On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Mikeitz: Where is God Today?

Parashat Mikeitz is the second parashah in the Joseph cycle, which is remarkable for many reasons—one of which being it’s biggest missing character: God. God is almost absent from Joseph’s story, at least in predictable ways, which might be why it agrees well with today’s Jewish experience. In this episode of On the Other Hand, Rabbi Jacobs discusses different forms of religiosity, and how identifying as religious might not be so different from identifying as secular or cultural.  

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Mikeitz, and he asks: what does the unfolding of life really look like?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Mikeitz from the Book of Genesis, the second of the parashiyot, or the Torah portions, in the Joseph cycle. Also, can I just point out what you probably already know if you have a bakery or any stores where you live -- that Hanukkah is coming up! So, this Sunday night when you're listening to the podcast, December 2nd will be our first candle. So, I'm going to take some frames from our Torah portion as I always do, but I can't ignore that that Hanukkah holiday is about to descend on us and certainly deserves some connecting to. So, in this week's parashah, we're on the next stage of the unfolding of the Joseph narrative, and I think a lot of us know the narrative from the reading of Genesis, but maybe [also] from Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat, the very famous Broadway show that brought at least some of the mass appeal to the story.

But I want to actually focus on, it's a remarkable story in the following way. First, it's the longest connective narrative in Genesis. It has almost 450 verses. In chapters, it goes from chapter 37 to Chapter 50. And it is a through narrative. But the biggest missing character is not Joseph, it's not his brothers. This is the test. So, you're sitting in your car, you're taking a walk: who is the missing character in the Joseph narrative? All right. I can give you to the count of five. Hm... The missing character would be none other than the Creator of the universe. God is almost absent from this story. God never appears. And God never speaks. What's more, there's a lot of chatter about God, some of which is out of Josephs mouth, but no one talks to God, no one prays to God, no one worships God, and that seems a little challenging for a Biblical story. I mean, you would think that if you are defining a Biblical story, it's going to have a bunch of people, some deep moral dilemmas, and the Creator is going to somehow guide. But in the story -- it's not to say that God isn't in the story, but God isn't in the story in those more, I'd say, predictable ways which may, in fact, better agree with our own Jewish experience in today. So, though God doesn't have a speaking role, God's in the scenes. And there's this very powerful moment when the brothers are encountering Joseph. And Joseph says, "Don't be sad or angry with yourselves that you sold me here." And then he says, "For God sent me before you to preserve life." So now, it was not you who sent me here, but God. It's a pretty amazing thing, you know, that Joseph is able to help frame everything in the narrative is part of an unfolding of God's plan. But none of it hits you over the head in a very melodramatic way, which I think may, in fact, for many of us, better describe how we might find God -- and we're looking for God to be like this booming voice.

You know, I'm at the supermarket, you know, walking down the juice aisle, and all of a sudden I'm expecting there to be this loud, Biblical voice saying, you know, "turn around" or "open your eyes, open your heart" -- and in the Joseph narrative, it's just the unfolding of life and the deeper purpose of that life. Remarkably, there's a few studies recently over the last decade or two that point out that a lot of Jews define themselves as secular or as cultural. So, the study I'm most referring to is the work of Workmen's Circle study from 2012, pointing out that one in six American Jews are engaged and unaffiliated, who look outside the synagogue, outside of the religious expression of Judaism for a way to connect. So, only 13 percent check [that] to a great extent they define themselves as religious Jews. Listen to this -- 60 percent call themselves secular Jews, and 36 percent saw themselves as cultural Jews. So, honestly, if I'm a secular/cultural Jew, and I'm opening a Biblical story or narrative, I probably would say "let's go, Joseph." Let's get in there, because there are really urgent questions of family, and of relationships, and a deeper meaning, and of great justice questions. I think that a lot of us are trying to figure out, how do we find the contemporary idiom to find spirituality, to find God, and define that deeper meaning?

So, can I just speak for a second about Hanukkah? In some ways, Hanukkah was something that was, frankly, fairly secular until the ancient rabbis found this story. And they thought this a story about a military fight against an enemy, the Hasmonean Greeks. And the rabbis of the Talmud said, you know, that's not a good religious story. Let's get a miracle in there. And almost 600 years after the events described in the Hanukkah story, they find the narrative of the jar of oil that lasted for eight days. And on one level, the ancient rabbis were uncomfortable with the militarism of the story, they wanted a spiritual element. But, they also, I think, were uncomfortable by the secular or cultural experience. And here, we now have this holiday during the week when we're busy reading Joseph, and the backdrop of some of these studies that tell us more Jews are finding cultural doorways in to Jewish experience, to go to a book club, or to find their way to a concert, or to some other forms of -- culinary, or other ways. And I'm not -- by the way, I'm a rabbi. Let me just get my credentials here. I'm a rabbi. I love the spiritual, religious path, but I also know that we have lots of Jews who are just trying to find any door that they can open and feel comfortable and maybe want to dig into more. Hanukkah is that holiday that sometimes feels like it's needing that deeper meaning, and that richer spiritual experience. Sometimes it's obviously colored by presence, and it's colored by the surrounding culture, which obviously makes a very big important deal out of Hanukkah because of its proximity -- particularly outside of Israel -- to Christmas. And so, I'd like us just to be thinking about how might the Bible and the story of Joseph have prepared us to not be so literal and stereotypical when we think about where is God in my unfolding personal life narrative, and where might we also find that other expression in terms of holidays and Hanukkah may be in fact one of those places where we find identity, cultural identity, a sense of being part of this larger story of the Jewish people.

So, I like that Mikeitz helps us debunk some of the stereotypes of religiosity, and maybe for some of us who define ourselves primarily as religious Jews, maybe we also open ourselves and say, you know, what, maybe that's just how I talk about the same things that other people talk about as I'm trying to find meaning in my life, and trying to find a deeper sense of purpose. That would actually be a redemptive thing to learn from the Book of Joseph, and to learn that morality, the interconnectedness of our lives with a larger unfolding story. These do not have to be let go of if we define ourselves as secular, cultural, and for many, many of us that's the truth of our lives. The truth of our experience. So, I'm going to take this opportunity to wish people not only a chag sameach, a great and joyous and bright and illuminating and generous Hanukkah. But can I also say ,let's read our texts with more and more expanded frameworks, and maybe be able to see ourselves in the text, as I hope many of us will be able to do in the Joseph narratives, and the relationship of siblings, of parents, and of the larger question of how do I keep the society around me from starving to death -- which of course is Josef's great gift to the region. So, let's see the religious path, and the spiritual path, and the cultural path as intersecting. Very often, they intersect in the parashah, they intersect in some of the contemporary expressions. And while we're making Hanukkah with our friends, some of whom will be more cultural, some of them will be more ritually focused. Let's see if we can't light the lights of greater acceptance, greater pluralism, and diversity of the way in which we define and live and express our Judaism -- and that would be a very bright Hanukkah indeed.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!