2017-01-04 / Religion Column

Finding peace and meaning in our lives

Congregation M’kor Shalom

Parashat Vayigash Gen. 44:18-47:27

As the reading of Genesis begins to wind down, we find ourselves in the midst of the family drama of Joseph, his brothers, and Jacob (Israel) his father. When Joseph reveals his identity to the surprised brothers he says: “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold to Egypt; and now do not be troubled, do not be concerned that you sold me here, for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you...God sent me ahead of you to assure your survival in the land, and to keep you alive for a great deliverance.” (Gen. 45: 4-5, 7-8).

Commentator Nahum Sarna offers a nice summation of a standard Jewish interpretation of Joseph’s words: “The brothers had indeed acted with evil intent; yet behind it all had been the hidden, guiding hand of Divine Providence investing the base deeds of men with meaning and purpose.”

But Sarna’s pithy digest of faith in Divine Providence is challenged by Robert Alter in his commentary “The Five Books of Moses”: “Joseph’s speech is a luminous illustration of the Bible’s double system of causation, human and divine. Commentators have tended to tilt the balance to one side, making Joseph a mouthpiece of piety here. His recognition of a providential plan may well be admirable from the viewpoint of a monotheistic faith, but there is no reason to assume that Joseph has lost the sense of his own brilliant initiative in all that he has accomplished, and so when he says ‘God’ (elohim, which could also suggest something more general like ‘providence’ or ‘fate’), he also means Joseph.”

There is often a tendency in later generations to read back into biblical text concepts or categories of a later period—that may not have been what the biblical writers themselves imagined. Sarna’s commentary, along with many others, has assimilated the later Jewish idea of divine governance over creation and retrojected it back into the words of Joseph. Alter, on the other hand, is less certain of the tone of Joseph’s words which could as easily be inflected as “que sera, sera— whatever will be will be” as they could be pietistically pronounced as humble submission to a heretofore unrevealed divine mission.

As a character in the Joseph story, God is conspicuous by His absence. The God who intervenes, communicates and commands in the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs in the earlier chapters of Genesis is not to be found in the Joseph story. When Joseph invokes God, much of Jewish tradition sees it as an endorsement of “the unseen hand,” what is called in Hebrew “hashgacha pratit,” which roughly translates as “supervision of the details” (think “micromanager”). The correlative term is “hashgacha klalit,” which roughly translates as “in charge of the big picture” (think “corporate CEO”).

The tendency to interpret the things that happen to us as in some way being “from God” can be a message of spiritual challenge—if understood as “making meaning out of those things over which we cannot exercise control or explain.” But there can also be a tendency to interpret things that happen as a message of spiritual determinism— God is behind everything that happens and therefore whatever happens must in some way be what God has willed.

With almost every biblical story that represents God as acting so as to accomplish a good comes an implicit question of “did it have to be that way?” Joseph may find peace in understanding that the chain of events that led him to this moment of encounter with his brothers was “God’s will,” but he may equally find peace in accepting what cannot be changed and making the uniquely human choice to find meaning nonetheless. 

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