Rabbi’s Essays

Where in the world is a metaphysical subject to be found? You will say that this is exactly like the case of the eye and the visual field. But really you do see the eye. And nothing in the visual field allows you to infer that it is seen by an eye.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein1

Looking for God in All the Right Places—
A Note on a Biblical Theme

Joesph could no longer restrain himself in the presence of all who were stationed around him, he called out, “Have everyone leave me!”…Then Joseph said to his brothers: “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” (Gen. 45:1,3)

After Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, he sought to assuage their fear that he would take revenge upon them, with these words: “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you … God has sent me ahead of you to insure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” [Gen 45:5,7]

One can list the multiple purposes in Joseph’s assertion: he is confronting his brothers’ sense of surprise and distress, and giving them a measure of safety in a situation that would clearly appear to them as being fraught with peril. Joseph is also articulating what he sees to be a self-evident truth. He is affirming God’s unseen hand in the unfolding of the unexpected events that had taken place since being brought to Egypt. For what other purpose could a lowly, foreign, and imprisoned slave be raised to the second highest office in the land, than to assure the survival of the family whose patriarch, vouchsafed by God, would become a great nation?

One might then ask: at what point did this fact of God’s providential power become clear to Joseph? Did he know it when he was first thrown by his brothers into the pit, or when he was a servant in Potiphar’s household, or when he languished in an Egyptian jail? Perhaps, he knew when he interpreted Pharoah’s dream, or when his brothers first showed up in his court in order to purchase grain. Then again, Joseph might not have recognized God’s intention until just that moment, when reconciliation between his brothers and himself was truly possible. Only then was the unseen hand of God revealed.

The text gives no indication that Joseph realized or understood God’s plan until he blurted out his assertion to his brothers. Rather, as much is indicated in Genesis 45:8: “And now [ve’atah], it was not you [brothers] who sent me here but God …” That is, ‘and now, for the first time, I realize that it was not you, etc.’2

Until the story of Joseph, God’s presence in the narratives of Genesis is explicit and intrinsic. In dreams, visions, voices and messengers, God directly brought to bear the divine will into the lives of all the principle characters. Then, for Joseph and his brothers, God is oddly absent. At the climax of the tale-the dramatic self-revelation-somehow for Joseph, God is revealed as well.

The Bible is not a reflective book in the conventional philosophical sense. In the case of the Joseph tale, however, the text is going beyond a merely incidental theological assertion. Rather, I sense the authors/redactors of the narrative sought to raise and confront the challenging problem of just how does one know of the presence of God.

What is the content of a religious experience? Few questions have been more vexing or more persistent. The Bible is filled with incidents in which God is made manifest in dreams, signs, messengers, or unmistakable interventions into the course of history. Even if we accept faithfully the inerrancy of these accounts, we may still ask where is God now?

The medieval philosopher attempted to prove that the self-evident belief in the existence of a caring and benevolent God, as attested by Scripture and teaching, could also be known through the application of rational thought. In the modern era, the effort was turned on its head: Could anything mediated by self-actuating reason admit to the possibility of a caring and benevolent God?

In each generation, a handful of believers would step up to the challenge, answer ‘yes,’ and proceed in attempting to craft a rational and philosophically cogent expression of the reality of God. Others essentially conceded the issue and set about to reinterpret the idea of God in a fashion conducive to the strictures of philosophical demands. Many simply ignored the issue and professed their faith, but did so at the peril of sacrificing the status of being ‘modern’, ‘educated’, ‘progressive’, ‘with-it’, etc.

Things change. The philosophical challenge though hardly broken has been weakened, as the once “self-evident” presumptions of modern philosophy have themselves been contested. Indeed there is a clear trend in Modern Jewish thought that contemporary liberal Jewish religious expression is dependent first and foremost on the ability to accept the presence of a living God that calls to Israel.3

Thus, we return to the biblical text. The authors/redactors accepted unquestioningly the accounts of the experiences and visions of Abraham, Jacob, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Moses and all those who stood at the base of Mount Sinai. But, the same experience of the divine, given with even a fraction of the clarity and certainty to which they give expression in the text, probably eluded them, as much as it eludes us. Although, they did not grow the carapaces of self-consciousness and skepticism of the modern soul, they nonetheless were capable of asking the same question that animates us now: what constitutes an experience of God?

