the Torah, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse,” though the pamphlet leaves off the curse bit of the verse. (As an aside, I wrote a song on this passage.) Still, there are a lot of Hebrew transliterations in the essay, and I find myself wondering what value something like really is to someone who doesn’t already have some understanding of Hebrew. There were Muslim publications that used so many Arabic transliterations that there was almost no point in their being written in English.

But this is all so beside the point. This comes from the “Point of Light” essay in Geulah. There is no date, but the number on the upper corner says “469” it lists candle lighting times for Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Montreal for the week of October 11, 2013 (7 Cheshvan 5774). No author is noted, but there is a picture of what appears to be the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. And this is what sticks out for me in the essay:

Our forefather Abraham was not asked. He was told. 

“Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s home, toward the land that I will show.” G-d command Abraham to forsake anything that is comfortable and familiar to him, and set out on a harsh journey, with no clear idea of his final destination. 

Abraham had already established himself in Ur Kasidim. In one moment, G-d appeared to him and commanded him to leave everything that he had built up, and move to a strange land. Before sending him on this journey, G-d blesses Abraham: “I will make you a great nation.” 

At that moment, who was in control? Was Abraham taking control of his life, or relinquishing it? Abraham realized that while he might have been living a successful, conventional life, there was something missing. He was grounded in the habits of his land, his birthplace, his father’s home. By choosing to follow that Divine voice, Abraham willingly and consciously let go of his past. He opened himself to live a life without boundaries, without limitations, without expectations. And is doing so, he made himself a vessel to receive G-d’s blessings, to become a great nation. 

I’m inclined to quibbled with some of the wording here. I’m not sure Abraham really chose to follow. Could he have said no? Or did God go trolling Ur, commanding many until one — Abram — said yes? We don’t know. The biblical story we have says God spoke, and Abraham followed. I don’t believe he could have said no. Not really. No more than Mary could have.

Again, besides the point. The Rebbe’s essential point here is important — Abraham was not asked. He was told. 

In our democratic modernity, we have made an idol of choosing. We choose what we will do. Wo we will be. Who we will love. Where we will live. We choose what we consume. We can even, at the edges, choose how to consume. But we choose. Choosing is what we do. Choosing, and the ability to choose, has become the essence of human freedom in Enlightenment Modernity. Someone who can choose is free. Someone who cannot choose is a slave.

The church is no stranger to this ideology of choice. Of giving people choices. Of believing God gives us choices. After all, in that Deuteronomy passage discussed above, God gives Israel a choice — life or death, good or evil. So, God gives us choices. Choices to follow. Choices to believe. Choices to be grateful.

Except I’m not so sure. Abraham was not asked. He was told. Our best stories of Jesus in the New Testament shows a God incarnate who chooses, who calls disciples. And not by saying, “whoever wants to follow me can follow.” But by telling — “Follow me.” “You shall be fishers of men.” “Feed my sheep.” “Baptize and teach and make disciples of all nations.” Not a “please?” or “would you like to?” in the whole bunch. Commands. All of them.

The one time that comes to mind when someone actually asked Jesus “What do I have to do to earn eternal life?” Jesus answers his questioner in such a way that he walks away, despondent. Jesus gives ambiguous answers to all those who ask. And maybe a lot of people saw what he was doing, what his disciples did, and actively choose to follow.

But not the disciples. They experienced what Abraham in the Rebbe’s account experienced — the overwhelming call of God. They were not asked, they were told. And there is no saying no to God. To be a disciple, as opposed to one who merely follows, is to know there is no choice, no choosing, no options, no alternative. Just the overwhelming presence of God to which “no” is not an answer. Here’s where I love the two short verses which are the call of Levi-Matthew (this is the Luke account):

After this he went out and saw ca tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.

There’s so much story that just isn’t there. Like the Good Rebbe, we can fill some things in with our imaginations. I suspect Levi had watched Jesus and his disciples doing their thing for weeks. Perhaps he was curious, interested, perhaps he even admired them. But I suspect he also watched them as they worked and concluded, “they will not end well.” And yet he knows when Jesus walks into his life, and command him to follow, he cannot say no. There is no “no.” Not anymore. Just the yes of God, which tore his life to shreds and left him with absolutely nothing save for the promise of God.

Whatever happened, both Luke and Matthew say the tax collector got up and followed, leaving everything he had. Everything. He. Had.

This is hard experience to speak of in our day and age. It is unreasonable, and Enlightenment Modernity disdains unreason. It sees the call of God as compulsion, and compulsion may be necessary, but we’ve done everything we can to remove raw power from compulsion, hiding it or burying it in social structures that seem to (or sometimes even really do) offer choice. It sees the call of God as overwhelming, and aside from sexual passion, we have banished the overwhelming from our lives.

Abraham was not asked. He was told. “Follow me.” He left everything. And followed.

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