Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Divine Providence is not in Rhode Island / Vayeshev

I have a number of pet peeves, and high on my list are people who, having survived a calamity that took numerous lives, spout out, “God saved me for a reason.” If God saves one, then God causes the death of others. This hubristic and self-absorbed statement implies -- and not too subtly -- that God caused the deaths of those who perished also for a reason.

A discussion of hashgachah (divine providence) emerges in the traditional commentaries on parshat Vayeshev. Hasgachah is the belief that God supervises and determines what happens in our world. Taken to another level, hashgachah pratit (personal divine providence) presumes that God is deeply involved in the day-to-day events and intricacies of our lives. Is that your sense of things?

Rabbi Akiba is said to have taught: Everything is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given… (Pirke Avot 3:19) What on earth does that mean? If all is foreseen, then events are pre-determined -- either by biology or God -- in which case we have no genuine free will.

In parshat Vayeshev, Joseph goes in search of his brothers in Shechem:
One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock in Shechem, Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” [Joseph] answered hineinu/ Here I am. And [his father] said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” (Genesis 37:12-13)
Jacob (called Israel in this passage) sends Joseph to check on his brothers and the flocks. We are not told that Joseph brings food, money, or a message to his brothers. We might wonder then at the real purpose of the trip.

Joseph responds to Jacob, Hineinu/ Here I am. Abraham responds Hineinu when God tells he to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:1). Jacob responds Hineini when God tells him to return to the Land of Israel (Genesis 31:11). Moses answers Hineini when God calls to him from the burning bush (Exodus 3:4). Isaiah responds Hineini to God who is searching for a prophet (Isaiah 6:8). Here, too, Hineini signals that Joseph’s journey has covenantal significant (Genesis 37:12-17)

When [Joseph] reached Shechem, a man (ish) came upon him wandering in the fields. The man (ish) asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” The man (ish) said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: let us go to Dothan.” So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan. (Genesis 37:14-17)

Who is this ish, this man wandering aimlessly around Shechem? Joseph does not describe his brothers to the man, yet the man knows who they are and where they have gone. We are reminded of the ish Joseph’s father Jacob encountered the night before his reunion with Esau. Torah tells us, Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (Genesis 32:25) -- this is the man who wrenches his hip, gives him the new name Israel, and blesses him. Is the ish Joseph meets also an angel or manifestation of God?

Ibn Ezra and Rashbam don’t make that claim. They lean on pshat to tell us that the ish is a wayfarer and the encounter proves Joseph’s fine character in diligently carrying out his father’s request.

Ramban and Rambam, however, ascribe supernatural significance to the encounter. Rambam identifies the ish as an angel. Ramban and others claim the encounter is evidence of God’s hashgachah, the divine plan for the people Israel to go down into Egypt. He writes: “God prepared for [Joseph] a guide who, without him being aware of it, brought him into [his brothers’] hands. And this is what Chazel (our Sages may their memory be for good) meant when they said that these people were angels, for the story… teaches us that God’s will is fulfilled.” Abravanel claims that because God is directing the shots, no one in the story bears responsibility for their behavior because all is God’s will. He adds that at the same time, they all have free will and the events could unfold in another sequence -- but he doesn’t explain how that is possible.

Joseph himself confirms his belief in divine providence when he tells his brothers -- quaking in their sandals, terrified that Joseph will exact revenge on them:
God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:7-8)
In Joseph’s mind, his brothers sold him into slavery so that he could rise to the level of grand vizier and save his family from famine when the drought came. By this thinking, the ish Joseph encounters in Shechem is God’s directional guide.

The Rabbis are deeply invested in divine providence. Midrash tells us: "No blade of grass grows without an angel telling it to 'Grow!'" (Bereishit Rabbah 10:6)

We may reject hashgachah (divine providence) on the macro level -- certainly science and a conviction concerning human free will run strongly counter to hashgachah -- but what about the level of our personal lives? The Rabbis also spoke of hashgachah pratit (personal providence) and many people, including those who would consider themselves modern, scientific folk express the belief that events “happen for a purpose” and that God is directing their lives. How is this consistent with free will, moral responsibility, and science?

Perhaps the claim, “God saved me for a reason” is an emotional reaction to events of great danger and significance, events that take on special meaning to people, such as surviving a hurricane or car crash, being cured of a serious illness, succeeding when failure seemed assured. I would hope that people who utter such words would respond “no” to the question, “And did God specifically designate for death those who perished?”
Our Rabbis said: Even things which you may regard as completely superfluous to the creation of the world, such as fleas, gnats and flies, even they are included in the creation of the world and the Holy One carries out the Divine purpose through everything – even a snake, a scorpion, a gnat or a frog. (Bereishit Rabbah 10:7)
Read another way, we can understand the text to say that everything in the universe can be seen to have purpose in our eyes. That doesn’t mean God is a cosmic puppeteer pulling our strings. Rather, it can be our way of making sense of emotionally overwhelming events. Seeing our lives as purposeful is an excellent way to respond emotionally to trauma, because when we see our lives as purposeful, we can do things that really matter.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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