In offering this analysis, I am trying to present the narrative as p’shat, with as little interpretive overlay as possible. The plain meaning of the text is highlighted, however, when seen in the light of certain relevant midrashim. I sense that the classic rabbis already knew full well what I have only recently discovered.

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From the beginning of Par’shat Vayeishev [Gen. 37] to the end of Genesis—except for one instructive instance—God is completely absent as an ‘on-stage’ participant in the narrative. Neither God nor any angel nor messenger of God speak or act throughout the tale. This absence is sharpened by virtue of it being sandwiched between the earlier stories of Genesis and the subsequent Exodus saga, in which God is a major ‘player.’

Prior to the start of the Joseph story, God is a constant actor in the narrative, but note how the rules for God’s presence changes. Let us set aside the primeval history in which God is a constant and pervasive presence in the affairs of humankind, and begin with Abraham. Throughout the Abraham story, God speaks (either directly or by means of divine messengers) to—inter alia—Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and Lot and his family. In the Isaac story, however, God speaks only to Isaac and Rebecca. One might object: the Isaac story is very brief and circumscribed, so that there is little opportunity for God to be present for much of anything. Not quite!

Consider the wife-sister motif. Twice Abraham and once Isaac try to parade their wives as their sisters, and all three times they are caught in their deception. How do the deceived find out? In the first instance [Gen. 12], God showers plagues down on Pharaoh’s household, and then allows the Egyptian king to figure it out for himself. In the second [Gen. 20], perhaps not trusting Abimelech’s powers of reasoning, God informs him directly in a dream. In the third-the Isaac story [Gen. 26]-Abimelech spies Isaac and Rebecca in a compromising position, and figures it out for himself! Divine contact in any fashion on the part of Abimelech has been eliminated. God’s presence is clearly limited to Isaac and Rebecca alone.

Finally, there is the Jacob story. The discipline is broken a bit; God speaks to Laban in order to restrain him as Jacob takes leave of his household [Gen. 31], and God is pictured as determining whether Leah or Rachel may give birth [Gen. 29-30]. Outside of these instances-the latter involves no divine encounter-God is present exclusively for Jacob. Neither his wives nor his children have a theophonic experience. Moreover, when God does make one final appearance in the midst of the Joseph narrative, it is for the purpose of speaking to Jacob alone [Gen. 46]!

From Abraham to Isaac to Jacob, God’s direct involvement in the affairs of humankind is more restricted, until in Joseph’s time God appears to have disappeared altogether. Of course, God has not disappeared, but rather the divine presence is recognized as working throughout the lives of Joseph and his brothers only after most of the story is over; that is, Joseph’s explanation of God’s role as quoted above.

I think this ‘narrowing’ is clearly intended by the authors of the text, and not a matter of aggadic creativity on mine or anyone else’s part. When the biblical accounts are overlaid with midrashic wisdom, then some extraordinary insights are revealed.

Before continuing, let me restate an earlier assertion. The absence of God in the Joseph tale is sandwiched between the patriarchal narratives, and the story of the Exodus and wandering in the wilderness. Starting with the burning bush, God once more returns to center stage. Indeed, God’s active hand in history remains a relatively unbroken staple of the biblical narrative all the way through the story of Elijah. What is going on here? Why are Joseph and his brothers singled out by God’s silence?

A midrash in Tanhuma [Pikudei 6, and again in Naso 16] avers that with the sin of Adam and Eve, the Shekhinah was removed from earth and went to the first level of the heavens. With each succeeding sinful generation, the divine presence moved a step higher in the firmament. When finally on the seventh level, Abraham appeared and God began a stepwise return to earth. The midrash provides an intriguing backdrop to the biblical text. As God comes nearer, the divine presence becomes harder to discern.

