Beshalach: This is my God

“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob…” (Shemot 3:6)
This is my God and I will enshrine Him, the God of my father and I will exalt Him. (Shemot 15:2)

From my fathers I fell heir
to the image of a vigilant God –
just but somber-eyed
kindly but stern –
Who cared about all the infringements,
recording them before Him
for inspection on the Days of Awe,
balancing violation against virtue
misdemeanor versus merit.
The sharp edges have blurred somewhat;
His gaze is more loving than harsh,
His face filled with light
and wordless compassion.
His demands have changed
from seeking stringencies
to urging us to be kind to each other.
And I wonder which God
my sons will inherit.

The commentary of the JPS, the Etz Hayim, cites Rabbi Aharon of Belz on “The God of my father, and I will exalt Him,” saying, “It is as great a spiritual commitment to honour God because your ancestors did as it is to do so because you have experienced God in your own life.” However, the Etz Hayim adds, “Others, however, have taught that it is not enough to inherit a faith. One must discover and experience the reality of God in one’s own life.”

In a commentary on Beshalach from 2007,, Rabbi Marc Wolf considers one of his favorite texts, taken from Pesikta d’Rav Kehana, which, he says “uses as its catalyst the manna we encounter in this week’s parashah.” He notes that we learn from this Midrash that for each person the manna tasted different. Furthermore, everyone received the specific nourishment each required from the manna. From the youngest to the oldest, each one’s portion was effectively tailor-made. Rabbi Wolf continues, “In the midrash, Rabbi Levi makes an empowering juxtaposition between this week’s encounter with the manna and the revelation on Sinai we read about next Shabbat. When God spoke, each Israelite commented: “Revelation came to me. ‘I am the Lord your (plural) God’ was not said, rather, ‘I am the Lord your (singular) God’ was said “(12:25).
“Focusing on the use of the second–person singular pronoun employed by the first commandment, Rabbi Levi learns that the revelation on Sinai was directed individually to each person present. The verse could have easily made use of the plural eloheichem, and the first commandment would have been directed at the entirety of the people, but instead the verse uses elohekha, establishing a personalized relationship. While both words translate as “your God,” the simple switch of pronoun creates an entirely different relationship between each Israelite and God.”

In a commentary from 2010 on Beshalach,, Prof. Arnold Eisen cites the Midrash on the same theme: “Said R. Jose bar R. Hanina, “The Divine Word spoke to each and every person according to his/her particular capacity…Now if each and every person was enabled to taste the manna according to his/her particular capacity, how much more and more was each and every person enabled according to his/her particular capacity to hear the Divine Word.” ”
Prof Eisen, too, addresses the verse “This is my God and I will glorify Him, my father’s God and I will exult [sic] Him.” He says, “Our connection with God is shaped and nurtured by loving bonds to our parents. The rabbis long ago made the point that though God is of course the same in every generation, the meaning of God to my parents, the conceptions they held of God, will not be the same as mine. How much more is this the case when the gap between generations stretches over millennia?”

Bo: Darkness

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was… (Exod. 10:21-23)

Insularity of heart
locks out the cries
floating on the air.

Opacity of spirit
rebuffs the anguish
in the eyes of slaves.

And finally darkness comes:
total eclipse, dense
and lightless;
humanity paralysed from without
as it is within.

The Etz Hayim Commentary of the JPS notes that the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 14:2) calls the plague of darkness “the darkness of Hell /Geihinnom, connecting the darkness that was visited on Egypt with the primordial darkness preceding God’s declaration, “Let there be light!” The Etz Hayim says, “Just as the light of Shabbat is a foretaste of the world to come, the reward that awaits the righteous, [so] the darkness of the ninth plague is a foretaste of Geihinnom, the punishment that awaits those who cannot truly see their neighbors, who cannot feel the pain and recognize the dignity of their afflicted neighbors…The person who cannot see his neighbour is incapable of spiritual growth, of rising from where he is currently.” The Etz Hayim points out that in discussions ascertaining how early one can recite morning prayers, “dawn” is defined as “when one can recognize the face of a friend” (Talmud, Berachot 9b). When one can see the other and recognize the Divine image shared by all humanity, the darkness begins to dissipate.

