Since the beginning of human history, this has been our default reaction to truth and accountability. When confronted with evidence of our own sin, these are the strategies we reach for in our back pockets to shield ourselves from the searing light of God’s truth, from the searing shame of accountability.
Deny. Distract. Deflect. Defend.
Genesis: God makes humans in God’s own image. Male and female he creates them. He places them in a vibrant and productive garden, sufficient to satisfy their every need. One commandment: “Be fertile and increase. Fill the earth and spread out upon it; rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth.”
God places two trees at the center of the garden. A tree that gives immortal life, and a tree that leads to cycles of death. One warning: don’t eat from the tree of death. The principle is reflected later in Deuteronomy chapter 30, in the words of Moses: “See, I set before you this day life and abundant living, together with death and destruction . . . I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life!”
God places at the center of the garden two trees: one provides the path to eternal and innocent life. One offers knowledge, and the road to violence, decay, and death. And what do we choose? We choose death.
The man and the woman hear God walking in the garden, and they hide. For the very first time, we hear God lament: Ayeka?!?! There is so much encapsulated in this simple word: It’s not just “Where are you?” It’s also, “What happened to you? What choice have you made? What have you done? Why have you separated yourselves from me?”
And the man answers: “It was that woman you gave me.”
Deny. Distract. Deflect. Defend.
You know what the man never says? “I messed up. God, I made the wrong choice. I feel so thoroughly ashamed. Please forgive me, I don’t want to be far away from you. Take us back! Restore us! Deliver us! We will vomit the fruit from our mouths if only we could do it all over again!”
This is the human condition, my friends. This is our default reaction to the light of a thousand suns that God casts on the unswept corners of our minds and our souls. We deny, distract, deflect, and defend. Why? Because it does not feel good to feel ashamed. It doesn’t feel good! And all we want is to feel good. To feel worthy. That’s all we want. We are addicted to comfort. We want so desperately to feel good about ourselves.
And where does this addiction to comfort lead? One chapter later in Genesis, we see where this leads. It leads to murder: “Now the man knew his wife Chavah, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have acquired a male child with the help of the Lord’ ” (Gen 4:1). “She then bore his brother Hevel” (4:2). Hevel means vapor. It means breath. How curious that a man named “breath” is the Bible’s first murder victim. “I can’t breathe,” George Floyd said. “I can’t breathe.”
The man named Breath became a keeper of sheep, and his brother a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Hevel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Hevel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed.
Cain was much distressed and his face fell. And the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.”
Cain said to his brother Hevel . . . (Gen 4:2–8a)
We actually don’t know what Cain said to his brother Hevel. There’s the biblical equivalent of an ellipsis here. The brothers have a conversation that we don’t get to hear. Presumably, Cain uses a conversation to lure his brother into a distant field, because the text continues, “and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Hevel and killed him.”
You thought it was bad to eat fruit from a forbidden tree? This is way worse! This is murder, this is snuffing out someone’s God-given life. Once again, God shows up demanding an explanation: “The Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Hevel, your brother?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. Am I my brother’s watchman?’ ” (Gen 4:9).
Deny. Distract. Deflect. Defend. Does he think the God of all creation is an almighty fool?
God responds: “Meh asita??” “What have you done?? The blood of your brother cries out to me from the dirt! Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the dirt, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” (Gen 4:10–11)
You remember the curse that God gave to Adam? “The dirt is cursed because of you.” Why is the dirt cursed because of Adam? Adam’s very name means “dirt.” Adam means “of dirt.” This man is made of dirt, and because he chose to eat from the tree of death, the thing he’s made of is cursed. But Cain receives a curse that is even worse! You are more cursed than the dirt. Why? Because it opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.
There’s a famous concept in the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5, that if you take a single life, it’s as if you’ve destroyed the entire world. Similarly, if you save a single life, you save the world. This concept comes forward in the Mishnah’s commentary on Cain’s murder of Hevel.
Why is this? Why does one life matter so much that even the dirt will cry out in the absence of justice? Why does murder offend God more than the other forms of sin and rebellion? It’s simple—because God, not man, is the author of life. Because taking someone’s life is God’s business, not our own. Because the effects of murder can ripple across countless generations, as they did for Cain and his offspring.
Think about it. In May 2020, a Minneapolis cop squeezed the breath of life out of a handcuffed man for eight minutes and 46 seconds. And for months afterwards the world was in a state of relentless tumult. It was as if he destroyed the entire world.
The tension, the chaos, the protests, the soul searching, they haven’t been limited to Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, or New York. No, there were crowds gathering even in Belgium—not long after George Floyd’s death protestors toppled the statue of a man responsible for the deaths of ten million Congolese people. There were protests in England—people threw the statue of a slave trader into a river in Bristol. There are memorials to George Floyd in Nairobi, Sydney, Johannesburg, and Tel Aviv. The murder of a flawed and ordinary man near a grocery store in Minnesota has caused the entire world to ask itself, “Do we have something to do with this, too? Is there anything in our history that needs to be reexamined? How have we treated black people in the past and in our present?”
