How is G-d all-powerful if I have free will? Let Yosef (Joseph) and his brothers tell you all about it.
If there were any Torah portion to display the power of free will, it would be this one. Parashas VaYeishev is a drama of choices. Yosef chooses to tell his brothers all about his dreams of the future, the brothers decide to sell him as a slave, and Pharaoh chooses to invest his trust in a former slave recently emancipated from Egypt’s dungeons. All unlikely. All different agendas. Yet also all part of the same surprising destiny.
Each of these individuals thought that they were acting on their own self-autonomy. However, each of their individual choices turned out to be a vital cog in G-d’s tremendous machine. Are these truths in conflict?
Yosef’s dreams turned out to be prophetic indeed, and each decision made by those who encountered him along the way served to make these dreams come true.
The Brothers’ Choice
Yosef dreamed of twelve sheaves of wheat bowing to a large central sheaf. He dreamed of twelve stars, the moon, and sun, all bowing down to his star in the middle of them all. Needless to say, it might not have been the smartest of moves to share these dreams with his older brothers. Their response was to sell him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites as a slave. (And you think you have sibling rivalry problems?)
However, contrary to the pop-culture myth, Yosef’s brothers had not acted on mean impulse. To the contrary, the Midrash explains that the twelve righteous brothers had a legitimate concern that their youngest brother was destined to try to upturn the leadership structure built into the future Jewish nation.
Just as anarchy in a healthy society is disastrous, a lack of respect for legitimate authority in Judaism benefits no one. Without a good leader, there is no direction. There is no peace. There is no safety. That’s why the legal consequences of rebellion against a heavenly-ordained Jewish king is death.
As far as the brothers knew, Yehuda (Judah), the oldest of the brothers, was to be charged with the Jewish monarchy now and forever. Given this information, Yosef’s dreams seemed to be serious trouble in the making.
By selling Yosef, the brothers were trying to preserve a future that they and their ancestors had worked towards for generations, a future upon which hinged the wellbeing of all of humanity. “Then we shall see what will become of his dreams…” (Beraishis-Genesis 37:20) As far as they could tell, the Jewish People depended on the peaceful reign of the family of Yehuda.
Of course, regardless of their good intentions, the brothers were making a big mistake. We know that now. Yosef was sold to kill his aspirations of leadership, not to support them. Yet that was not quite what G-d had in mind.
Yosef arrives in Egypt and is promptly purchased by a wealthy Egyptian merchant named Potiphar. Potiphar certainly doesn’t desire or intend to bring about any of the consequences of this fateful decision. Potiphar’s infamous wife, as many of us are well aware, did not have exactly the purest of intentions towards their newest household help. In short, Zuleicha wished to commit adultery with Yosef. (And you think you have marriage problems?)
“And so it was, just as she coaxed Yosef day by day, so he would not listen to her…” (ibid 39:10)
Yosef, being the righteous and upstanding Jew that he was, refused the repeated seductions of the beautiful woman. However, as hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, the wealthy floozy finally decided to get revenge on her would-be paramour by accusing him of trying to do exactly what he had refused to do. She framed him! Fair? Not in the short term, but, of course, you have to read the rest of the story…
The enraged Potiphar immediately had Yosef thrown in prison, where he hoped for nothing more than that the young man would rot to his death. Goodbye and good luck. As far as Potiphar was concerned, the buck stopped right there.
Can you even imagine an ancient Egyptian prison? Lifetime incarceration in the cockroach-infested, disease-ridden, dark Egyptian torture chambers seemed to be the end of the story for Yosef. But that wasn’t what G-d had in mind either.
In Egyptian prison, Yosef makes the acquaintance of a butler and a baker, both of whom ask him for assistance in interpreting their dreams. Yosef’s dream-interpretation prowess proves an unexpected boon. A few years later, when dreams trouble the most powerful ruler in the world, Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s now-emancipated butler recommends the dream interpretation services of his former cell-mate, Yosef. (And you think you have sleeping problems?)
Pharaoh calls for the lad whose adept dream interpretation pleases the monarch. Not to mention that it ends up saving the entire monarchy. In fact, Pharaoh is so impressed by the wisdom and charisma of the young Israeli that Yosef is soon promoted to second-in-command, the most powerful man in the world besides Pharaoh himself:
“You shall be in charge of my palace and by your command shall all my people be sustained; only by the throne shall I outrank you.” (ibid 41:40)
And there you go. Rulership indeed. Power indeed. Prophetic dreams indeed.
When a drought brings famine to all the lands surrounding Egypt, including Israel, the twelve brothers are sent by their father Yaakov (Jacob) to ask for food from the acting ruler of Egypt. Little do they know that this is no one other than their own brother Yosef. Little do they know that every step they had taken, contrary to their own intentions, had done precisely what his dreams had foretold.
It’s a great story, but G-d does not play games with human lives. The reason that all of these narratives had to come about was for a critical purpose. Decades earlier, Avraham had been told by the Almighty that his descendants would be slaves in Egypt:
“And He said to Avram, ‘Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own - and they will serve them, and they will oppress them - four hundred years. But also the nation that they will serve, I shall judge, and afterwards they will leave with great wealth.” (ibid 15:13-14)
The redemption from Egypt, the splitting of the sea, and the receiving of the Torah at Sinai had to take place in the context of a nation burned clear of any false ideologies. Our slavery in Egypt showed us once and for all what materialistic aspirations really amount to – the basis for stunning selfishness, cruelty, and the enslavement of other human beings.
When what you yearn for is anything other than G-d, what you get at the end of the day is Egypt. And the Jews, of all peoples, knew what Egypt was really like.
But how to get them down there? Yaakov and his twelve righteous sons lived in Israel. They would have had no place in the foreign land of Egypt without all that had transpired. This way, Yosef’s rulership paved the way for the twelve brothers to eventually settle in Goshen, Egypt. His identity revealed and the family finally reunited, powerful Yosef had Goshen built for his family to weather the Middle Eastern drought in opulence and plenty.
A few years later, once Yosef and his righteous brothers had passed away, the stage was finally set for the most important events in all of human history to take place, the enslavement and redemption from Egypt leading to the giving of the Torah at Sinai.
But it did not come about by accident. It came about through the many choices of many people, none of whom had any idea what a vast tapestry their autonomous, individual decisions were all tying into.
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender