Between the Lines—Va-y'hi

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu

Genesis Rabbah 97:2

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשה צז

ויברך את יוסף ויאמר, ר' ברכיה ואמרי לה בשם ר' יוחנן וריש לקיש, ר' יוחנן אמר לרועה שהוא עומד ומביט בצאנו, ר"ל אמר לנשיא מהלך והזקנים לפניו, על דעתיה דר' יוחנן אנו צריכין לכבודו, על דעתיה דריש לקיש הוא צריך לכבודנו

"The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked": Rabbi Berechiah gave two illustrations in the names of Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, respectively. Rabbi Yochanan said: It was like a shepherd standing and watching his flock. Resh Lakish said: Like a prince who walks along while the elders precede him. On Rabbi Yochanan's view, we need His honor. On the view of Resh Lakish, He needs us to glorify Him.

Really? God needs us to glorify Him?

For those who are familiar with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's seminal work God in Search of Man, this is not an astounding claim. "All of human history as described in the Bible," Heschel writes, "may be summarized in one phrase: God is in search of man." According to Martin Buber, Heschel, and other "covenantal" theologians, however, our relationship with God is not unidirectional, not one in which (as Rabbi Yochanan would have it) God is a shepherd tending a flock of creatures totally dependent on divine mercy and protection. Rather, the relationship is mutual, one in which God needs us as much as we need God.

Of course, the two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In holding both visions of God together, the midrash invites us to see that God is a shepherd and a prince, and that at various times of life we experience God as one or the other. We need God's honor in order to feel our own lives imbued with meaning, in order to feel that our lives are sacred. The idea that God needs us is not only an invitation to seek the divine but also a call to fulfill our own sacred duty. Or, in the words of Rabbi Heschel: "God is in need of man for the attainment of His ends, and religion, as Jewish tradition understands it, is a way of serving these ends, of which we are in need, even though we may not be aware of them, ends which we must learn to feel the need of."