God of circumstance


Rabbi Greg Harris | Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27.

Theology is a tricky thing. I learned from my late teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, that how we think about God is often shaped by circumstances. We need God in one way from a hospital bed but notice God differently on a beautiful hike in Yosemite. Other days, as we are focused on carpools, deadlines and routine acts, we may not notice God at all.

In this week’s Torah reading, Joseph realizes God has a plan for him which spans all the years of hardship he experienced. From Joseph’s brothers’ vindictiveness and being sent to prison by Potiphor, the Egyptian minister, to Joseph’s rise to Pharaoh’s court, he now believes it was God’s plan. Joseph reveals to his brothers “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance” (Genesis 45:7).

At that moment, Joseph believes the experiences of his life were shaped by God who placed him as Pharaoh’s minister to be his brothers’ protector and caretaker of his beloved father Jacob, who is now 130 years old.

The biblical commentator Sforno (16th century Italy) explains: “Now that you [Joseph] have seen God’s purpose, a purpose that could not have been achieved without all the various stages preceding it, it is reasonable to understand that the more distant events [of your life] were also part of God’s plan.”

This is called hashgacha pratit, the theology of “divine providence.” It appears in other places, too. In the book of Esther, Mordecai suggests to Esther: “And who knows, perhaps you have attained this royal position for just such a crisis” (Esther 4:14). Like Joseph, Mordecai suggests that maybe God placed Esther in a position of power to act when needed.

Unfortunately, neither Joseph nor Mordecai had proof of a divine plan. Their situations might be of God’s design or simply circumstances. Regardless of cause, both Joseph and Esther chose to take action for the benefit of others.

I admire their willingness to act even when perilous. For Joseph, he feared Pharoah’s reaction, so Joseph commanded the Egyptian servants to leave the room before he revealed himself to his brothers. Parallel to this, Esther asked the Jews of Shushan to pray for three days before she approached King Achashverosh. Joseph, Esther and Mordecai had confidence in God’s hidden plan.

I do not know God’s plan, though. I am not even sure if there is a defined divine plan shaping my life. But Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers, helps me find my path forward. Living without proof of hashgacha pratit, the rabbis teach: “Everything is foreseen yet freedom of choice is granted” (Pirkei Avot 3:15). While I cannot testify to God’s plan, I can rely on my ability to choose freely when action is needed.

Even for Joseph and Esther, it was tricky to know when to act. Theology is like that. But I pray we each have their insight and courage to act when needed. While the apparent risks of action may be great, the consequences of inaction may be even higher.

Rabbi Greg Harris is senior rabbi of Congregation Beth El, in Bethesda.

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