Parashat Vayeshev

God Was In That Text

It is important to seek God in times of fortune, and to hear the divine voice in our texts.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies. Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

God's presence in our world is truly in the eye of the beholder. While there are times we feel an acute absence of God in our lives, there are also times that we are keenly aware of God's Presence. More often than not, it is in times of distress and tragedy that we turn to be discovered by God rather than in times of blessing.

Our patriarch Jacob is the quintessential model of such relationship. When Jacob leaves home and again when he is about to confront his brother Esau after 20 years, Jacob prays to God--for protection and blessing. Yet when we arrive at this week's parashah, Parashat Vayeshev, and read the opening lines of the Torah reading--namely that "Jacob was now settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan"--one would expect Jacob to utter some prayer of thanksgiving. After pulling through tragedy after tragedy (stealing the blessing from his brother Esau, fleeing home, suffering from the deceit of his uncle Laban, wrestling with a mysterious assailant, and living through the rape of his daughter Dinah), one would expect at a minimum an acknowledgment of God's work in his life, especially when he is settled.

Where is God?

Sadly, the entire opening chapter of Parashat Vayeshev contains not one mention of God. We know God is acting in the background, but at same time, there is no explicit reference to God. So where and how do we find God?

The rabbis are masterful in not only finding God in Torah but literally hearing the voice of God in the text. So, though our patriarch Jacob is somewhat neglectful, the rabbis do teshuvah [repentance] on his behalf. As close readers of Torah, the rabbis of the midrash find God in a place that we would least expect God. Jacob naively requests that his favored son Joseph check on the welfare of his brothers. Joseph seeks his brothers out with the help of an anonymous man who sends him to Dotan. Upon his approach, his brothers scheme, declaring, "Here comes that dreamer. Now, come and let us kill him and we will cast him into one of the pits and we will say a wild beast ate him and we will see what becomes of his dreams" (Genesis 37:20-21).

Rashi, the prolific 12th century commentator quotes a compelling midrash of Rabbi Yitzhak who comments, "This verse declares 'explain me,' and it is God who says the latter part of the verse. They [the brothers] say 'let us kill him' and the verse ends 'we will see what happens to his dreams'--that is to say, God says, 'we will see if my decree prevails or theirs. And it is impossible to say that the brothers say the latter part of this verse because by virtue of killing their brother Joseph, they know full well that his dreams will be nullified."

Hearing God's Voice

Precisely where one would least expect to find God, we the readers not only find God but are privileged to hear the voice of God speaking to us from the Torah.

Two lessons (at least) are to be derived from our parashah this week. First is learning the value of communication with God, not only in times of need but also in times of fortune. Our patriarch Jacob, upon becoming settled, would have done well to express his gratitude to God. Second is the importance of being a deliberate reader of Torah. We have the ability, if we read sensitively and carefully enough, to literally hear the voice of God speaking to us through text. In numerous places of Torah, if we are attentive, we can hear God not only speaking to our ancestors but also to us. For God's presence is not only in the heavens; it is here, on earth--in our own midst.

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Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

A Wexner Fellow ordained in 1999 by the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz is the senior rabbinic fellow in JTS's KOLLOT: Voices of Learning program.