So often it would seem that the focus within American Judaism is on impressive edifices, building funds, synagogue attendance and business protocols – and why not? These values merely mirror those of our everyday lives. Sadly Judaism appears to have forgotten the purpose of Jewish identity. We were not called to be Jews in order to spread borscht belt humor, or believe it or not to give the world the perfect bagel. We were called, and are still enjoined, to be a people of priests, a holy nation. Our mission in the world is to embody a communal life that will concretize God’s highest values, holiness, learning, sensitivity and justice. We are called to be a living testimony of the faithfulness of the Creator, who maintains His creation in love. As we pray every Shabbat, we are summoned to be “servants of the Holy Blessing One.”
But how can we as Jews serve God if our leaders and teachers are so uncomfortable speaking of God? Several years ago I was a member of a clergy association in a town where Shuvah Yisrael met. Each month we met at a different church or synagogue. One month we met at one of the member synagogues. We were all given a tour of the rather impressive facility. The Rabbi then told us of an upcoming trip that they would be making to “Jewish New York.” The synagogue had contracted three large coaches to make the trip. When asked if they would be able to fill the buses, the rabbi replied, “My people will go anywhere I tell them to except the sanctuary.” He then bemoaned the fact that most members rarely attended worship on a regular basis. I was not surprised though; this rabbi had always seemed uncomfortable with routine mention of God, and public prayer. In fact he seemed far more comfortable with speaking about the latest politico than he did about the spiritual issues at the core of our communal existence. So if the world we occupy is not suitable for God, why do we earth dwellers need Him? Since the rabbi had relegated God to the sanctuary on Saturday, why then would he expect his congregants to risk the same incarceration?
The patriarch Joseph provides a much better role model of the committed Jew. After being sold into slavery to the house of Potiphar the Egyptian, we are told, “the Lord was with Joseph.” This statement seems somewhat perplexing in that it seems so obvious. As the protagonist of his own biblical story, one would only assume this to be true. So what else might the narrator be trying to tell us?
According to Rabbi Huna in Midrash B’reisheet Rabbah, Joseph whispered God’s name whenever he came in and whenever he went out.” The idea is not only that God took and interest in Joseph, but more so that Joseph continuously cultivated a consciousness of God’s presence. By regularly invoking God’s love, Joseph trained himself to perceive the miraculous among the ordinary, to experience wonder in the midst of the mundane. By whispering God’s name he allowed his own deeds speak louder than words testifying of God’s ever present love.
Rashi interprets the phrase differently. According to the great medieval commentator, “ the name of God was often in his mouth.” So Rashi believed that Joseph spoke about God, not only to God. Joseph’s willingness to speak openly of his relationship with God, his love for and God and his eagerness to serve God encouraged others to consider their own relationship with God. By speaking openly of God’s love for humanity and his own reciprocal devotion, Joseph challenged the conventions of those around him, provoking them to rethink their own assumptions about the morality and the order of the universe.
Both interpretations, one of quiet piety, the other of a willingness to speak of God openly and frequently has a place in Judaism and in our faith life. Sometimes we best testify to God’s loving care by simply embodying that love in the acts of caring for the homeless, and visiting the sick and elderly. In such instances our hands are the hands of God and can speak much more eloquently than our mouths.
But there is also a time to speak about God and to speak up for God. Of course we speak about God at our Torah studies and services. But do we take the time to thank God before and after meals upon rising up and before going to bed? Would our children be surprised to find us praying with regularity? Do most of our articulated dreams and values begin and end with God’s clear values?
Also are there times that it is not enough to merely care for the homeless and the needy, but is there an appropriate time to speak out for them as well, to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves? Like Joseph can we take a stand for those who have been forgotten by society and even vilified by those in power? Can it be said of us, “the Lord was with _____?” Our Judaism can be one that concretizes and enlivens our ancestral love for our Creator and Liberator. Then perhaps we can pronounce with conviction, on Shabbat and every day, “Ana avda de-Kud’sha b’rikh hu: We are the servants of the Holy Blessing One.”