How Do You See God?


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

Similarly, ask dozens of people to finish the statement “God is …” and you’re apt to get different answers. 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 before 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. God talks to Moses and Aaron. The bush burns. God delivers plagues and the sea splits. It’s an entirely different depiction of God.

And in three months, we’ll return to Purim and the scroll of Esther, in which God isn’t even mentioned.

Lastly, the Chanukah narrative we recalled two weeks ago referenced the power of heaven in partnership with people. God’s presence is written into our Chanukah liturgy.

Joseph, Exodus, Esther and Maccabees: four very different yet emblematic examples. They remind us that many perspectives abound and that no one has truth in their back pocket.

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.”

Rabbi Chaim Galfand is the school rabbi for Perelman Jewish Day School in Pennsylvania. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia provided this commentary.

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