A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 12.17.2020

I’ve been focusing a lot this year on the relationship between faith in God and human action. My own belief system, simply put, has us (human beings) endowed with agency – we are actors in our own drama – and we are guided and informed in our actions by the divine – God/Torah. We get a superb double-dose of this idea this week.

The first is in our Torah portion. The cliff-hanger ending from last week’s sedra picks up with Joseph’s release from prison. The very end of that reading finds Joseph stuck in jail – he has just successfully interpreted the dreams of the baker and butler and he implores the butler to “remember him” to Pharaoh and to help secure his release. But, we are told in the final verse, “the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.”

This emphatic, doubled forgetting is noted by Rashi (11th c., France), who in a well-known comment, explains it thus: “Because Joseph had placed his trust in [the butler] that he should remember him, he was doomed to remain in prison for two years. So it is said (Psalms 40:5) “Happy is the man who makes the Lord his trust and turns not to the arrogant.” In other words, because Joseph took the initiative to try to secure his freedom, and because he did not simply place all his trust in God, God punished him by extending his incarceration by two more years.

This is a remarkable claim. Rashi is suggesting that Joseph should not have acted on his own agency, that he not take reasonable action to apply to Pharaoh to right a wrong. It’s like the joke that everyone knows: as the floodwaters rise, a man claiming to be a person of deep faith first rebuffs his neighbors’ offers of help, then refuses rescue in a row-boat, and finally turns away a helicopter. “God will save me,” he says in each case. Of course, he drowns, and when he arrives at the pearly gates, he scolds God: “I have always been a man of deep faith. Why did you not save me?” “Good grief!” replies God. “I sent you neighbors, a row-boat, and a helicopter! What else did you want me to do?”

There is convincing evidence that Joseph is a man of faith. He references God on numerous occasions. And this makes Rashi’s claim all the more troubling: even as people of faith, should we not act on our own behalf, trusting only in God to save us from all ills? Is this not akin to saying “I don’t need to wear a mask – God will protect me from COVID-19?” Joseph takes this very initiative, attempting to perpetuate the human-divine partnership. The tired old adage rings true: God helps those who help themselves.

Which brings me to the second “dose:” the COVID-19 vaccine. We witnessed some incredibly emotional scenes this week as the first doses of vaccine were administered. After ten months of a deadly and frightening, era-defining, life-altering pandemic, we have (in one respect, at least) reached the top of the hill. As the rollout of the vaccine begins in earnest, we can all, finally, see the light – the eighth candle! – that will close this dreadful chapter of our lives. While we must remain vigilant about ALL of our protocols – social distancing, mask-wearing, and hand-washing – we have, for the first time in nearly a year, cause for optimism, and even joy! And it is human action – the historic work of epidemiologists who developed the vaccines in a dizzying time-span – that is responsible for this feat.

As a religious community, our tendency is to seek God’s presence in human affairs. Though God does not appear as an “actor” in the Joseph story, we nevertheless see the hand of God: last week, for example, Joseph meets the mysterious “man” who directs him to his brothers in Dothan, allowing the narrative to advance. But in this week’s parasha, and throughout the Joseph story, Joseph’s repeated references and attributions to God (to Potiphar’s wife, to the baker and the butler, to Pharaoh, to his brothers) are evidence not of God, but of faith. Joseph was right to act; he understands, as a “man of God,” that he has a crucial role to play in the unfolding of his own story.

Perhaps he learned this lesson from his father’s experience. If you recall from a couple of weeks ago, as Jacob returns from Haran and learns that his brother Esau is advancing with a small army, he prays to God to deliver him “from the hand of my brother.” I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant,” he says. “With my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. The staff, I argue, is the staff of faith – when he left home, he had nothing but his belief that God would help him. The “two camps” are what he made of himself – he is, in that regard, a “self-made man.” There, again, is the dance between the human and the divine, between faith and action.

Joseph becomes a master of this partnership. Interpreting Pharaoh’s doubled dream of cows and ears of grain, he says: “As for Pharaoh having had the same dream twice, it means that the matter has been determined by God, and that God will soon carry it out. Accordingly, let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt.” This is God’s plan, he says. Now let humans (actually, me!) carry it out.

For many of us (not all, I acknowledge without judgement), faith is the oil that keeps the engine of human endeavor lubricated and running. I thank God for the scientists and researchers and doctors who performed an act of true heroism over the last year in developing the vaccines. I have faith that the government will be able to muster the human resources needed to distribute it successfully over the next many months.

Better times ahead! Praise God!

And with that, I wish you all a Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful, blessed, and hope-filled Shabbat, and a happy end-of-Chanukah. Let the lights shine bright tonight!

Rabbi Sam Levine