When I was a young rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College, I served a small Reform congregation in Fairmont, West Virginia. After Shabbat dinner at the home of a dedicated member (they were all dedicated in Fairmont!), I walked to synagogue with my host. On the way, I naively observed, "Since you go to shul every Shabbat, you must have a strong faith in God." His response surprised me: "Truthfully, I have little faith. I don't go to temple to be with God; I go to be with other Jews."
If I were to share that story with an evangelical Christian, she might not get it. Most evangelicals go to church to be with God (and with their friends, as well). The difference has to do, in part, with Jews being a minority. Especially in small communities, we feel a strong need to be with other Jews. But fundamentally, being Jewish often is not about God. It is frequently about Israel, values, social justice, ethnic bonds, customs, rituals, and preserving those traditions from generation to generation.
I meet many liberal Jews--Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or agnostic--who tell me that they envy the strong faith of Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, and others. They wonder why we don't have more God-talk. They wish they could feel the Presence of God more intensely in their lives. They long for just a fraction of the faith that some of their neighbors have.
In Parashat Vayeishev, we read that when Joseph was in Egypt, "the Eternal was with Joseph." Moreover, his master, Potiphar, Captain of Pharaoh's Guard, "saw that the Eternal was with him" (Genesis 39:2-3).
What does it mean "to be with God"? How did Joseph get to be with God? Did he pray three times a day or feel confident that God would protect him? What would it take for you and me to "be with God"? Let's consider how our tradition might respond to these questions.
In Midrash Rabbah, the Rabbis teach that Joseph whispered God's name all the time, when he came in and when he went out (B'reishit Rabbah on Genesis 39:3). Rashi agreed that Joseph uttered the name of God frequently. Perhaps faith has something to do with being aware of God and of God's Creation on a regular basis. Is faith enhanced by our regular recitation of blessings of appreciation, such as Shehecheyanu, HaMotzi, Birkat HaMazon, or the Shema at bedtime? Does this awareness of blessing heighten our sense of God's nearness?
Another midrash on this verse teaches that God was with Joseph because he was young and, unlike his brothers, on his own. As such, his ideas were still in the process of formation and therefore he needed God's Presence and guidance more than his older siblings (ibid.). From this midrash we might learn that the time to foster religious faith is when we are young and most impressionable.
Nachmanides, in his commentary, offers another perspective. He contends that "the Eternal was with him [Joseph]" means that Joseph was successful and knew that his success came from God (Rabbi Charles B. Chavel, trans., Ramban, Nachmanides: Commentary on the Torah, Genesis [New York: Shilo Publishing, 1971], p. 479). This parallels the Torah text itself where Potiphar attributes Joseph's success to the fact that the Eternal was with him.
All of these interpretations are instructive and lead to the same conclusion. Nachmanides explains it best: God was with Joseph because Joseph realized that whatever he accomplished came from God. He understood that his achievements were not solely the result of his talents. He was God's instrument. This explanation anticipates Joseph's own words to his brothers in Genesis 45:1-9, where he relieves them of guilt for having exiled him from the family. He insists that this was all part of God's plan for him.
We find ourselves in the midst of the amazing journey of Joseph who started out as a spoiled brat and who is maturing before our eyes each week. Here is Dr. Norman J. Cohen's description:
"Joseph's growth began when he left his father's protective presence and set out on his own. Away from the oppressive attitude of his brothers and their jealousy, he could begin to look at himself in realistic terms. It often takes leaving their parents' house for children to begin to develop a stronger sense of themselves and take responsibility for their lives. How many of us have been utterly amazed at the transformation of our kids when they go off to college?
"We now encounter a more empathetic Joseph who is able to interpret the dreams of others, all the while acknowledging God's help. The haughty youngster is no more; a kinder, more humble Joseph is emerging" (Self, Struggle and Change [Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights, 1995], p. 171).
Perhaps faith in God is the answer to the growing narcissism and egocentrism of our contemporary society. Can humility born of such faith help us achieve a better balance in life? Can it help us, as it did the young Joseph, to mature? Can it help us understand that we are not radically independent creatures, but rather children of the living God endowed with blessings and responsibilities?
Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff, past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and of ARZA, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey. He is vice-president for special projects at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and author of When Elijah Knocks, A Religious Response to Homelessness, (Behrman House) and Reform Judaism, A Jewish Way of Life, (Ktav).