On the verse, “People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was,” the Chiddushei HaRim comments that the greater darkness is when a man does not see his neighbour and does not sympathise  with his pain – and the result is that his capacity to feel becomes dull and paralysed – hence no-one could rise from his place. The Even HaEzel* (Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer) adds that this is alluded to by the Sages in the Midrash in Shemot Rabbah: “”Our rabbis said that it [the darkness] was as dense as a dinar.” For the chase after money, after golden dinars, heightens the selfishness and darkens the eyes, so they did not see nor feel the pain of Israel.”

In a commentary on the Parasha from 2008, Rabbi Lisa Gelber says, “The darkness for the Egyptians in Egypt is not merely an absence of light; it has substance that remains for an extended period of time. In his commentary, Ramban (1194-1270) suggests that the darkness was composed of such a thick, foglike substance that it extinguished all of the lamps; there was no fire at all. No light. No way to see up or down; no means of telling day from night. No opportunity to see oneself in relation to others.
“The Torah reminds us that the Israelites were afflicted with hard labor and spiritual strain. The Egyptians did not see the despair of the people of Israel. They could not look into the eyes of their fellow human beings and acknowledge their pain. They stumbled about in the darkness, tripping over the core institutions of respect and freedom…These were a people blind and rooted to the ground, a people engulfed by spiritual and emotional darkness. How does darkness become a plague? By blocking the light, turning off our awareness, shutting down relationships, and preventing us from becoming agents of change…
At the end of her commentary, Rabbi Gelber considers the Havdala service, “How do we end Shabbat each week? We light a braided candle to illuminate the night. The torchlike flame helps us to see through the dark… to help guide us into another week, another opportunity to elevate ourselves and our world through acts that express kindness and motivate justice. In order to survive, in order to move forward and grow, one must see the other not as other but as an-other: another being, critical to our society and our world.
Rabbi Gelber cites the verse “Ner Hashem nishmat adam — the soul of man is the lamp of God” (Proverbs 20:27) and adds,  “Each of us carries God’s spark. May we have the courage and the wisdom to illuminate the dark, shining light on the blessings we have to offer the world.”

*Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer (1870 – 1953) was a famous Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi, Rosh Yeshiva and Halachic decisor. He is also known as the “Even HaEzel” – the title of his commentary on Rambam’s Mishneh Torah.
Rabbi Meltzer was born in the city of Mir, in what is today Belarus, the son of Rabbi Baruch Peretz Meltzer. From age 10, he studied at the Mir Yeshiva and at age 14 began studying at the Volozhin yeshiva under Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv of Volozhin), and Rav Chaim HaLevi Soloveitchik – pioneers of the system of Talmudic study in Lithuania, which subsequently forged its imprint on the method of study used by leading rabbis from then on. He remained there for seven years.
While at the yeshiva, he became involved in the secret [Orthodox] Ness Ziona Society, part of the Hovevei Zion movement. Together with his brother-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein, he contributed to the founding of the city of Hadera by buying land for an etrog orchard.
In 1894, Rabbi Melzer became a maggid shiur at the Slabodka yeshiva, together with his brother in law, Rabbi Epstein. In 1897, Rabbi Meltzer left Slabodka to lead another yeshiva in Slutsk.
In 1903, Rabbi Meltzer was appointed as the Rabbi of Slutsk, a position he held for 20 years. After the Soviet Revolution he continued in this capacity, and was targeted by the Soviet authorities who sought to eradicate religious institutions. Rabbi Meltzer expended great effort to protect his Yeshiva, and was arrested a number of times. After his release he would hide for a while in a small village near Slutzk, but eventually was forced to flee for his life. In 1923 he secretly escaped over the border of Poland to Kletzk, a town that lay on the Russian border, where the famous ‘Etz Chaim’ Yeshiva was situated and headed by his son-in-law, Rabbi Aharon Kotler. For two years Rabbi Meltzer taught in Kletzk, until his departure for Israel in 1925.
In Jerusalem he was asked to lead the Etz Chaim Yeshiva, where he remained until his death. The Mashgiach in Etz Chaim at the time was the renowned Tzaddik of Jerusalem, Reb Aryeh Levine, who had been a student of Rabbi Meltzer in Slutzk. Rabbi Meltzer was also close to Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Palestine.

