How Do You See God?

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By Rabbi Chaim Galfand

Parshat Vayechi

”Meaning” is often subjective. Imagine that you stand with a group in front of an abstract painting by Pollock or Rothko. You’d agree there was a painting on the wall, but it might mean something different to each one of you.

The concept of reality is like that, for we can’t point to reality and say “There it is!” (the way we can with, say, a painting). Reality is what we make of it. Similarly, we may each have our own image of God. Ask dozens of people to finish the statement “God is …,” and you’re apt to get many different answers as each attributes personal meaning to God. The range of views of God is wide.

Five Torah portions comprise the Joseph stories. They take us from birth to sibling rivalry to his sale into slavery and, finally, to his rise to power. And where’s God? A few verses from the end of Genesis the punchline finally comes: Joseph, in effect, says to his brothers, “You thought you were behind this, but you weren’t. It was God all along!” What drama.

We start reading Exodus next week. There, God is front and center — prominent and powerful. God talks to Moses and Aaron. The bush burns. God delivers plagues and the sea splits. It’s an entirely different depiction and experience of God.

And in three months, we’ll return to Purim and the scroll of Esther where God isn’t even mentioned. Yes, Esther initially resists telling the king of Haman’s plans until Mordechai asserts that deliverance will come from another place if Esther is silent.

The Hebrew word for place may be taken as an allusion to God or used in place of God. Perhaps that inexplicit and almost cryptic mention of God alludes to a third, veiled way of seeing the divine in our lives.

Lastly, the Chanukah narrative we recalled two weeks ago referenced the power of heaven in partnership with people and two elements bolstered our tradition: The recitation of the al hanissim (on account of the miracles) paragraph provided the opportunity to thank God for a military miracle and the recitation of the haneirot hallalu (these lights) paragraph acknowledged the candles as a sacred reminder of the wonders and salvation wrought by God through Mattathias and the other priests.

Even while omitted from the biblical canon, this example of God’s presence is celebrated and written into our Chanukah liturgy.

Joseph, Exodus, Esther and Maccabees — four very different yet emblematic examples. They empower us to think of God and his presence in the world. Moreover, they remind us that many perspectives abound and that no one has truth in their back pocket.

All the world’s a stage in this drama that we call life and there are many roles for God. He may be supremely visible in every scene — commanding center stage as in Exodus. We may have a sense that God is waiting in the wings the whole time even though he never makes an actual appearance — as with Esther.

We may later understand that God was in fact a member of the cast and we simply didn’t realize it at the time — acknowledging it later, as in the case of Chanukah. And we may not know until the last few lines are spoken that God was, in fact, the central character all along — like the revelation that comes from Joseph at the very end of this week’s parshah.

Menachem Mendel, the Kotzker Rebbe, was identified as a genius from a very young age. His elder brother was occasionally jealous of the attention his brother received. This elder brother tried to trip up the 5-year-old Menachem Mendel with a difficult question: “If you’re so smart, tell me, where is God?” He expected little boy to answer, “In the sky” or “In heaven.” The little boy smiled at his brother and said, softly, “Wherever we let him in.”

I always smile when I think of an analogy I first heard at the Jewish Theological Seminary from Rabbi Neil Gillman, of blessed memory. Imagine 15 dots, all numbered consecutively, which can be connected to form a simple picture. Now imagine an infinite number of dots with no numbers: That is God. Perhaps that’s the case here. God exists wherever we choose to recognize him. God goes unnoticed unless we connect the dots. It’s a tremendous responsibility. It’s also a tremendous opportunity. l

Rabbi Chaim Galfand is the school rabbi for Perelman Jewish Day School. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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