Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayigash 5763/ Decembeer 14, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Vayigash 5763/ Decembeer 14, 2002

The Ways of G-d and Man
Amos Hakham

Joseph's placating words to his brothers near the end of the story are similar to what he had said to them at a previous encounter, with the addition of certain elements required by the exigencies of the moment: "Have no fear! Am I a substitute for G-d? Besides, although you intended me harm, G-d intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result-the survival of many people" (Gen. 50:19-20). Earlier, he had said, "Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves" (Gen. 45:5), meaning, as we might put it today, "Do not have pangs of conscience." Joseph knew that they felt such pangs from having heard what they were saying-words that led him to cry the first time: "Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no head as he pleaded with us" (Gen. 42:21); but at that time, Joseph did not say that they should not fear his vengeance, since the circumstances made that patently clear. After Jacob's death, however, the brothers feared retribution, and therefore Joseph said to them, "Have no fear! Am I a substitute for G-d?"

The underlying intentions of this remark become clear when we note that Jacob used the same expression [in Hebrew, although rendered somewhat differently in the New JPS Translation] when answering Rachel's complaint that he had not given her any children: "Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, ‘Can I take the place of G-d, who has denied you fruit of the womb?'" (Gen. 30:2). Jacob was essentially saying to Rachel, "I am not entitled, nor am I able, to do anything contrary to G-d's plan that denies you fruit of the womb." Joseph, Rachel's son, who was born into the world notwithstanding Jacob's words, was hinting to his brothers by the use of similar phrases, as if to say to them, "My father Jacob did not take action against the working of G-d, even though it was not to the benefit of my mother Rachel; all the more so, I, Rachel's son, will not do bad to the son's of Jacob, contrary to the good G-d has done."

Moreover, the previous time Joseph only mentioned the deeds of his brothers but did not mention their thoughts at all, since he intended that they not feel any sense of guilt. He cast his words in such a way as to imply that his brothers were nothing but a tool in the hand of G-d, carrying out His plan. But this time he as much as said to them, "You deserve to be punished for your thoughts, but since G-d intervened and turned your evil designs for the better, I shall not take it upon myself to interfere with G-d's will, and I shall continue to treat you well. Therefore, do not fear punishment."


Scripture says, "Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them," indicating that these were words of consolation and peace, and that they should not be looked at too closely or used to draw conclusions regarding divine providence and its relationship to human actions and free will. This, indeed, is the way of Scripture in general, to speak of matters of faith in statements which accord with the dictates of the moment and the nature of the audience, rather than setting out philosophic axioms. Nevertheless, we ought to take a closer look at the ways of G-d and Man as implied in Joseph's statement, without getting into the nitty gritty of medieval philosophical formulations.

The straightforward meaning of these verses (45:5-8) and of other statements in the Bible is that human beings generally act according to their own will and inclination, and that events follow the laws of nature; but on a different plane there is G-d, acting behind the scenes. Sometimes He turns things around so that an evil person receives retribution for his crime, as Joseph's brothers said: "Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no head as he pleaded with us" (Gen. 42:21).

In the Bible, gentiles as well accept the notion that the wicked are punished for their bad deeds, as we see in Abimelech's words to Isaac: "One of the people might have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us" (Gen. 26:10). Joseph sought to persuade Potiphar's wife-a non-Jewess-- not to make him sin, entreating, "How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before G-d?" (Gen. 39:9). With all the difference between our patriarchs' faith in G-d and the faith of the people among whom they lived, nevertheless both shared the belief that abiding by the dictates of morality, law and justice classified a man as one who was G-d-fearing (yare elohim) and was rewarded, whereas bad deeds brought on punishment. Prior to disclosing his identity to them, Joseph assured his brothers, "for I am a G-d-fearing man" (Gen. 42:18). Koheleth's pronouncement in a later generation can be taken as an accurate reflection of the belief of all peoples in the time of the patriarchs: "For I am aware that ‘It will be well with those who revere G-d since they revere Him, and it will not be well with the scoundrel..., because he does not revere G-d'" (Eccles. 8:12-13). When an unforeseen tragedy befalls a person, then he is likely to suspect that it is an act of G-d, intended to punish him. He might have such a suspicion but still cannot be certain of it. Thus, when the brothers found their money in their bags, at first they were frightened and said, "What is this that G-d has done to us?" (Gen. 42:28). But later, Jacob suggested, "perhaps it was a mistake" (Gen. 43:12). In other words, perhaps it was a human error and not an act of G-d.

