One thought preoccupied me as I made my way to the weekly session of the class I was teaching on basic Jewish concepts in the book of Genesis. I knew that this was the next-to-last class and I would soon have to say goodbye to Leon, Richard, and Simon.
When I entered, the room was empty. One by one, they came in and, although it may have been my imagination, I perceived a certain sadness on their faces. I said, “Okay, guys, what’s up? I can tell there’s something on your mind.”
One by one, they responded. It turns out they had been in touch with each other during the week since the last session. They had discussed the impending end of the course; their other topic was a basic Jewish concept they unanimously agreed was a central teaching of the reading assignment for that week: the Torah portion Vayigash.
“We called to share our feelings about the course ending,” said Simon. “But we also shared the passage in this week’s readings that surprised us and that we all are convinced is perhaps the most major Jewish concept that we had yet encountered in this course.”
Leon added, “We unanimously agreed we would be interested in extending the course beyond the book of Genesis. The main reason is because of the huge lesson 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.”
Richard went on to describe the class’s “discovery.”
“Do you know what Joseph told his brothers again and again? That it was not they who were responsible for selling him into slavery and for the years of imprisonment and exile he had suffered,” said Richard. “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 this was the first time this message is explicitly stated in 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 classroom arguments with textual evidence, 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 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 I also felt the need to address the approaching end of this wonderful learning experience.
“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 told my students, and then congratulated them 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 Ten Commandments.
I explained that it was 1,000 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 then shared the thinking of a much more contemporary rabbinic figure, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, whom I had been privileged to meet. I told them about his book, God, Man and History.
“Berkovits has a central thesis in his approach to Judaism,” I said. “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.”
The basic message: “God cares about the world, and therefore man should as well.”