These past few months have been difficult for me, too. I like to think of myself as a loving person who is committed to justice for all people. But how we like to think of ourselves can serve as a distraction on the road to genuine teshuva, to genuine and complete repentance.
The truth is, like Adam and Cain, I also know how to deny, distract, deflect, and defend. Because within my own veins I carry the blood of both survivors and segregationists. In the story that I tell myself, I’m eager to remember the good deeds of my great-grandfather. He came here as a refugee, fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany. This brand-new immigrant found that his German medical degree was suddenly worthless. He struggled for years to go back through medical school, and when he finally had a license to practice medicine, he opened his little clinic in Harlem, providing affordable medical care to the black community there. I loved to hang my hat on his legacy.
But I didn’t grow up in Harlem; I grew up in New Orleans. On the other side of my family are grandparents who pulled up stakes and moved across town to avoid school integration. I lived in a mostly white parish, which meant that I didn’t have a single black teacher until the 8th grade. The local news was filled every night with crime stories from the “other side” of New Orleans. My extended Southern family whispered the word “black” the same way they did for the word “sex,” as if both were dirty topics that should never be discussed in polite company.
All I really knew about black people growing up, other than jazz music, the “I Have a Dream” speech, and “racism is bad,” was that you were supposed to lock your car doors whenever you had to drive through a black neighborhood, and clutch your purse and cross to the other side of the street if you saw a black man coming your way. No one ever told me these things explicitly; I just absorbed them by watching the behavior of the adults in my life. So I entered early adulthood with unconscious instincts to expect the worst in black people, rather than expect the best. In short, I was full of fear.
One day during my junior year in college, an anonymous classmate slipped a piece of paper under my dorm room door. It had just four words on it: “YOU ARE A RACIST.” I was living in north Philadelphia at that time, in the heart of a black neighborhood, reading all kinds of race-conscious literature, making all kinds of “black best friends,” but someone had seen something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself. Racism.
I had a tremendous emotional reaction to that little piece of paper. I remember going to see the counselor for students because I was so upset over this anonymous note. A white man. He reassured me that I was a good person who loved everyone, and quickly changed the subject to “What will you do when you graduate?”
But I couldn’t shake that note. So I became the white girl who would go to religious “racial reconciliation” events to ask loaded questions and to cry when I received an answer that made me feel bad about myself. Deny. Deflect. Distract. Defend. I watched as so many smart black women rolled their eyes at me and stormed out of the room. And I was mystified by their frustration.
Towards the end of my semester in Philly I was walking home from the subway late one night. I had worked a late shift at a retail store downtown and didn’t get home until 10 or 11 pm. As I got onto my stoop and fumbled in my purse for my keys, I saw a black man coming in my direction, looking at me, with his hand in his pocket. I started to panic, and instead of fumbling for my keys I started fumbling for my pepper spray.
He must have seen how freaked out I was, because as he got closer, he started to whistle a tune. I realized a few seconds later that his hand was in his pocket because he was jingling his spare change. This was an ordinary man walking down an ordinary street on an ordinary night, minding his own business. And I had convinced myself for a hot second that he was going to attack, rob, or kill me. Simply because of the way he looked.
That’s when everything clicked for me. My judgment was so clouded by my upbringing that I nearly blasted an innocent man in the face with pepper spray. If cell phones had been a big deal back then, it would have been my Amy Cooper moment. I was horrified by myself. In the city of Brotherly Love, all of my Jewish social justice credentials came crashing against an internal contradiction. Deep down inside, I had instincts that were dominated by fear, not by love.
And for the first time, I could finally see the myriad ways that black people have to account for white people’s irrational fears and go out of their way to display “non-threatening” behaviors when they have every right to mind their own business, walk however they’d like to walk, talk however they’d like to talk, and go wherever they’d like to go. That kind of overcompensating has to be downright exhausting, demoralizing, and demeaning.
But none of the books convinced me. None of the movies or speeches. It took a confrontation with my own prejudices to jolt me out of a self-righteous stupor. I wish I could say that was my complete and final awakening, but it wasn’t. Since then, I’ve had several encounters with the sinful, presumptuous, and deeply dangerous side of myself. Let me tell you, it doesn’t feel good.
For many of us, the video of George Floyd’s murder was a painful call to repentance. Not long ago, we saw high definition video evidence of a modern-day lynching. It validated, in extremely stark terms, the ongoing lament of our black brothers and sisters, who have been trying to say to us in the politest terms possible that our nation is still broken. Our sins have not been washed away. There has been too little justice. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, there are people who are still harassed, degraded, dehumanized, and discriminated against on a regular basis.
But what does that have to do with you? You didn’t put your knee on George Floyd’s neck. All you did was watch the video. Probably you made appropriate expressions of grief and outrage. That’s enough, right? That, my friends, is not a substitute for teshuva. It’s not enough to feel bad, and to say how bad we feel. To call for a cheap and shallow sense of “unity,” or suggest that it’s time to move on now.
