Without Me

December 15, 2012

Early in my career, I was fortunate to be invited to join the Board of SAMMinistries, a local non-profit in service to the homeless. I vividly recall my first Board meeting, midway through the organization’s fiscal year. I noticed a budget line of $500,000 in planned income from a corporate campaign. I could see that the amount raised to date was $0, so I inquired about fundraising plans. I had asked the wrong question at my first Board meeting. The Board Chair saved me. He responded by asking a silent prayer for the corporate campaign.

That incident reminds me of a beloved passage from Gates of Prayer: “Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends upon us.” More than one commentator has quipped: “Most people act is if everything depended upon God, and pray as if everything depends upon humanity.” When the Board Chair asked prayer for the corporate campaign, I worried that the organization would act as if everything depended on God, and would fail to execute its sacred mission for the homeless.

But I was wrong. The staff and volunteers of SAMMinistries – for decades before me, and surely for long after I am gone – work hard every day to bring hope to the homeless.

So what about that prayer for the corporate campaign? Well, income at the end of that fiscal year was still $0. Overall, though, the organization didn’t run a deficit. A more modest projection was proposed for a first-time corporate campaign the next year, and that budget was met. Perhaps the prayer for the campaign was answered after all: answered by the people praying, who became God’s agents in bringing about the result we sought from the Almighty.

We Reform Jews often scoff at prayers asking God to achieve a goal so tangible as success on a test, a good year for sales, or income from a non-existent corporate campaign. These targets must be met through our own hard work. Joseph, though, suggests a more humble approach.

Brought before Pharaoh to interpret dreams, Joseph’s reputation precedes him. “I’m told you can hear a dream and provide its interpretation,” Pharaoh says. Joseph replies with one word, perhaps the most important single word in the whole Torah, one Hebrew word so important that it requires two English words in translation. Joseph says, biladai, “without me.’ “Without me, God will see to Pharaohs welfare.” Even if I were not here, God would provide the dream’s interpretation. God will save Egypt and its neighbors from the ravage from the famine. God will save the Children of Israel. God will answer, “without me.”

Don’t misunderstand. Joseph doesn’t just pray for an answer to fall down like rain, or manna, from heaven. Instead, he hears the dream and interprets it. He suggests a plan for saving during the years of plenty, preparation for the lean years. He even executes that plan personally, overseeing Pharaoh’s acquisition of crops and land, the building of store houses, and distribution during the famine.

Joseph, like those staff and volunteers at SAMMinistries, does the hard work. Even though the Egyptians exalt him, he humbly insists that the credit belongs to God.

The end of the story is less well known. After the drama of his brothers’ arrival in Egypt, at the very end of Genesis, after the death of their father Jacob, Joseph’s brothers fear for their lives. With their father gone, they wonder if Joseph will at last exact revenge upon the dastardly siblings who sold him into slavery in their youth. Joseph maintains the faith he had proclaimed to Pharaoh, telling his brothers: “Though you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result, the survival of many people.”

You and I would do well to learn from Joseph.

When we achieve success, when we exceed those annual productivity projections, when our students demonstrate that they have absorbed our teaching, when we ace that exam, we have a tendency to credit ourselves, our own talents, and our diligence. Joseph reminds us: God is the source of our abilities and our inspiration.

Perhaps more important: When we see a problem in this world, brokenness that needs to be fixed, poverty that afflicts our neighbors and war that besets the planet, we tend to think that the problem is too big for us. Life is easier if we enjoy ourselves, if we ignore inconvenient and troubling truths. Joseph reminds us: Human beings are endowed with inestimable gifts. Even in wretched circumstances, we can change the world for the better, and none of us is as beset as Joseph in prison.

Joseph’s career is ultimately that of a public servant, Pharaoh’s Prime Minister, a government official who saves his society. In Joseph’s day, Pharaoh was the embodiment of the nation. When he says, “Without me, God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare,” what he really means is: “I will work for to save Egypt as if everything depended on me; and I will pray for Egypt as if everything depended upon God.”

Thankfully, we in America today do not face a devastating famine. All the same, we too have suffered lean years on the heels of plenty. And now, our nation stands on the precipice of a fiscal cliff. I wonder: What would happen if our leaders possessed Joseph’s courage and his humility?

For starters, they would stop asking: “How best can I get reelected?” “What rhetoric would most energize the base?” “Which party would get blamed, and which would benefit, if we went over the cliff?” Instead, they would proclaim, “Forget about what’s best for me and for my party; this nation could get along without me and without my party.” And together they would act, for the welfare of the country, like Joseph sees to Pharaoh’s well-being, on God’s behalf.

In my pocket, I carry a keychain, given to me by my Mussar teacher, Alan Morinis. On one side is written, “For my sake was the world created.” Human beings possess inestimable power. Each of us is blessed with the talents and the skills and the potential to work to repair this broken world. On the other side, we read, “I am dust and ashes.” Or, to paraphrase Joseph, if I will act as if a better future depends on me, God will see to the world’s welfare, without me.”

Amen.

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