Rabbi Meltzer authored seven monumental works on the Rambam, which he called ‘Even HaEzel’. His wife not only urged him to publish them, but also transcribed all the manuscripts to prepare them for publishing.

Va’era: Playing God

God replied to Moses, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet. You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not heed you, I will lay My hand upon Egypt and deliver My ranks, My people the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with extraordinary chastisements. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst.” (Shemot 7:1-5)

He thought himself omnipotent,
a veritable deity:
life and death were in his hands.
He made the river run with blood,
and trampled the enslaved.
A shepherd with clear eyes strode in,
God’s words upon his stuttering lips
and Pharaoh turned his back.

Yet still the tyrant flourishes;
for the lust for total power
is a never-ending scourge.
And if a shepherd comes
to the elevated echelons:
an unpretentious stranger
who never courted glory, and
he cries out in the name of God
to set the people free,
will it take ten frightful plagues
to melt the pharaoh’s heart?

During most of history, the Egyptians regarded their pharaohs as touched by the divine, mediators between humans and gods. The king was set apart from his subjects. He was surrounded by servants and dignitaries, sat on a throne, displayed the insignia of his divine office and was untouchable to ordinary mortals. He could order his subjects put to death with no due process.
The world even in 2015 is rife with dictators, who establish and maintain one-party political systems with rigged or uncontested elections. They suppress the opposition and stifle the press and the right to free speech and dissent. Human rights violations and torture are rampant. Untold numbers are murdered under such regimes, which are spread all over the globe.
In a blogpost on Va’era, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser brings a Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 8:2) in which we learn that Pharaoh was punished for claiming to be a god. Reb Jeff quotes the phrase, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh…” (Shemot 7:1) and notes, “The punishment for pretending to be a god is to be brought down by a human being whom God has designated to act as God. Poetic justice.”
Reb Jeff adds, “There is nothing that Judaism seems to despise more than human beings who believe that they can take the place of God. That is a dire warning for an age in which we constantly play God. We manipulate DNA to create new life forms. We kill people on the other side of the world by pushing buttons. ..”
He wonders who will emerge, as Moses did, to speak truth to power, and how that power will eventually be wrested from those who so abuse it.
In a commentary on the parasha,, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes,
“Having enslaved the Jewish people, Pharaoh seeks to destroy their spirit by exhausting their bodies. Seeking a total control over their hearts and soul, the idolatry that Pharaoh seeks to impose comes at a very high cost indeed: His insistence that true power is ruthless, that supremacy is something to be imposed continues to rear its ugly head, continues to assault the biblical tradition and those who love it. No mere relic from antiquity, our century has more than its share of those who believed that their lofty visions could justify any cruelty they needed to inflict, in order to cement their hold on power.
The alternative, to suggest that true power must be wedded to kindness, that abiding strength is one that offers solidarity and nurturance, risks making one look weak. Now, as in the past, those whose convictions impel them to reach out to the outcast and the despised are themselves cast out with scorn. Then, as now, Pharaoh knew that cultivated ruthlessness would please the “realists” of the court and would instill fear and obedience in the hearts of the people.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson notes that Moses had to defy the cruel and autocratic power that this Pharaoh and all other tyrants embody, with no military force to defend his people. He says, “…in seeking the liberation of the slaves, all Moses could utilize were his stirring words, and the power of an idea so pure that it has reshaped the world: “Let my people go!” Over and over, Moses repeated this incantation of freedom to the Egyptian king, confronting the Pharaoh with a witness to power that is based on the dignity of each human being and the holiness of all living things.”
He continues, “Compassion was not very persuasive in Pharaoh’s court, just as it is pretty unpersuasive in the court of public opinion. Yet compassion is at the very core of Moses’ mission: To fashion a sacred and just community in the service of God.”
When Pharaoh hardened his heart, Moses was compelled to afflict Pharaoh and his subjects with the plagues until Pharaoh finally let the people go.