Sometimes G-d acts within a person, making him think certain thoughts and do certain deeds. A person might think he is acting on his own initiative and for his own purposes, but the deeper truth is that the person's thoughts and acts are directed by G-d for a different, sometimes even diametrically opposed end. This occurs especially with kings. According to the words of wisdom in Proverbs 21:1, "Like channeled water is the mind of the king in the Lord's hand; He directs it to whatever He wishes." So too Isaiah's prophecy to Assyria: "Ha! Assyria, rod of My anger" (Is. 10:5ff). The essence of this prophecy was that the king of Assyria was nothing but a tool in G-d's hand, like an axe in the hand of the wood-chopper. But the king of Assyria was not aware of this and boasted that his heroism and wisdom were what led him to be victorious and conquer so many kingdoms; for this, the king of Assyria was destined to be severely punished. The same factor was at play in hardening the Pharaoh's heart not to let the Israelites go. Namely, that Pharaoh be convinced by his understanding of the circumstances that he should not let the Israelites go, and that it not occur to him that he might be mistaken.

Let us return to the subject at hand – the sale of Joseph by his brothers. Joseph said to them, "So, it was not you who sent me here, but G-d," and these words follow upon: "Now, do not be distressed ... because you sold me hither; it was to save life that G-d sent me ahead of you" (Gen. 45:5). What Joseph meant by this was, "It might appear that you sold me, but in truth I was not sold, but rather sent on a mission by G-d, and you were only a tool in the hands of G-d, by which He carried out His mission, without your knowing or sensing what you were doing." Clearly the Psalmist interpreted Joseph's words the same way, and therefore said in poetic parallel phrases, "He sent ahead of them a man/ Joseph, sold into slavery" (Ps. 105:17). In other words, the messenger of G-d was sent by means of Joseph being sold into slavery.

With all this, we are avoiding a difficult question: after all, the brothers plotted to do Joseph evil, and even if they did not kill him but only sold him, they surely assumed that he would die of hard labor, as Reuben said to them, before they learned that Joseph was alive: "Now comes the reckoning for his blood" (Gen. 42:22). Did they not deserve to be punished for plotting to do evil? Joseph, after revealing whom he was to them, clearly avoided alluding to this problem and did not mention their evil intention. But when he spoke to his brothers after Jacob had died he did mention their intentions to do him harm (Gen. 50:20). Did he mean by this to say that since G-d intended it for good, after the fact even their evil thoughts were turned for the good, and therefore they need not fear punishment at all?
We do not go along with such a far-reaching view. Joseph said to his brothers that he would not punish them but would continue to be good to them, since that was clearly G-d's will. But Joseph did not say that G-d Himself would not punish them in some manner or other. Indeed, close examination of the entire story of the Israelite's descent to Egypt and their bondage there shows that Divine Providence works in ways beyond the comprehension of the people involved in those events. After the fact, we understand that the sale of Joseph and the good that stemmed from it were no more than stages in the Divine plan to fulfill what had been said to Abraham in the Covenant of the Pieces-"and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years" (Gen. 15:13).

Further, Jacob's distress over Joseph's disappearance was his punishment for having favored his beloved son Joseph over his other children. Joseph was sold into slavery as punishment for tattling on his brothers to his father (Gen. 37:2). In other words, from the point of view of these individuals, they received retribution for their deeds. Indeed, the bondage in Egypt as a whole can be viewed as the punishment of all the brothers-the tribes of Israel--for selling Joseph into slavery. It is worth comparing the words of the Psalmist: "Joseph, sold into slavery. His feet were subjected to fetters (le'eved nimkar Yosef, innu bakevel raglav); an iron collar was put on his neck (barzel ba'ah nafsho)" (Ps. 105:17-18) with the words of the Torah, "and they shall be enslaved and oppressed (va'avadum ve'innu otam)" (Gen. 15:13), and "but you the Lord took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace (mikkur ha-barzel)" (Deut. 4:20). Indeed, Hannah's words, "For the Lord is an all-knowing G-d; by Him actions are measured" (I Sam. 2:3), may be taken as a summary view of these issues of theodicy and Man's actions which we have been discussing.