In 2 Chronicles chapter 7, King Solomon is dedicating the Holy Temple for the very first time. Sacrifices are made, and it’s a great day for Solomon. God appears to him when he’s alone later that night, and this is what God says to keep his ego in check:
I have heard your prayer and have chosen this site as my House of sacrifice. If I shut up the heavens and there is no rain; if I command the locusts to ravage the land; or if I let loose pestilence against my people, when my people, who bear my name, humble themselves, pray, and seek my favor and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear in my heavenly abode and forgive their sins and heal their land. Then my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers from this place. (2 Chron 7:12b–5)
The message is so clear: Yes, we should humble ourselves as a nation, yes, we should pray together for mercy. But it’s not until together we turn from our wicked ways that God will finally hear us and heal our land. This is what is required for justice to well up like waters, for righteousness to flow like an ever-flowing stream. Complete, unmitigated teshuva. That means dealing with the painful parts. No short cuts back into our comfort zone. No more patting ourselves on the back, assured of our own personal piety. Because it’s probably false, and it’s not enough! The entire nation has to turn from its wicked ways.
“But I love all people.”
I am sure that is true on a good day. When you have slept well, had your coffee, your tummy is full, and your hair looks great, it is easy to love others, even the difficult ones. But it is absolutely false when you are dealing with stress, fatigue, or fear. In those moments, you are perfectly capable of biting the head off of your own flesh and blood, never mind a perfect stranger who you’ve been taught to fear.
And even if you are the magical unicorn fairy who never shows an ounce of malice towards anyone near or far, you cannot honestly say, in the sight of a just and holy God, that you are also magically immune to the insidious effects of the original sin of our nation.
The Messiah of Israel did not die a miserable death on a cross built by the Roman Empire so that we could pat ourselves on the back, assured of our own righteousness.
In the words of Yeshua:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord!” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, only those who do what my Father in heaven wants. On that Day, many will say to me, “Lord, Lord! Didn’t we prophesy in your name? Didn’t we expel demons in your name? Didn’t we perform many miracles in your name?” Then I will tell them to their faces, “I never knew you! Get away from me, you workers of lawlessness!” (Matt 7:21–23 CJB, emphasis added)
Only those who do what my Father in heaven wants. What does God want us to do? In the words of the prophet Micah: “He has already told you, human being, what is good, and what Hashem demands of you—no more than to practice justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8).
We forget so quickly that the Messiah healed social outcasts of tzara’at, restored sight to the blind, gave dignity to prostitutes, restored withered limbs, praised the generosity of an impoverished widow, and forgave a convicted thief on death row while he himself was slowly suffocating. “I can’t breathe.” The fact that he defeated death—that good news—is intended to provide comfort to the afflicted, and affliction to the comfortable.
Let me ask you, does that same Messiah call us to participate with passive compliance in a society that treats our most vulnerable, abused, and damaged with callous disregard? Or does he call us to turn from our wicked ways? To lead our nation on the paths of genuine justice, mercy, and righteousness?
We have the choice to take short cuts. To go back to our comfort zones. To deny, distract, deflect, and defend. But if we do this, we will never truly experience shalom. The root of shalom is shalem, which means “wholeness.” From this we learn that we cannot have genuine peace without wholeness. This is what Dr. Martin Luther King referred to when he said:
True peace is not merely the absence of tension, but the presence of justice. Yes, it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation, and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be an obnoxious peace. It would be a peace that boiled down to stagnant complacency, deadening passivity, and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.
In the words of Bryan Stevenson,
The true measure of our society is not how we treat the rich, the powerful, or the privileged. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the incarcerated, and the condemned. We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others.
Teshuva is painful. It’s a process. There are no shortcuts if it’s going to stick. But it’s the only way forward for a tense and broken nation. And if we don’t do it, God will use someone else. As we saw when Cain murdered his brother Hevel, even the dirt can cry out. Or as Yeshua said in Luke, “I tell you that if they keep quiet, the stones will shout!”
Here’s my final question: will we wait for the dirt and the stones to cry out? Or will we tremble and quake in the sight of a just and holy God? Will we ask God to search and to know us, to examine the unswept corners of our minds and our souls, to expose to us our blind spots and reveal our responsibilities? Because that is where genuine teshuva begins.
At the end of our lives, God will ask us some very simple questions. I believe wholeheartedly that this is one of them: “What did you do with what I gave you?” Did you use my blessings to serve yourself, or to repair the broken world you were born into? This is why Yeshua tells the rich young man to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. Because it wasn’t his to begin with. And it wasn’t being used to advance God’s priorities.
“What did you do with what I gave you?”
We cannot give him an honest answer until and unless we are honest with ourselves. Lean into the hard parts. Don’t look for off-ramps back into your comfort zone. The Messiah didn’t come to nurture our addiction to comfort. This is the only path to genuine peace.
1 Unless otherwise noted, biblical citations are the author’s translation, based on the JPS.
2 “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/when-peace-becomes-obnoxious.
3 Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (New York: Random House/Siegel and Grau, 2014), 18.