Shemot: Birthing the World

And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah. And he said, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birth-stool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live!” But the midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt told them; they let the boys live. (Shemot 1:15-17)

She goes about her task
adeptly, with tender smile
and gentle hands,
wordlessly accomplishing
her work.

Passionate whirlwind,
ardent activist, fiery
in her beliefs;
her voice cries out
invoking heaven to witness.

Rabbi Tsvi-Hirsch of Riminov* describes two prototypes of righteous people. The first, he says, is like Shifra, (which means “beauty” or “grace”) and who serves the Creator in peaceful, pleasant ways with barely palpable outward show. The second he likens to Puah, (whose name is derived from a root meaning to cry out as in Isaiah 42:14). This righteous person, fired up with ardor, serves God passionately, crying out loudly, her voice splitting the heavens.
Maybe both are needed to restore the world and bring forth a new era. Or perhaps one person can embody both aspects as the circumstances dictate.
Rashi teaches that Shifrah and Puah were actually Jocheved and Miriam respectively. (Another view suggests it was Jocheved and Elisheva (her daughter-in-law)). Rashi, citing the Talmud (Sotah 11b), associates the name Shifra with the word “meshaperet – meaning to improve.” He derives from this that Shifra bestowed care on the new baby benefiting its physical condition (literally straightening its limbs). Rashi explains that the name Puah, from the word to cry aloud as cited above, derives from her practice of speaking and crooning to the baby to soothe it when it was crying. The Torah continues that the midwives disobeyed Pharaoh and saved the children, “Vatechayena et hayeladim” which Rashi interprets to mean that not only did they save the children, but they kept them alive by nourishing them with food.

*Rabbi Tzvi-Hirsh ben R’ Yehudah Leib HaKohen of Riminov (1778-1847). He was orphaned of both parents at age ten. He was taken in by his uncle who was too poor to support him, so he became a tailor’s apprentice, but dreamed of attaching himself to a great Tsaddik. So he gathered his meager savings and travelled to the town of Pristik. After wandering around the town, he arrived at the home of R’ Menachem Mendel of Riminov who was then living in Pristik. He began to work there doing menial tasks and eventually became the Rebbe’s attendant. When the Rebbe died, R’ Tsvi-Hirsch became a disciple of R’ Naftali-Tsvi who was R’ Menachem Mendel’s successor. On his death, 12 years later, R’ Tzvi-Hirsh became the Rebbe of Riminov. He had a reputation as a miracle worker. Some of his teachings are collected in Mevasser Tov and in Be’erot HaMayim.

Shemot: Building an Ark

Then Pharaoh charged all his people saying, “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”
A certain man of the house of Levi went and took to wife a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance to learn what would befall him.(Shemot 1:22, 2:1-4)

After the men were dragged away
to slavery or death, by edict
of another, crueler pharaoh,
how many mothers, how many sisters
stared helplessly in silence,
then gathered strength
to build a hiding place;
a fragile ark?
With trembling hands
and thumping heart
and one last, snatched lullaby
they set it on the stormy waves
with precious cargo tossed inside,
and prayed it might draw near to land
intact, and catch
a noble woman’s eye.

