In the Jewish cycle of reading the entire Torah (Five Books of Moses) each year, we are just completing the saga of Joseph — Joseph who is favored by his elderly father, whose dreams of grandeur offend his brothers, who is sold into slavery and falsely accused, but who is raised to a high and important position in Egypt. It is quite a saga, and it occupies some four weekly Torah portions.
There are many themes to consider in these stories, but one that is most striking is Joseph’s developing maturity. In the early parts of the story, he has dreams which he interprets as portending personal glory: his brothers’ sheaves bow down to his sheaf, and the sun, moon and 11 stars bow down to him. He reports this to his brothers in a haughty way, and they are angry. As the Torah says, “They hated him for both his dreams and his talking about them.” (Genesis 37.8) He cannot help having the dreams, but his immaturity makes him think that he is center of the dream, and that his future glory is the message. Bragging about this — lording it over his brothers — is not good for family relationships.
Joseph goes through a lot after that. He is sold into slavery, falsely accused by his master’s wife, imprisoned and then forgotten by his only hope for freedom. His is not an easy path.
When he is finally remembered after two years — when Pharaoh needs his dreams interpreted, the Torah reports an amazing maturation. When Pharaoh asks for help by praising Joseph, “I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning,” Joseph refocuses the glory/skill from himself to God: “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” (Genesis 41: 15-16)
Joseph seems to be coming to the awareness that he is not the center of the story — that he is a vessel for Divine Providence — an agent for God’s plans. We do not know when Joseph’s awareness is complete, but, at the end of the story, he expresses it quite clearly. As he says to his brothers, “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50.20). Above and beyond all the family drama, and economic, political and agricultural issues, God has a grander vision and is using human events to pursue it.
The Hebrew term for Divine Providence is Hashgachah Peratit, and it can apply to both large groups and individuals. What is the mission of the Jewish people, or Christianity, or Islam? Is there a holy role to be played by nations — by the United States, or Europe, or the Pacific Rim Nations? Are there perhaps aspects of God’s will that should be pursued by institutions or municipalities or civic organizations? The notion of Divine Providence suggests that we are put on this earth for a purpose — and that God is hoping for our help in advancing divine goals.
One can continue these questions into the private sphere. In addition to whatever we do as part of large groups, what about our roles as individuals? Could we be sent to this world as potential blessings? Could God be setting various problems or challenges in our paths and hoping that we respond with honesty or compassion or righteousness or faithfulness? Could God be hoping that we will manifest godliness when it is needed?
I believe that each one of us is created with godly potential — that each one of can be an angel, an emissary of the divine. My prayer is that we keep our eyes and hearts open for the holy opportunities when we can be the blessings for which we are created.
Rabbi David E. Ostrich is a spiritual leader at Congregation Brit Shalom.