Do we really want God to guide us, always Yes, for comforts sake

Vayechi
Genesis 47:28-50:26
I Kings 2:1-12

Few pieces of sacred poetry have more evocative power than the 23rd Psalm. It seems to me that the words and imagery of this beloved psalm move a very wide range of people. The psalm speaks directly to the universal longing to feel protected in the midst of life’s challenges; we hear these familiar words and — regardless of our personal theology, our religious practice or our particular stage of spiritual development — we are comforted.

Then, too, many Jews have come to associate the 23rd Psalm with death, often hearing it read at funerals. In the hush that descends on us in the funeral chapel or at the graveside, our intellectual censors are often muted, so that we can be moved by religious poetry without arguing with it or measuring it against what we think we believe in.

To the Ishbitzer rebbe, a 19th century Chassidic rabbi, Jacob’s prayerful words before blessing Joseph, Ephraim and Menashe are reminiscent of the 23rd Psalm. How so? Jacob, on his deathbed, places a hand on each boy’s head and says, “The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day — the Angel who has redeemed me from all harm — Bless the boys … (Genesis 48:15-6).”

At first the rebbe comments that Jacob places himself at a lower spiritual level than his forebears, saying that his father and grandfather were able to walk along with God, whereas he needed to be shepherded by God every day, directing his every action, moment by moment, throughout his life.

On second thought, however, the rebbe says that the way Jacob describes his own relationship with the Eternal is actually superior to that of his forebears. To be directed and protected by God at each moment — and to know that this is true — is actually a higher level of spiritual development than the kind of autonomous functioning that Jacob attributes to Abraham and Isaac.

For the truth, as the rebbe sees it, is that “The Blessed One directs a person continually. This is the prayer of King David (Psalm 23), ‘God is my shepherd, I shall not lack [anything],’ that is, I will not lack the Blessed One’s personal guidance of me (hashgacha). Rather, God will shepherd me continually and I will always recognize that the Blessed One is my shepherd, for the Blessed One, in goodness, directs everything, even when a person turns one’s face away and won’t see or pray. When a person prays a wholehearted prayer, he is answered immediately and he sees that the Blessed One is his shepherd. This is the meaning of ‘I shall not lack,’ namely, that I will not turn my face away from God.” (Mei Hashiloach).

How could it be that subservience to the Divine, dependence on a power greater than ourselves, could be spiritually superior to independence and initiative? To us Americans, who prize autonomy above all, what could be positive about subjugating our own life choices to that which life requires of us?

The truth of life is that we are powerless over most everything. Neither the circumstances of our birth nor the family that forms us in our early years, neither the gifts with which we are endowed nor the vulnerabilities with which we are burdened, are of our own choosing. And, of course, even in this day of breathtaking medical advances, we still have little control over how our bodies will serve us as we age, or how and when we will die.

The rebbe’s language may be objectionable because he seems to suggest that God is a personal being, a cosmic boss who robs us of free choice and makes us mere puppets to divine fancy. Such a God-concept is untenable for many of us. But, absent the anthropomorphic image, is it not true that recognizing our basic powerlessness and making peace with it is the best way to live? Cultivating an appreciative relationship with the powers that actually direct our lives, we can open ourselves to the sense of peace, protection and comfort that our forefather Jacob describes, and of which the Psalmist speaks.

May we come to know the blessing of being shepherded in this life, lacking nothing, having everything we need.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Conservative rabbi, is a spiritual counselor in private practice.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.