In her book Traveling Mercies, Some Thoughts on Faith, American novelist Anne Lamott writes:
I was remembering an old story the other day about a man getting drunk at a bar in Alaska. He’s telling the bartender how he recently lost whatever faith he’d had after his twin-engine plane crashed in the tundra.
“Yeah,” he says bitterly. “I lay there in the wreckage, hour after hour, nearly frozen to death, crying out for God to save me, praying for help with every ounce of my being, but he didn’t raise a finger to help. So I’m done with that whole charade.”
“But,” said the bartender, squinting an eye to him, “you’re here. You were saved.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” says the man. “Because finally some dang Eskimo came along . . .”
This story made me wonder what Joseph said as he lay at the bottom of that pit, awaiting what his brothers would do with him. Did he scream at his brothers to release him? Did he curse his brothers for putting him there? Did he pray to G-d for help? Curiously, the Torah is silent about Joseph as he stood in the pit, not knowing what his fate would be. He must have been terrified. One would think this would have been the perfect situation for G-d to speak to Joseph and to allay his fears. This would have been the perfect time for G-d to whisper to Joseph that G-d was with him. After all, did not G-d speak to Abraham, his great-grandfather, when Abraham set off on the dangerous journey from his native land to the Land of Canaan? G-d says to Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation…. I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you.” Did G-d not speak to Isaac, Joseph’s grandfather, when famine came to the Land of Canaan? “Stay in the Land which I point out to you,” G-d says to Isaac, “and do not descend to Egypt…… I will be with you and bless you…..I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven.” Did not G-d speak to Jacob, Joseph’s father, when he fled from his home to an uncertain future? G-d says to Jacob, “Remember I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will be you back to this land.” If ever there was a person who could use those words, it is Joseph in the pit. But…..nothing. G-d neither comforts him, nor speaks to him. In Joseph’s anguish, G-d offers neither solace or encouragement. What does Joseph feel at that time? Does he feel like the man in the story – that he is through with the whole charade of religion, because G-d doesn’t seem to lift a finger to help?
As we know, Joseph is sold into slavery and is bought by a man named Potiphar. Potiphar takes a liking to Joseph and puts him in charge of his household. Joseph is a handsome young man, and Potiphar’s wife also takes a liking to Joseph. But Joseph resists her advances. He explains to her, “My master places all that he owns in my hands. He has withheld nothing from me, except you, for you are his wife. How could I then do this wicked thing?” And here we get an insight into Joseph’s character. Joseph could have stopped at “How could I then do this wicked thing”, but he adds, “and sin before G-d.” Now we understand, for the first time, that although G-d was silent when Joseph needed G-d most, Joseph has not abandoned his faith in G-d.
Potiphar’s wife, however, accuses Joseph of trying to seduce her, and he is imprisoned. One would think that by now, Joseph’s faith in G-d would be shaken. After all, his life has been threatened by his own brothers, he has been sold into slavery, unfairly accused of violating his master’s trust in him, and, as a reward for his virtue, he is thrown into prison. There he finds himself in the company of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker. Each has a dream. When Joseph asks one morning why each seems so depressed they reply, “We had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.” Joseph replies, “Surely G-d can interpret! Tell me your dreams.”
Despite his continued misfortune, even though G-d still has not said one word of consolation or reassurance to him, made one utterance to mitigate his fear and his pain and his suffering, Joseph believes that G-d is operating in the background. This pattern will continue. When Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, he will make certain that Pharaoh understands that it is only through G-d’s grace that Joseph is able to interpret his dreams. Pharaoh recognizes that “the spirit of G-d” is with Joseph and appoints him second in command over all of Egypt. Finally, Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery with the words, “It was not you who sent me here, but G-d, in order to insure your survival and save your lives.”
In this respect, we can identify with Joseph far easier than with the Patriarchs or Matriarchs, to whom G0d speaks at crucial junctures in their lives. We too face the challenges in our lives without G-d speaking to us directly. We too must maintain our faith in G-d in the absence of G-d’s forthright and immediate presence. We may wonder — is G-d there for us, is G-d listening? There is a beautiful song that I have taught the children on Sunday mornings that addresses this question. It is by musicians and Jewish educators Peter and Ellen Allard.
Are you listening G-d, are you really there/ Are you listening G-d/ How do I know you care?
Are you listening G-d/ When I say my prayers?/ Are you listening G-d, are you listening?
The song goes on to ask if G-d is listening when we wake in the morning, when we go through our day, when we go to sleep. The song answers the question in this way:
I am listening G-d, when I say my prayers/ I am listening G-d, and yes I know you care/ I am listening G-d and I KNOW you’re there/ I am listening G-d, I am listening.
As it says in our prayer, “Hear, O Israel” – we are urged to listen to the message in our prayers and our scripture, for it is there that G-d speaks to us. We need to pay attention to presence of G-d in our lives and to the miracles that are around us.