By Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Vayigash (Genesis 44:18−47:27)
We are told man tracht and God lacht – man makes plans and G-d laughs. In other words, the best laid plans do not always come about. We may feel we are in control of our destiny, yet, we learn, sometimes, that things are not really so. Think of our Torah reading this Shabbat. Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers. He may have found favor in Potiphar eyes but he was thrown into prison and languished there. Now there is a total reversal of fortune. Joseph is the Vizier of Egypt, in control of food distribution for the Egyptian nation, and has his brothers in a compromising situation.
As a young man, Joseph was impetuous and could even be verbally abusive to the members of his family. He showed little remorse for creating situations which were difficult for his father and is not portrayed as a very sympathetic young man growing up in Jacob’s home.
However, in this Shabbat’s reading Joseph comes of age. He has recognized that his brothers have changed and wants to reach out to his father and make amends. He finally understands the pattern to his life. When Joseph tells his brothers that he is their long, lost sibling he follows those words up with words of consolation and comfort. He informs them: “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that G-d sent me ahead of you.”
Again two verses later Joseph reiterates that “G-d has sent me ahead of you to insure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” He then reassures them “So, it was not you who sent me here, but G-d.” Three times he tells them that he finally understands the true significance of his life.
How quickly fortunes change. His brothers were sure that Joseph would enact vengeance upon them. Instead he recognized his proper place in the drama of the unfolding story of the Israelite people.
Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book entitled ‘Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life’ describes how organized religion has changed over the course of his lifetime. Each of the chapters is devoted to his new understanding of religion, the wonderful presence of G-d in his life, theodicy – the problem of evil in the world – and the purpose of religion. The last chapter in the book is entitled ‘Give G-d the Benefit of the Doubt.’
Towards the end of the chapter he concentrates on Chapter 15, Verse 6 in the Book of Genesis. G-d promises Abraham an unconditional covenant: his descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky and the Land of Canaan is promised for him and his descendants. What did Abraham have to do to merit these promises? The new JPS translation states, “And because he put His trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit.”
Kushner points out that the Hebrew word vehe’emin can also be understood as “trust” and “faithfulness.” There are different translations to this particular phrase. The King James Version reads it as “He believed in the Lord and He counted it to him for righteousness.” The Revised Standard Version offers: “He believed the Lord and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” The old JPS version has “He believed in the Eternal and He counted it to him for righteousness.” The Jerusalem Bible, produced by Roman Catholic scholars, suggests: “Abraham put his faith in Yahweh, who counted this as making him justified.”
Kushner suggests: “What Abraham affirmed, and what G-d commended him for, was not his faith that G-d existed but his faith that G-d’s promises could be relied on.” He understands this as an important difference: “To believe in G-d is a statement about G-d, that He exists and is not the product of wishful thinking. It is theology more than behavior, and theology is something that exists inside an individual’s heart and mind. To believe G-d is a statement about Abraham, that Abraham was prepared not just to affirm G-d’s reality but to trust G-d, to rely on G-d to do what He had promised to do. For that reason, he was prepared to act in obedience to G-d’s demands.”
Kushner suggests that what this means is that we must give G-d the benefit of the doubt. It involves having a vision of the world not only as it is, but as it can be, and believing that one day it will be. In other words, believing that G-d follows through on promises allows us to create a world in which we become G-d’s partners as our vision of the world dovetails to that of G-d’s.
Kushner completes his work with these words: “This world is not the world G-d intended it to be. Some human beings have made it worse and continue to do so, while others have made and are making it better… The heirs of Abraham, whether they identify themselves as Jews, Christians or Muslims, honor Abraham’s memory by sharing his faith that the world we live in is not yet what G-d meant it to be, and by working to bring about the day when what should be, will be.”
It is not always easy to recognize what is our particular path and how we can make a difference. If we look at the Joseph story we see that it took him many years to recognize G-d’s presence in his life and to understand that he had a specific role to play.
We must understand our G-d-given roles. Joseph’s maturation allowed him to recognize that the world was not only about him, about his dreams, about his rise to grandeur, about his power in Egypt. He learned that it was his task to save his family and to make a difference in the larger world. Once he learned that, Joseph could become a leader of his people.
We can do the same. Kushner suggests that it is our task to be partners with G-d and to create a better world. In the broken world in which we live no task is more important.
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is rabbi of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El (Conservative).