Thursday, 11 Dec 2014

Written by Hannah Kingston

Parashat Vayeishev – Where is God?

Many of you have probably heard this story before…
A terrible storm was coming into town and it began raining really hard. A religious man is living beside a river as it starts to flood. The sheriff’s deputies come by and tell him he should leave before the river cuts off the road.

“God will save me,” he tells them.

The river rises up to the front porch. A group of people pass by his house in a boat and tell him to hop in and they’ll take him to safety.

“God will save me,” he tells them.

The water rises above the first floor and the man has to climb on his roof. The National Guard comes by in a boat and begs the man to come with them.

“God will save me,” he tells them.

The waters keep rising and the man is clinging to his chimney. A helicopter appears and lowers a rope, but he refuses to go, telling them “God will save me.”
Finally he is standing on top of the chimney and the river is still rising.

“God,” he calls out, “God, why have you forsaken me?”

The sky splits open and a HUGE voice booms out… “I sent two boats and a helicopter… What more do you want?”
Sometimes God isn’t where we expect…

This week in what seems like a small inconsequential part of our parashah, Joseph finds himself lost on his journey to find his brothers who he had seriously aggravated with his dream predictions. Whilst wandering in a field he encounters an anonymous stranger who points him back onto the path of his brothers. The identity of this person has been a topic of interest for many Torah commentators. Sephardic medieval commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra believes the identity of the stranger is irrelevant, as he was just a vehicle of transmission. Other commentators feel that this was a case of divine intervention, potentially a manifestation of God similar to that with which Jacob wrestled in last week’s Parashah. Rashi suggests that this could be the Archangel Gabriel, an envoy of God who often works within Jewish tradition as a revealer of a message. Maimonides believes this is a man acting as an undefined holy messenger. 

This stranger could have been an angel, or God, or just a man who wanted to help. But maybe this man’s identity or origin is actually not important. Regardless of who this man was, divine or not, in his act of kindness towards a stranger the course and future of our Jewish peoplehood was secured. For if Joseph had not found his brothers then the Israelites may never have ended up in Egypt and what would have become of us then?!

Perhaps there is a powerful message in the very fact that the identity of this man is a mystery: what matters is not his name but that his act of compassion brought a small aspect of God into the situation. His placement in the story and his interaction with Joseph was not a coincidence, but rather a lesson for us all.

Every single action and interaction that we undertake within the world will have a rippling effect on the course of humanity. Every time we help someone in need, whether it be with directions, or tzedakah, or just a friendly face, we have the chance to change that person’s life and determine their course. Just like physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and if we can bring God into more of our work we can positively affect the path of humankind.

But how do we bring God when God hides his face from us and we no longer know where to look? Harold Kushner writes in his book, ‘Who needs God’ (1989) that the question to ask is not ‘where is God’ but ‘when is God’. God is not an object, something we can locate at a definite point, rather God is in compassionate deeds, the face of a stranger, the things we do or that happen to us that open up our eyes to something bigger than ourselves. We do not find God in a place, but in an action.

Although there are times when it feels like God’s presence is no longer with us on earth, just as an artist lives through his paintings, or a watchmaker through his watch, perhaps God lives through the natural cycle of life in the world and through us, when we allow God in. Perhaps it is our responsibility to be more attuned to God in the everyday so as to feel God’s presence in the song of a bird, or the changing of the seasons or the acts of loving kindness by our fellow humans?

Chances are that in times of need we will not be rescued by God’s boat or helicopter, but rather by our friends or family, doctors or nurses. Maybe this is the true hand of God we have on earth? We can no longer reach for the old man with the white beard who sits on a cloud in heaven but instead we need to search for God deep within us; and maybe one day we may find what we are looking for and maybe, just maybe, we will see within ourselves a spark of divinity, which can set us on the path that is truly right for us.

Ken Yehi Ratson
May it be God’s will

Student Rabbi Hannah Kingston

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.