After a natural calamity or terrorist attack an understandable question presents itself: Where is God in all this?
We've seen the evil that people can do, and we've seen the spirit of sacrifice and service in firefighters, emergency workers, police officers, and ordinary citizens. But the question remains, "Where is God in all this?"
And as we look for answers, it makes sense to go back to the beginning, to the Book of Genesis, and discover how our ancestors responded to attacks that were as unexpected and as evil as the suicide missions of 2001 and all those that followed.
In particular, let's look at the story of Joseph, a subject of this week's Torah portion, Va-y'chi, the final one in Genesis. Joseph's own personal 9/11 occurs when his brothers become overwhelmed with jealousy and conspire to kill him. They say, "Now then, let us kill him and throw him into one of [these] pits and say, 'A wild animal has devoured him' " (Genesis 37:20). Joseph, after all, was the brother who seemed to have everything, who seemed to always get his way, who seemed to have influence over their father. Undoubtedly the brothers believed that Joseph had it coming to him.
In a fortuitous turn of events, one of the brothers intervenes, and convinces his brothers not to take Joseph's life. Instead, they strip him, throw him into a pit, and sell him into slavery. They smear his robe with goat's blood, and show it to their father, tricking him into believing that Joseph has been torn to pieces by wild animals. Joseph is carted off to Egypt, where he becomes a slave of one of Pharaoh's officers.
Time goes by and Joseph has risen to power in Egypt, and has become second-in-command to Pharaoh himself by devising a plan to store food for the coming famine. When the famine visits Egypt and his homeland, Joseph's brothers travel down to Egypt to buy grain, not knowing that he is now the prime minister of the land. After a series of tests and negotiations, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, and they are relieved that he does not punish them for their previous offenses. They fall down before him and say, "Here we are, your slaves" (50:18).
Joseph could well have punished them with death if he had wished. But Joseph goes in an entirely different direction, saying: "Have no fear, for am I in place of God? Though you intended me harm, God intended it for good, in order to accomplish what is now the case, to keep alive a numerous people. Now, therefore, have no fear—I will provide for you and your little ones" (50:19-21).
We have a completely unexpected response from a man who had been betrayed by his brothers, tossed into a pit, and then sold into slavery. We might expect him to be angry, and yet there is no anger. He should be bitter but he is not. He could speak of vengeance and yet he eschews vengeance. Joseph focuses on reconciliation, not revenge.
Where is God in all of this? God is in God's people, and when the world sees this, it's a powerful lesson even amidst frightening conditions.
Please know that Joseph is not playing at being God. Notice how Joseph begins his statement to his brothers: "Am I in place of God?" The question is rhetorical. Joseph knows that he is not God, despite the fact that he has a position of power and prestige in a major superpower of the ancient Near East. Unlike many rulers of that period, he knows the difference between temporal power and divinity.
The question is, how are we doing when it comes to understanding the difference between ourselves and God? Don't we indulge in some God role-playing? Researchers play God when they create clones in the lab. Food scientists play God when they develop genetically modified food. Judges and juries play God when they condemn criminals to death. Politicians play God when they use military might to remove a dictator. We play God when we judge and condemn a friend based on a rumor, a half-truth, or a second-hand report.
In all of these activities, there is a real danger that we will forget our proper place in the world. We are not—repeat not—in the place of God, but we should be in God's place as servants, ambassadors, and witnesses as we seek to bring forgiveness and reconciliation to the world.
Only God is in the place of God. No Pharaoh, no president, no governor, and no general stands in that place—only God. This was true for Joseph and his brothers. And it's true for us, for our friends, and for those who do violence against us.
This does not mean, of course, that we should only rely on God. There is an old Chasidic story about Rabbi Moshe Loeb, who said:
There is no property nor is there power in human beings that was created in vain. Even all the lower, degenerate properties can be elevated to serve God. Like arrogance—when it is elevated it turns into great pride in God's ways. But what may the denial of God have been created for? It, too, can be elevated into helpful action. For if someone comes to you and asks you for help, it is not for you to receive him with a pious word, "Trust, and cast your need on God." Then you should act as though there were no God, but only one person in the whole world who can help this person, you. (quoted in Martin Buber, Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings (NY: Schocken Books, 1962 [paperback edition])
The reflective life challenges us to understand that we are not God and yet we must act at times on behalf of God. With wisdom we can learn to know when to act and when to wait. With wisdom comes the humility to release to God our greatest anger and fear, and to forgive whenever possible. With wisdom we come to ask the question: Are we in place of God?
Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago, IL. He is the coordinating editor of the new High Holiday prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh (CCAR). He has a doctorate in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and has published five books, most recently Love Tales from the Talmud (URJ Press) and Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most (Jewish Lights).
Joseph's response to his brothers seems to suggest that whatever happens is meant to happen: "Am I in place of God? Though you intended me harm, God intended it for good . . ." (Genesis 50:19-20).
We see the same response in the Book of Esther, when at the pivotal moment in the story Mordecai says to Esther:
"For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14)
I love those moments in the stories of Joseph and Esther. I love them not because of the theology that says God planned all this, but rather because each case reflects a moment of choice. The rest of their lives is a response to that choice. Joseph and Esther, like the rest of us, can look back over their lives and tell a story of how something good came out of something bad. And that story is true. But the deep truth of the story isn't that God made it happen or that nothing happens by accident. Instead, the deep truth is that the decisions they each made along the way, and how they chose to respond to difficult options, enabled them to create lives of meaning.
So what does it mean to ask "Am I in the place of God?" For me, God's place means something quite different from the way Rabbi Goldberg explains it in the context of the Joseph story. I have always been moved by a teaching from Rabbi Rachel Adler:
My favorite of the Talmudic names for God is HaMakom, "the Place." God is the Place of the Universe, but the universe is not God's place. That is, God is not contained within the universe. It is just the locus of our rendezvous. Just as the universe is the place where I meet God, so I am the place where God meets me. I can only talk about God and to God out of my place. That is what is so important about affirming that I am made in God's image. It establishes that I am a place where God is. I then cannot talk about God's goodness or God's holiness without talking about mine or about yours, because your face, too, is a place in the universe where I can see God. (quoted in A Prayerbook for Shabbat and Festivals, third ed. [Beverly Hills, CA: Temple Emanuel, 2001])
Our challenge is to live with the consciousness that each of us is a place where God is and our stories will be more meaningful if we choose, in every encounter, to try to see God's face in the face of other human beings.
Rabbi Laura Geller is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, CA.
Va-y’chi, Genesis 47:28–50:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 302–316; Revised Edition, pp. 304–322;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 281–304