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Exile and Return (part 1)

Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )


This week's parsha features the famous story of Joseph being sold by his jealous brothers. Joseph is sent down to Egypt, where the Jewish people wind up spending a few hundred years in brutal slavery.

In some odd way it seems that the whole tragedy of Joseph's sale was destined to occur from the start. Consider:

  1. Jacob clearly provokes his other sons by showing special favoritism toward Joseph, particularly by giving him the coat of many colors (Genesis 37:3). This behavior is especially strange for the wizened patriarch Jacob.

  2. Joseph stirs his brothers' animosity by delivering a bad report about them. (37:2)

  3. When Joseph has a dream indicating his eventual rule over his brothers, he incites them further by telling them the dream (37:5).

  4. After a second, similar dream, Joseph again angers his brothers by recounting the dream (37:9). Joseph then compounds their anger by retelling the dream to his father – in front of the brothers (37:10)!

  5. Jacob, though knowing that relations are highly strained, nevertheless sends Joseph to check on the brothers' activities and report back. Despite the obvious danger, Joseph agrees – and goes alone (37:13). It is then that the brothers throw Joseph into a pit and sell him as a slave.

As puzzling as it sounds, this series of provocations seems like an intentional effort by Jacob and Joseph to stir the brothers' hatred and set into motion the chain of events in Egypt. How can this possibly be?

Engraining Trust

To answer, let's backtrack about 100 years:

In Genesis 15:7-8, God promises Abraham that he and his descendants will possess the Land of Israel. To which Abraham responds, "How do I know it's true?"

This remark seems entirely out of line. Imagine a father promising his child, "I'll take you to the ball game on Sunday," to which the child responds, "Can I really trust you'll do it?"

Abraham was on a lofty spiritual level (after all, he's talking with God). Yet his comment of "How will I know?" was an unbefitting way to seek reassurance from God. For that reason, God decreed that before the birth of the Jewish nation, they would need to undergo an experience to engrain a greater trust in God into their spiritual genetics.

The remedy, God tells Abraham, is to be enslaved in Egypt (Genesis 15:14). There the Jews will come to realize that only God can save them. They will turn to God with a total heart and cry out. Only then redemption will occur.

Generations later, that is precisely what transpired: "The Jews cried out because of their slavery... God heard their cries and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." (Exodus 2:23-24)

The Jews had built a new level of trust in God. Egyptian slavery had served its purpose.

The Hebron Plan

We can now understand why Jacob and Joseph went out of their way to provoke the brothers. The Egypt experience was inevitable, and they were setting that process of exile into motion.

This is alluded to in Genesis 37:14, where Jacob sends Joseph to check on the brothers from the "depths of Hebron." At first glance, this makes no sense, for as anyone who has visited Israel knows, Hebron is located not in a valley but in the Judean hills! (see Joshua 14:12) The Talmud (Sotah 11a) explains: When the Torah says the "DEPTHS of Hebron," it means figuratively that Joseph was sent from the "PROFOUND" plan involving Abraham (who is buried in Hebron). The sale of Joseph is an extension of the process set into motion with Abraham questioning God.

In fact, the Zohar reports that before sending Joseph to check the brothers' activities (the act that would lead directly to Joseph's going down to Egypt), Jacob first visited Abraham's grave in Hebron.

The process of exile was destined to happen one way or another. Jacob and Joseph helped orchestrate it thusly. In fact, during those crucial moments before meeting the brothers, God sent the angel Gabriel to encourage Joseph along! As the Midrash says, if things hadn't worked out this way, Jacob would have eventually been dragged down to Egypt in chains.

Life Lessons

And process of descent is a lesson for us today. Our soul comes to Earth in the first place because we have crucial life lessons to learn – "something we have to go through." The Kabbalists describe this as "Tikkun" – rectification of one's soul, based on mistakes of past lives, rooted in the original mistake of Adam and Eve.

This does not suggest that we should go out of our way to seek difficulties. But if there is a necessary process to undergo, it is foolish to avoid. Too often we busy ourselves with petty distractions, in hopes of escaping the painful confrontation with reality. But it invariably catches up with us; that "difficulty" is part and parcel of our reason for being.

It's all part of God's grand eternal plan. If you have an issue, confront it. Work it through. Build your "trust muscles." God put you in this situation for good reason, and only He can safely get you out of it. God is in control, and He delivers.

Next week: Part 2 of "Exile and Return"

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