In her book, The Five Books of Miriam, a Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, Dr Ellen Frankel addresses Jocheved’s act of courage in setting her baby son adrift on the Nile in his reed basket. She adds a contemporary note, “It’s hard to resist drawing parallels between this story and the Holocaust, during which one million Jewish children perished under a different pharaoh’s deadly edict.” Dr Frankel points out that of course, both women and men tried to hide their children from the Nazis, and some succeeded. But she adds that once the men were rounded up and deported, the women were left to use their ingenuity to try and save their children.
With regard to the suggestion that it might be a woman who would save the child, as in the story of Moses, in an article by David P. Gushee, from the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 548 (November 1996): The Holocaust: Remembering for the Future, the author lists the factors that proved not to be significant, and they include age, gender, occupation, social class, politics, and religion.

A personal note: my maternal grandmother had family in France during WW2. Paris was overrun by the Nazis and a cousin named Giselle, whose husband had already been deported, was rounded up one day with her baby son, Georges. Thinking swiftly, she handed the child to a woman who was passing by, and begged her to take the child to his grandparents, quickly relaying the address. Giselle did not survive to discover that the passerby fulfilled her request and Georges was raised by his grandparents, all three somehow surviving the war.

Let us move back one step, to the phrase, “A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman”. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments that the couple’s names are not given, but he says the significance of the house of Levi is already known to us. He reminds us that in Parashat Vayechi, Jacob, when dying, curses the anger of (Simeon and) Levi. But he adds that we are also shown what deep spiritual worth can be found in this passion when correctly channeled. Rabbi Hirsch directs us to Jacob’s words about Simeon and Levi, “Achalkem beYaakov ve’afitsem beYisrael – I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel”. This, he teaches, means that when the people were strong and powerful, (in victorious “Israel mode”) Simeon and Levi’s impetuosity and volatility could be dangerous because they might ignite the people. Then they were to be scattered among them to dilute their influence. However, when the people were weak and in exile (in “Jacob mode”) Simeon and Levi would be divided among them, imparting some of their energy and passion and a feeling of belonging. So Rabbi Hirsch says, “The Levite spirit which was to be the saving spirit in times of oppression, was the very one that was called for in such times as were then ruling. According to tradition, the midwives themselves were also from “the house of Levi”. In such conditions, courage was required to become a father and a mother.” Thus, he points out that the verse says that the Levite man “went and took” which emphasizes the courage necessary in taking such a step. The text also tells us subsequently that the couple had already been married (because there were older siblings) so, as the Midrash teaches, this man who had separated from his wife because of the king’s cruel edict, now resolves to return to her to defy this order and build again.
In an article on a website called Not Even Past, the author David F Crew displays an archival photo of a newly married couple, posing with members of the wedding party shortly after the ceremony. What is stunning, on close inspection, is that at least four of the members of the wedding party are wearing yellow stars. Crew comments, “They, and presumably all the other Jews in this picture, have already become the victims of Nazi racial persecution and most, if not all, of them will not survive the war. The single detail of the Jewish star injects a chilling note into the private happiness recorded here.”
Crew describes his surprise when he found the photo, not imagining that Jews would still be getting married in Nazi-occupied Europe (or having photographs taken to commemorate the event). He found the picture in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s photographic archive.  “A search in the museum’s online data base for photographs of Jewish weddings produced 496 responses.  The Holocaust Museum archive has photographs of Jewish couples getting married in many different occupied European countries, in foreign exile in Shanghai and Kenya, and in transit camps such as Westerbork, the Dutch way station on the deportation route to Auschwitz, and even in the Warsaw ghetto.”*
He continues, “The fact that these Jewish wedding photographs exist at all is quite remarkable. We would probably not expect Jews to be getting married despite Nazi occupation, and the threat of deportation and annihilation. Marriage presupposes an expectation of some kind of future, even in the darkest times. We know that many of the people in these pictures would not survive. Did they have no idea what might soon happen to them? Were they deluding themselves that they would survive?” Crew cites captions on several of the photos which inform us that the couples pictured, and sometimes all of those portrayed, perished.
Crew says, “…knowing what happened after these photographs were taken makes it difficult for us to understand what the pictures originally showed. When we look at photographs of Holocaust victims who are still alive in a Polish ghetto we already know that they will soon be murdered, but most of the victims probably did not know their fate. Life in the ghetto was seen as a gamble with the future, a desperate attempt to stay alive long enough for the war to end. We know that this gamble would not succeed. The Jews in these photographs did not.
“Recognition of the distance between our “now” and their “then” can allow us to understand why these Jewish couples and their relatives are smiling and why they devoted so much effort and ingenuity to finding the wedding gowns and all the other accoutrements of a “proper” wedding under the extreme conditions of wartime scarcity and Nazi persecution. These Jewish wedding photographs can be seen not as attempts to deny the horrible reality of the Holocaust but as conscious efforts to defy its grotesque abnormality by claiming a small scrap of normality, a tiny hope for the future.”

