"Abraham's Journey from Ur to Canaan" by József Molnár, 1850
"Abraham's Journey from Ur to Canaan" by József Molnár, 1850

Are you a sage, or a guide? The difference is subtle

Lech Lecha

Genesis 12:1–17:27

Isaiah 40:27–41:16

The stories in the Book of Genesis offer us a great opportunity to view God through an educational paradigm. Educator Jamie McKenzie tells us that “a good teacher knows when to act as ‘Sage on the Stage,’ and when to act as ‘Guide on the Side.’ Because student-centered learning can be time-consuming and messy, efficiency will sometimes argue for the Sage. [But] … when questioning, problem-solving and investigation become the priority classroom activities, the teacher becomes ‘Guide on the Side.’”

So God takes on these roles through the Book of Genesis. In the beginning, God plays the sage on the stage in the creation story. God speaks and creation magically comes into being. And in the story of Noah, God continues in this role — issuing far-reaching edicts, bringing about the great flood and following up with consequences for humanity.

But in this week’s parashah, we find God in a very different role: the guide on the side. In this parashah, God gently and lovingly coaches and advises Avram. But God stops short of actually taking action on his behalf. He does not magically lift Avram up and transport him from Ur Chasdim to the “land that God will show him.”

God’s interaction with human beings changes and progresses. God has moved from being “a sage on the stage,” with Adam, Eve and Noah, to being “a guide on the side” to Avram. Avram is put front and center as a learner. God is focused on “student-centered” learning, as Avram finds his way and God is the guide.

What does it mean when God says to Avram, “And you shall be a blessing?” In answering this question, the rabbis point to the Amidah, the standing prayer that we say three times a day. The first blessing ends with the words “magen Avraham,” the shield of Avraham (as God later changes Avram’s name). When we say this blessing, we emphasize to God, we remind God, that God protected Avraham and that we want and expect that same protection.

The second blessing, known as “gevurot,” or strength, emphasizes God’s power. And so the rabbis point out that the words “And you shall be a blessing” mean that Avraham’s needs come first, that our needs come first, and only then do we mention God’s strength. Even in the Amidah, we find that Avraham comes first, the learner comes first. God is a guide on the side from whom we ask protection.

If the blessing of God’s strength came first in the Amidah, then the blessing would indicate that God’s role as a sage on the stage was more important than the needs of Avraham, or the one who is praying and holding up Avraham as a model of someone who received God’s guidance and protection.

The rabbis in this midrash are telling us that the meaning of “You shall be a blessing” is that Avraham’s needs will come before God’s. Avraham’s need for protection will precede the mention of God’s strength. The rabbis are telling us that there are times in Jewish tradition when God knows to be the sage on the stage — these are the moments of creation and the moments of the flood. But God also knows how to be the guide on the side, and this is God’s function in our parashah this week.

Jamie McKenzie is right. Student-centered learning can be extremely time-consuming and messy. In Avram’s case, it would have a lot easier if God had just picked him up and deposited him where God wanted him. But Avraham investigates and problem-solves and God is the guide on the side.

Jewish tradition teaches us that we are made “btzelem Elohim,” in the image of God. Just as God plays different roles as a sage and a guide, we too have the ability to play both roles in our relationships. And so we ask: When are the times we should be the sage on the stage, and when are the times we need to allow ourselves to be a guide on the side? Are there times in our life when we needed a guide and got a sage instead? How does this play out for us at work? In our families? In our relationships?

May this educational paradigm provide us with yet another way to see God working in the stories of our sacred tradition and to think about what these different models have to offer us in the many roles we play in our lives.

Rabbi Susan Leider
Rabbi Susan Leider

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at sleider@kolshofar.org.