Wednesday, 16 Dec 2015

Written by Elliott Karstadt

God and the Elephant

There is an ancient story, originating from the Indian subcontinent. We know how stories go – they change and develop in all kinds of weird and wonderful directions as they are told and retold – so there are lots of different versions of this story. But the essence is that there was a group of blind men (some people say there were six of them, others say seven or even eight – maybe there were even some blind women in their number), and these blind people wanted to know how to describe an elephant. Some say that their argument became very heated and violent. After some time arguing, they decided to find an elephant and feel it to decide what it was.

Having found an elephant to examine, each person took hold of a different part of the elephant. The one holding the leg said: ‘it’s like a pillar.’ The one holding the tail said: ‘it’s like a length of rope.’ The one holding the ear said: ‘it’s like a hand-held fan.’ The one holding the trunk said: ‘it’s like a palm tree.’ And the one holding the elephant’s tusk said: ‘it’s like a hollow pipe.’ Even having encountered the elephant, the blind people were unable to agree on what it was. Some versions of the story recount how they learned to move around the elephant, comparing their experiences, and thereby forming more comprehensive accounts of what an elephant was.

The moral of the story is that our experiences of the world are subjective because of our limited experience of it. It is also an appropriate way of talking about our encounters with divinity. As Jews, in our own Amidah, we find a similar idea. In the first paragraph, we recite:

elohey Avraham, elohey Yitzchak, velohey Ya’akov; elohey Sarah, elohey Rikva, elohey Rachel, velohey Leah (‘… the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; the God of Sarah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Rachel, and the God of Leah’)

I often ask my teenaged students why they think each of the mothers, and each of the fathers, receives their own ‘elohey’ – surely one at the beginning of the sentence would have been enough? But that would not capture the fact that each of them had their own unique encounter – their own distinctive relationship – with God. There is also the challenge that this poses to us as twenty-first century Jews: that we not only maintain that relationship, but that we aim to make ours just as unique and meaningful.

Elohey Avraham, elohey Yitzhak, velohey Ya’akov … but no mention of Joseph? We are told on a number of occasions that God is ‘with’ Joseph (Gen. 39.2-3, 5-6, 21), but never does God commune directly with him in the way that God had spoken to the last three generations of his family. God wrestled and negotiated with Jacob and blessed Isaac. God debated with Abraham, made him and Sarah many promises and troubled him by commanding that he sacrifice his own son. But Joseph has no such intimate moments with God. And he would be entirely justified, sitting in the pit into which his brothers had thrown him – intending to kill him – had he simply decided to live a life free of religious observance and faith in God.

Instead, Joseph finds God. At first, he finds God through dreams – as in the last two weeks’ Torah readings. In this week’s Torah portion, we find Joseph revealing his true identity to his brothers, and recounting to them a narrative that incorporates God into the tribulations he has endured. ‘Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither,’ he says to his brothers, ‘for it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you’ (Gen. 45.5). Joseph finds God in the journey of his life without ever having a direct encounter.

And this is where many – if not most – progressive Jews find ourselves today. We no longer have the privilege of speaking to God face to face like Moses did. We no longer have the burden of being directly challenged by God as Abraham was. And we cannot grab God as Jacob did, refusing to let go until he was able to procure a blessing for himself. At the same time, the world seems to become nastier and more brutal each time we turn on the news. How can God be in a world like this?

And yet we continue to come together in community to celebrate the rites of passage of our loved ones. We continue to remember those who have come before. We continue to love. We maintain many of our traditions and continue to tell our ancient stories (even if they end up being a bit different each time we tell them). We continue to say: ‘We are Jewish.’ There is faith in that, even if we do not call it God.

We have the power to bring the divine into our own lives, whether it is through a synagogue service or through the pursuit of justice. As we gather in our synagogues for Shabbat this week, let us remember the challenge that Joseph poses for us, and rise to the task of making God real in the world.

Student rabbi Elliot Karstadt

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