Reflections – Vayeshev
From Eden to Joseph in Egypt: the Search for God's Presence
By Dr Annette Boeckler
The Torah seems to be in search of places in which we can experience God’s presence. What kind of place is ideal for the encounter with God? Or in modern terms: where is the place where we can discover our true identity, where we can understand the meaning of life, where we can evaluate our responsibilities, where we can grow? – Is it a fenced luxurious garden, a paradise so to speak, where everything we need is given to us for free? Is this the place where we can best encounter God? Or is it rather a well-sealed ship that will carry our own family, at least, safely through the deluge outside? Or is it in a personal journey pursuing an ideal like Abraham, following a dream, a call or a task? Is God nearest when, like Isaac the survivor, we are saved from near-death? Maybe it is the fugitive Jacob/Israel who wins the prize. It is his name, Israel, that the liturgy uses to describe Jews; he leads to the formation of a people called by his name. But what is HIS place of encounter with God? A dark spot at a creek, a place of struggle, leaving him wounded. Over the past few weeks we have read about all those places, and all were left behind. Eden was left, the ark was left, homes were left, and creeks were crossed, as if the true place of God’s presence would be found in leaving places behind.
Enter Joseph. A pampered 17-year-old, not able to fit in. With his naive arrogance, no wonder his brothers dislike him. Life would be nicer without that pain in the neck. Joseph will keep the role of the outsider throughout his life. He is his father’s darling, separated from the others already by his rich clothes. He will be an employee with different ethical standards from his environment and thus will draw problems upon himself. Imprisoned, but different from the villains in jail, he is truly innocent. At the end of his life he, a Hebrew, becomes Vice-Pharaoh. It sounds absurd, but his life was highly meaningful. He succeeded in saving a whole nation from starvation, and in so doing, guaranteed the survival of the children of Israel, too. His role in life was that of a truth-teller and life-saver. He surely must have encountered God during his life, although the Torah does not say so, except maybe in dreams. As he will later say: Though you intended me harm, God intended it for a blessing. This hope – gained for himself, not through revelation – was Joseph’s motto in life. In each new place, he took responsibility and, working as Vice-Pharaoh, even applied Egyptian methods of administration. He learned to adapt somehow at the end. But from childhood on he was always the other, never a genuine part of the place where he found himself. Is this the best way to encounter God’s presence?
From Eden to Egypt, the Torah offers a variety of places of encounter, but it looks as if Joseph went through them all: from his little paradise at home to the famine in Egypt. It is as if the whole Torah is ultimately wrapped up in one single life story, in which God himself says nothing at all.
Dr. Annette M. Boeckler is lecturer in liturgy and Bible at Leo Baeck College and responsible for its library. She is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue.