Second Friday of Lent

March 2, 2018 / By: Hans Gustafson

Gn 37:3-4, 12-13a, 17b-28a/Mt 21:33-43, 45-46

The other night I was tucking my three-year-old son into bed when his five-year-old brother bounced happily into the room only to instantly fly into a fit of rage. With a combination of right haymakers and left jabs, the five-year old had me on the ropes. Was he practicing his MMA moves? No. His sobs and anger were too real to ignore. What’s the matter? What makes a happy boy go from zero “to eleven” so quickly? Once he calmed down, I learned he was jealous of the affection I was showing to his younger brother. In his mind, Daddy was showing preference to his little brother. He resorted to his five-year-old impulses of aggression.

Today’s readings depict stories that strike terrifyingly at the heart of what it means to be imperfectly human. The stories depict sibling rivalry, jealously, theft, greed, and even murder! If we can exhibit these attitudes toward our closest, what might we be capable of towards strangers?

I have three young sons. Greed, anger, jealousy, pride, and raw human impulses surface daily in our household. Raised in that curious tradition my Grandfather called “Scandinavian reserve” (perhaps more commonly “Minnesotan (N)ice”), my first impulse is to squelch, avoid, ignore, or quickly fix these situations. This often fails and only parlays the pent-up emotion into the next episode.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writings remind me that recognizing our human imperfection is not to be squelched, avoided, or ignored. He proposed a biblical vision of God emotionally attached to and affected by world events. Heschel’s God suffers in solidarity alongside humanity. For Heschel, God’s emotion, affection, sympathy, or feeling of sadness[1] is an expression of God’s very perfection, and he thought the same to be true of humans, idealized in the prophets. Heschel writes, “The ideal state of the Stoic sage is apathy, the ideal state of the prophet is sympathy.”[2] Being moved by emotion does not make someone weak and imperfect. Rather, for Heschel’s biblical mindset, to strive for perfection is to be moved and motivated by passion and emotion. Scholars of Heschel rely on psychiatry here, which teaches “the healthy personality is open and vulnerable, willing to take risks and able to bear the hurt. This describes the biblical God par excellence.”[3]

Today’s readings inspire me to be more open, vulnerable, and bear the hurt of our raw imperfect humanity in more head-on ways in the present. I am encouraged to take more seriously the very real and (im)perfect emotions that surface in those sacred moments when our pride, jealously, greed, and anger come out.  

Hans Gustafson
Director |Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning
Adjunct Faculty | College of Arts & Sciences


[1] Heschel referred to this as “Divine pathos.”
[2] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001), 332.
[3] Edmond Cherbonnier, “Heschel as a Religious Thinker,” Conservative Judaism 23 (1968), 33; also quoted in John Merkle, Approaches to God: The Way of Abraham Joshua Heschel (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2009), 46.