*In Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, there is a portrayal of a true episode in the life of Joseph Bau, a graphic artist who was incarcerated in the Krakow Ghetto and in 1943 was transferred to the nearby Plaszow death camp near Krakow. There he fell in love with Rebecca Tannenbaum, whom he married in the death camp. She was later deported to Auschwitz but ultimately they both survived the war and came to Israel in 1950 with their older daughter who was then three. The Joseph Bau House in Tel Aviv is testament to his life and work.

Vayechi: The Pit Revisited

“And when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong we did him?” (Bereishit 50:16)

They bring their father slowly back
and place him in his grave
then silently retrace their steps,
their faces turned to Goshen.

In unison the brothers walk,
heads bowed, engrossed in thought,
but when they seek out Joseph,
once more they find him gone.

Wide-eyed, they sight him from afar,
as once they watched him come.
They see him standing at the pit
and fathoming its depths.

They fear revenge is in his heart
and warily approach;
he turns around, his face aglow;
his eyes embrace them all.

For now he knows the shadowed pit
is sheltered by God’s wings;
he tells them softly, “God be blessed –
for here I was redeemed!”

In a commentary on Parashat Vayehi from 2006,, Rabbi Ron Shulman ponders the different perspectives with which we see our lives. He says, “Some people look at life and see only the facts. Others are able to look at life and see the meaning…” He compares the differing perspective of Joseph and of his brothers.
He cites a Midrash (Tanchuma 17) which recounts that when Joseph is returning from his father’s burial in the Cave of Machpelah, he passes the very pit into which his brothers had cast him, and he looks into it. Based on this Midrash, Rabbi Shulman speculates what Joseph might have been thinking as he peered into the crater. He wonders, “How did he remember that moment in his life? What future could he imagine with his brothers, those who had threatened to kill him?”
The Midrash answers, “Joseph stood up and prayed, “Blessed is God Who performed a miracle for me in this place!” Rabbi Shulman says, “There, gazing into a barren pit, the place of his greatest danger and fear, Joseph looks back and sees the wonder, mystery, and graciousness present in his life. In personal terms, such belief and understanding are what we might describe as a consciousness of God.”
The brothers assume and fear that he is dwelling on the evil that they perpetrated against him, and now that Jacob is dead, Joseph will take revenge. So they send him a message (which they fabricate) with Bilhah, saying that Jacob had urged Joseph not to take revenge. Joseph weeps, says the Midrash, that they have so little trust in his affection. When they appear, bowing abjectly, he speaks to them gently and puts their fears at rest. “Ten stars,” he tells them, “could do nothing against one star, how much less could one star do against ten? How could I lay a hand on those whom both God and my father have blessed?”
Rabbi Shulman sees how Joseph has processed the experiences he has undergone and is able, looking back, to see God’s hand in his life. Joseph comforts his brothers, “Besides, although you intended to harm me, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people.” (Bereishit 50:20) Rabbi Shulman adds, “Deeper still, Joseph has discovered a truth about himself, and the rest of us as well. In the midst of our affluence, our intelligence, and our skills, Joseph’s perspective teaches that we live best with a perception of God, a perspective that humbles us, helps to frame our relationships with others, and can assist us each to define our own place in the world.
“What does it mean to be conscious of God? Such an awareness or faith is our way of organizing, and imposing significance upon, the many circumstances and situations that make up our lives; those compelling moments about which we also form idealized memories, recollections sometimes detached from the actual facts of what took place. In other words, how we understand the events we experience defines how well we respond to them, and the meaning we derive from them.