This concept is not so obscure. Stand, say, twenty feet from one of Monet’s lovely paintings of the Cathedral at Rouen, and the representation of the church is distinct. Move closer and the painting dissolves into indistinguishable brushstrokes. A midrash makes the same point [Numbers Rabba 14:22]: Commenting on the verse [Ex. 33:20] “No one can see My face and live,” the last word (vahai) is reinterpreted as “the heavenly creature(s),” specifically those who carry the Throne of Glory. They cannot gaze upon God precisely because they are too close.

By overlaying the p’shat [plain meaning] with the d’rash [creative interpretation], a lesson emerges: that God’s explicit presence is necessary precisely when one is distant from the divine. The families of Abraham and Isaac struggled with the radical nature of the God of their parents, and some of the children went their own way. Jacob himself literally struggled with the divine and was aptly renamed Yisrael. Jacob’s children, however, only struggled among themselves. In some fundamental way, they had accepted the covenant of fidelity that God had established with their father. Even when they acted wrongly-Shimon and Levi among the Shechemites, for example-they did so in misplaced loyalty to God.4

After the generation of Joseph, the Israelites settled into a routine of isolation and alienation. God became distant again. It would take many generations, and many struggles and rebellions before God could act once more as an invisible yet abiding presence. One more midrash: In Talmud Shabbat 88a, the verse in Exodus [19:17] of the Israelites standing at the foot (tachteet) of the mountain, is imagined as God suspending the mountain over their heads, and then asking if they are prepared to accept the Torah. The gemara then asserts that this coercive condition remained until “the days of Ahasuerus,” when [Est. 9:27] “the Jews understood and irrevocably obligated themselves.” So it is that in the biblical book where the very name of God is absent, Israel finally accepts the divine will.

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The modern religious thinker-that is one who wishes to be faithful both to the dictates of modern rational thought and to the duties of the spirit-struggles with the search for God. On the one hand, we have the legacy of the medieval philosophers who sought to reconcile the contradiction of an omnipresent and elusive deity by positing that God’s presence can always be deduced from observation and reason. On the other, we know that all the proofs have failed, and that locating the deity in the rational mind is mostly folly.

By returning to the sources, we may discover from the authors of our sacred literature, that our search becomes successful precisely when we turn aside our quest for the divine, and rather permit ourselves to be aware of the human being before us; when we are like Joseph

1Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London, 1974) p. 57, No. 5.633.
2The new JPS and other translations simply translate ve’atah as “So” or “So it is that,” thereby perhaps reinforcing a stylistic harmony with verses 5-7. The unmistakable word for “now” is nonetheless present at the beginning of this verse.
3See, for example, the recent works of Eugene Borowitz (Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew, JPS, 1991), Neil Gillman (Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew, JPS, 1990), Arthur Green (Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Contemporary Jewish Theology, Jason Aronson, 1992) and Lawrence Kushner (God was in this Place & I, i Did Not Know, Jewish Lights, 1991). Despite significant differences in styles and approaches, they all hold to the common assertion that Jewish identity begins with a God who calls upon Israel.
4This intense and misplaced fidelity to the God of Israel is a theme carried out later in the Bible in the stories of Elijah and Jonah. While Shimon is apparently absorbed into the other tribes, his name is preserved. Levi, of course, is rehabilitated through Moses and Aaron; as is Elijah through the images of Malachai, the midrash and folklore.
5The talmudic sages were concerned about the absence of God’s Name in a canonical text, and therefore proffered explanations for the sacredness of the book of Esther (cf. especially Megilla 7a). A relevant insight is offered in Erubim 139b, where the name ‘Esther’ is connected to the verb ‘haster,’ meaning “hide.” Hence, the hidden role of God in the biblical tale.