God’s Role in History
One thought, and one thought only, preoccupied me that evening while I was in the car on the way to the weekly session of the class I was leading on the subject of basic Jewish concepts in the book of Genesis. I knew that this was the next to last class in the series and that soon I would have to be saying goodbye to Leon, Richard, and Simon. I wondered whether they too were similarly preoccupied, anticipating that the class would soon be over.
This time, the room was empty when I entered. Slowly, one by one, the three came into the room and, although it may have been my imagination, I perceived a certain sadness on their faces. Of course, I challenged them and said, “Okay, guys, what’s up? I can tell by the expression on your faces that there’s something on your mind. Want to share it?”
One by one, they responded. It turns out that they had been in touch with each other during the week since the last session. There were two topics that they had been discussing. One, indeed, was their awareness of the impending end of the course. The other topic was the basic Jewish concept that they unanimously, for the first time, agreed was a central teaching of the reading assignment for that week: Genesis 44:18-47:27, the Torah portion of Vayigash.
“We called each other just to share our feelings about the approaching end of the course,” said Simon. “But in our conversation, we also shared the passage in this week’s readings which surprised us and that we all were convinced was perhaps the most major Jewish concept that we had yet encountered in this course.”
Leon added, “We unanimously agreed that we would be interested in extending the course beyond the book of Genesis. Partly, it is because we enjoy interacting with you, Rabbi Weinreb!” Teachers rarely get compliments from students, so I must confess that I relished this one, especially coming from the usually critical Leon.
But then he continued: “The main reason why we don’t want to see the course end is because of the huge lesson that we discovered this week. We each came away from our readings with a new insight into God and the role He plays in our lives. We learned something we had simply never thought of before.”
Richard shouted at his two classmates: “Why don’t we simply tell the Rabbi what it is that we discovered? And if you guys don’t do it, I will!”
I knew that Richard would not let it go at that, but would proceed to describe the class’ “discovery.” And so he did.
“Do you know what Joseph told his brothers again and again? He told them that it was not they who were responsible for selling him into slavery, and for all the years of imprisonment and exile that he had suffered. Rather it was the Almighty Himself who was responsible. Not only does that relieve the brothers’ guilt and shame, but it makes a powerful statement about the nature of God. It tells us, and we all agreed that this was the first time this message is explicitly stated in the entire book of Genesis, that God is not just the God of nature. He is also the God of human affairs, the God of history.”
Simon, who habitually sought to bolster the arguments in the classroom with textual evidence, began to read from his Chumash:
“And now be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither; for God did send me before you to preserve life… So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God; and He hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:5-8)” I was in a state of conflict. On the one hand, I was ready to launch into a lecture about God’s role in human affairs, and to stress how fundamental that view of God’s role is to the Jewish faith. But on the other hand, I felt the need to address the approaching dénouement of this wonderful learning experience, and to comment on the fact that next week would indeed be our last session.
I chose to begin with the latter issue: “I know that you are all concerned about the sad fact that there is only one session left in this course after this week. I would like you to consider what actions we might take to deal with that concern. But I suggest that we reserve that discussion for our concluding session next week. Perhaps we can find some solution to the dilemma posed by the fact that a class is about to end.”
I then continued to congratulate the class upon identifying a truly basic Jewish concept. I reinforced what they had discovered on their own by asking them to refer to Exodus 20:2, the opening statement of the 10 Commandments.
I explained that it was 1000 years ago that the great Jewish poet and philosopher, Yehudah HaLevi, noted that the Ten Commandments begin, “I am the Lord thy God who brought you forth from the land of Egypt…” It does not begin, “I am the Lord thy God who created heaven and earth…” God reveals Himself to the Jewish people as a God who intervenes in political history.
Simon looked especially pleased. “Not only did the three of us agree, but you found us an ally in a medieval rabbi.”
I jumped at the opportunity to share the thinking of a much more contemporary rabbinic figure, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, whom I was privileged to meet in person. I told them about his book, God, Man and History.
“Berkovits has a central thesis in his approach to Judaism,” I stated. “It is that God cares about the world, and therefore man should as well. If there is a message for us in this week’s Torah portion, it is that the Almighty brought Joseph down to Egypt, but Joseph made use of the opportunity to provide for Egyptian society as a whole, and for his father and brothers in particular.”
Leon brought the conversation to a conclusion: “God brought us to this class. I am willing to concede to that. But now it is up to us to somehow make sure that this rare learning experience extends beyond next week.”
I thanked Leon for that statement and asked him and the two others to search next week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, with an eye for clues to our dilemma: how could we perpetuate the educational process that we have been engaged in for the past many weeks? How could we make the learning last?
Tune in next week, dear reader, for “the rest of the story.”