“This was Joseph’s insight before his brothers. He was able to describe for them the results of what they had done. He was able to discover a purpose and attach a meaning to all that he had experienced. “Do I take God’s place?” he asks (Bereishit 50:19). Of course not, all of us can answer along with Joseph. Each of us stands in our own place, responsible for understanding the flow and consequence of our own lives’ choices, and relationships.
The gift we are given by the Torah is attentiveness — a consciousness of God that points us toward the ideals and beliefs that ought to matter most in our lives. Such insight is focused on that which transcends the specifics of particular events, highlighting their essential legacy instead. But, it does depend on how we look at it.
Some of us, like Joseph’s brothers, can only see the facts of what has happened, standing nervously by waiting to see what might come next. Others of us, like Joseph himself, can learn to put those facts into a larger context, to appreciate them with sacred sensitivity, and though not forgetting what has taken place, take responsibility for seeing in them a consequential meaning for our lives.”
In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal, Dr Rachel Naomi Remen addresses this idea of making sense of the broader picture, with a childhood memory. “All through my childhood, my parents kept a giant jigsaw puzzle set up on a puzzle table in the living room. My father, who had started all this, always hid the box top. The idea was to put the pieces together without knowing the picture ahead of time. Different members of the family and visiting friends would work on it, sometimes for only a few minutes at a time, until after several weeks hundreds and hundreds of pieces would each find their place.
“Over the years, we finished dozens of these puzzles…I especially loved the time when the first hint of pattern would emerge and I could see what had been there, hidden, all along.
“The puzzle table was my father’s birthday present to my mother. I can see him setting it up and gleefully pouring the pieces of that first puzzle from the box onto the tabletop. I was three or four and I did not understand my mother’s delight. They hadn’t explained this game to me, doubtless thinking I was too young to participate. But I wanted to participate, even then.
“Alone in the living room early one morning, I climbed on a chair and spread out the hundreds of loose pieces lying on the table. The pieces were fairly small; some were brightly colored and some dark and shadowy. The dark ones seemed like spiders or bugs, ugly and a little frightening. They made me feel uncomfortable. Gathering up a few of these, I climbed down and hid them under one of the sofa cushions. For several weeks, whenever I was alone in the living room, I would climb up on the chair, take a few more dark pieces, and add them to the cache under the cushion.
“So this first puzzle took the family a very long time to finish. Frustrated, my mother finally counted the pieces and realized that more than a hundred were missing. She asked me if I had seen them. I told her then what I had done with the pieces I didn’t like and she rescued them and completed the puzzle. I remember watching her do this. As piece after dark piece was put in place and the picture emerged, I was astounded. I had not known there would be a picture. It was quite beautiful, a peaceful scene of a deserted beach. Without the pieces I had hidden, the game had made no sense…
“Life provides all the pieces. When I accepted certain parts of life and denied and ignored the rest, I could only see my life a piece at a time – the happiness of a success or a time of celebration, or the ugliness and pain of a loss or a failure I was trying hard to put behind me out of sight. But like the dark pieces of the puzzle, these sadder events, painful as they are, have proven themselves a part of something larger. What brief glimpses I have had of something hidden seem to require accepting as a gift every last piece.
“We are always putting the pieces together without knowing the picture ahead of time. I have been with many people in times of profound loss and grief when an unsuspected meaning begins to emerge from the fragments of their lives. Over time, this meaning has proven itself to be durable and trustworthy, even transformative. It is a kind of strength that never comes to those who deny their pain.”