Posted on November 28, 2013 by Candace Mittel
I like to think of our forefathers and their descendants, the crucial figures we meet in Tanach, as relevant role models, exhibiting features and characteristics we should venture to adopt into our own lives today. Of course, many of their actions make us wriggle—Abraham’s fervor and zeal (and lack of hesitation) when God commands him to sacrifice his son; Jacob’s questionable deceit of his father; the list could go on and on—but these actions that make us uncomfortable are often virtuous in the eyes of the Torah (if the Torah even has such eyes, but that’s a separate discussion), and thus we must confront that which makes us uneasy and, inside the apprehension or tension, find the exemplary qualities that we can strive to incorporate better into our lives.
That being said, I’m quite happy to be writing about Joseph, a character in Tanach with few flaws—he ultimately transforms into a “crazy tzadik,” as my Chumash teacher Levi Cooper would say. However, there’s no doubt that Joseph exhibits a quality that makes many of us uncomfortable—absolute trust in God. Although Joseph’s complete confidence in God seems, at first, to be inaccessible to us today—“the world doesn’t really work like that today” or “I cannot trust God in the wake of events like the Holocaust,” etc.—I am interested in exploring ways in which we can, in fact, approach and obtain this same type of total credence in God. Perhaps it is more reachable, comprehensible and nuanced than it superficially appears to be.
In this week’s parsha, Mitketz, there is an outstanding moment where Joseph displays this absolute trust in God. Pharaoh calls upon Joseph to interpret his dream, desperate for someone to understand him and provide meaning. In their first encounter, Pharaoh says to Joseph, “I have heard that you interpret dreams,” and Joseph, in a seemingly instinctive way, responds with the following:
Joseph says: “It’s not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace.” Let’s not look over the radical nature of this response! Given the context, the particular circumstance—Joseph’s life is in Pharaoh’s hands!—it is incredible; Joseph has the chutzpah to say to Pharaoh, upfront and immediately, that his dream interpretation skills are not his own, but rather they come from God! It is that critical to Joseph, at the risk of his own life, to specify to Pharaoh that what he’s about to do emanates from God (the God that Pharoah doesn’t follow, by the way). Joseph could have just nodded, smiled and responded, “yes, I am a dream interpreter. I have a high success rate. Now tell me your dream,” but he doesn’t. Joseph is especially careful to include this acknowledgement of God, even in a moment of heightened jeopardy.
How can we—twenty-first century inhabitants living in an era where God does not actively interact with us like in Biblical times—claim Joseph’s confidence and trust in God? What kind of life might a conscious realization that, just like God is behind Joseph’s dream interpretation skills, God is also behind our abilities and talents, lead us to?
Don’t get confused here—I am not suggesting that we fall under the distorted (and I believe dangerous) notion that God takes care of everything and controls our lives by intervening in an active way. Although many do, in fact, support this conviction, I simply cannot commit myself to that type of God, that comprehensive conception of “trust in God,” because then baffling difficulties arise when I try to explain the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people, and I cannot, and will not attempt to, explain great tragedies. However, I am arguing that on an individual level, because God owns us, the material things we possess, even our physical bodies—literally, “the land belongs to me,” and “the people of Israel are my servants,” (Leviticus 25: 23, 42)—God is behind our innermost abilities, and it is merely our job to discover and then fulfill and execute those abilities, from the most essential (breathing, for example) to the more optional, selective or secondary qualities, our talents, our gifts.
Gift! Even English seems to acknowledge that the skills we “possess” do not belong to us! We merely express the abilities that have been given to us. We call certain people gifted, and yet we have lost sight of the intrinsic connotation of the term. To be gifted, to be talented, skilled, accomplished, intelligent, etc., is, inherent in the label, to acknowledge that you did not create this situation for yourself. You were given the virtue. I cannot emphasize this enough—it was a gift someone (your parents’ genes) or something (a superb education) or some transcendental essence—I call this God—gave to you.
I need to clarify because the above assertion may seem to be lacking an essential step in the giving process—I would not argue that God gives, in some magical, mystical way, the talent itself, to interpret dreams or to sing beautifully, but rather that God gives each of us the vigor and the spirit to do those things that are unique to our being. In that subtle, but critical shift of interpreting what it means to trust in God, we don’t get caught in a state of passively waiting for God to give us that dream job, make us rich, turn our lives around. Joseph certainly doesn’t live like that. He acts to save his own life when the opportunity arises—he shaves and changes clothes before appearing in front of Pharaoh for he knows it would not be wise to look raggedy, to look like a slave in front of Pharaoh; furthermore, he advises Pharaoh to “look for a discreet and wise man” to rule over the land of Egypt! (Genesis 41: 33). Joseph chooses—this is an active verb—life while still upholding his solid belief that his innermost talents and abilities derive from God; that he is nothing without God. Joseph believes in his core that God gives him the strength to carry on after misery.
If God gives us the physical (a land, a body) and the potential (the spirit), it is our job to realize those potentials, to put in the spiritual effort to make life down here in the physical realm good. How nice that this idea fits right into the story of Hannukah! We take actions (we fight) to ensure the continuation of Judaism, the survival of our spiritual-selves. (Now would be an appropriate place to tell this joke).
By living in this conscious way, by recognizing that God gives us the power to do the things we do, a new type of behavior emerges. There are many facets to this—if God owns our possessions, we will become more generous with our material wealth, and charity leads to peace (Pirkei Avot 2:7); if God gives us strength to succeed in our endeavors, we are humble in times of triumph; conversely, in the bad times, we are reassured, comforted and then uplifted by the sudden awareness that God constantly gives us the strength and proper attitude to pick ourselves up and overcome hardship, and the optimism here is inevitable.
Acknowledging God as the source, as Joseph is overly-eager to proclaim, is the way a true tzadik lives his or her life.