Monday, December 3, 2007

A Series of Inexplicable Events

In this week’s parsha, there is a lot of strange behavior. In fact, the behavior of each and every character in our story is just inexplicable. And that includes Yaakov, Yosef, and God.

Let’s review. Favoritism, tattletaling, and grandiose dreams drive the brothers into a dangerous mix of jealousy and hatred for Yosef. It reaches the point that they simply cannot say a peaceful word to him.

Yaakov is also angered by Yosef’s dreams. He intends to “manage” the situation, but when he sends Yosef to check up on his brothers, they kidnap him and sell him as a slave. Yosef is brought down to Egypt where he is put up on the block and purchased by the royal butcher.

No one’s behavior makes much sense, but strangest of all is Yaakov. Knowing that they are not on speaking terms, how could Yaakov send Yosef to check on his brothers? Yosef was terrified to make the trip, as evidenced by his “Hinneni” (37:13; compare 22:1). Yosef must have wondered why Yaakov was asking him to do this, and the conclusion he came to was inescapable and horrible.

Yaakov was in on the sale! How else would the brothers explain Yosef’s disappearance? The family had clearly decided to eliminate Yosef, much like Eisav and Yishmael were rejected by the earlier generations. It runs in the family. This explains why Yosef never made any attempt to contact Yaakov. (Of course, Yaakov did not conspire to eliminate Yosef, as evidenced by his subsequent mourning over the loss of his son. The question of why Yaakov sent Yosef to check on his brothers remains unresolved.)

Yosef is out of luck. Yesterday he basked in Yaakov’s love; today he labors for an Egyptian. We would be forced to admit that Yosef has been abandoned not only by his family, but by God as well. But the Torah says otherwise.

God was with Yosef.

Bereishit 39:2

Yosef is a slave and God is with him? If God is with him, why doesn’t God arrange for his freedom? In what way is God with him?

God was with Yosef and He made him very successful… His master realized that God was with [Yosef] and that God granted success to everything he did… [His master] placed him in charge of his household…

39:2-4

God’s presence manifests itself in Yosef’s success, but this is a mixed blessing. Yosef’s success (and good looks) attracts the attention of his master’s wife. She wishes to commit adultery with him, but Yosef refuses.

How could I do such a great wrong? It would be a sin before God!

39:9

Now it is Yosef who is behaving strangely. It takes a powerful fear of God to withstand the constant seductions of a beautiful woman. But Yosef has it. Where did he get such extraordinary faith? It must have come from his upbringing in the house of Yaakov. But this was the house that threw him out! After experiencing the evil done to him by his family, we would expect Yosef to abandon the faith of his fathers. After all, he has ample evidence that this tradition does not a better person make! But Yosef does not fall into that kind of immature thinking. He remains a God-fearing man.

Enraged by Yosef’s rejection, Potifar’s wife accuses him of attempted rape and has him thrown in prison. It is hard to imagine a more hopeless station in life than an imprisoned slave in the dungeons of ancient Egypt. But when life has gone from bad to worse and dreams of honor are but a distant memory, that most unexpected verse reappears once again.

God was with Yosef.

39:21

Two new prisoners show up in the prison, and one night they both have dreams. The next morning, Yosef notices that they look upset.

“Why do you look so worried today?” he asked.
“We [each] had a dream,” they replied, “and there is no one [here] to interpret it.”
“Interpretations are God’s business,” replied Yosef. “Tell me your dreams.”

40:7-8

Yosef may be in a dungeon, but he holds on to his faith. More than that, even when it comes to dream interpretation, something Yosef does quite well, Yosef humbles himself. “Dreams are God’s business.” Nor is Yosef shy about his faith. Later, standing before the king of Egypt, Yosef declares, “It is not me. God will provide an answer concerning Pharaoh’s future” (41:16). Yosef is a strong, proud and vocal Jew, and his religious values are rock solid. His faith emerges unscathed by his brother’s betrayal, estrangement from Yaakov, life alone in a pagan society, seduction, slavery and imprisonment.

The series of inexplicable events that is our parsha leaves a trail of unanswered questions. But of all the mysteries, the most relevant and the most pressing is this: Did Yosef have faith because God was with him? Or was God with Yosef because Yosef had faith?

2 comments:

  1. Naf Tali in FL12/13/2007 4:49 PM

    I would venture that while either of the two questions posed at the end could be answered in the affirmative, I find both questions to be odd and unrelated.

    First question first: To say that God was with Yosef does not imply that Yosef was aware of this fact. It simply means that God was doing things with purposes in Mind which required certain events to take place. It certainly does not mean that all the steps along Yosef's path would be pleasant ones (the juxtapositions in 39:2-3 are two loosely related facts- not that the later is the manifestation of the former; surely the wealth distribution in your town drives this home).

    As to the second question: Both faith and Providence are intertwined with each other and complicated in their own rights. To be sure, I would not be surprised were God "more" with Yosef because of his faith (along the lines of Ramchal, say). However, faith would hardly seem to be a prerequisite for Providence in the normal course of events.

    Stepping back for a minute, wouldn't Yosef be advancing his own position were he to ascribe his own powers to God rather than to intelligence? Every intelligent man at some point will fall short in the face of a complex world and his utility to others will be limited. A man of God however, faces no such limitation. While I do not mean to question Yosef's faith, I cannot understand why it is remarkable that he ascribes his ideas to God.

    Finally if Yosef believes himself to be more in the line of his forebears that his brothers, their behavior should not weaken his faith or resolve.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

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  2. Naftoli-

    "To say that God was with Yosef does not imply that Yosef was aware of this fact."

    Agreed.

    "the juxtapositions in 39:2-3 are two loosely related facts- not that the later is the manifestation of the former"

    "loosely related"? Come on! The text could not be clearer.

    "To be sure, I would not be surprised were God "more" with Yosef because of his faith... However, faith would hardly seem to be a prerequisite for Providence in the normal course of events."

    It is precisely this hightened level of providence that I am wondering about.

    As for your suggestion that Yosef ascribed his ideas to God as a ploy to enhance/protect his own position, Ralbag (in the To'elesim) to 41:16 says as much. However, I am doubtful that it is p'shat to view Yosef as some kind of political televangelist.

    I stand by my two questions. Thank you for your challenging comments!

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