Seeing the Big Picture
Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26 )
Even if we don't see how, everything is ultimately part of God's masterplan.
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There is a dramatic moment in this week's Torah portion, Vayechi. Joseph's brothers are distraught and fearful. Many years before, they had turned on Joseph and sold him into slavery in Egypt because of their fears and concerns at the time. This led to Joseph being separated from his father for more than 20 years, causing unspeakable anguish to both Jacob and Joseph. The brothers had come to truly regret and show deep remorse for what they had done. Now they were all in Egypt, living with Joseph because of the famine. Together, they buried their father, Jacob, as described in this week's Torah portion.
After the passing of Jacob, the brothers feared that with his father no longer around, Joseph would exact revenge for the pain they had inflicted on him all of those years before. And so they approached him with trepidation to inform him that Jacob's dying wish was that Joseph should not take vengeance for what took place all those years before, and that he should instead grant them complete forgiveness for their wrongdoings.
The brothers completely subjugate themselves before Joseph, offering themselves as his servants. Joseph dismisses their concerns immediately, and says to them: "Do not fear, for am I in place of God? You intended to harm me, [and yet] God intended it for good in order to accomplish - it is as clear as this day - in order to give life to a vast people. So now, do not fear, I will sustain you and your young ones." And he comforted them and spoke to their heart. (Bereishit 50:19-21)
In essence, Joseph was telling his brothers that God had a plan. They had to accept responsibility for their actions, but ultimately, what happened turned out for the best. Being thrown into the pit and then sold into slavery set in motion a series of events that would see Joseph become the viceroy of Egypt, and as Pharaoh's righthand man, guide the country, and in fact the entire region, though the famine, preventing mass starvation. So Joseph was saying that God's plan, although it involved much personal pain for him, was ultimately for the good.
In doing so, Joseph was articulating a fundamental Jewish belief - that no matter what happens in life, it is ultimately part of God's plan; that God loves us and that everything that happens to us stems from that love. What we learn from this saga involving Joseph and his brothers is that it's not always possible to discern God's plan while it is unfolding. Joseph was just a boy of 17 when he was sold by his brothers into slavery, and he could never have foreseen what lay ahead. It took many years for the grand scheme to reveal itself.
But, what is so ironic in this situation is that Joseph thought he had understood God's ultimate plan. Joseph's understanding was that God allowed for him to be sold into slavery so that he would be able to get down to Egypt and save the region - including Jacob and his family - from the famine. But, there was actually a much bigger plan in play - a plan with more far-reaching consequences, a plan that touched on the very essence of Jewish destiny and the forging of the Jewish people.
God had foretold to Abraham how the nation of Israel would be born from suffering and slavery. And Joseph being sold into slavery was the means through which God orchestrated that development. It was the catalyst that would eventually bring Jacob and his family to Egypt, where they would become a great nation, and then become enslaved, just as was promised to Abraham centuries before.
That was crucial, because God wanted the creation of the Jewish people to be through His miracles and His direct intervention so that we would always owe our freedom and very existence as a nation to God - a nation born of God, so to speak. A supernatural nation, born in supernatural circumstances and worthy of its supernatural mission, brought to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the Divine document outlining that mission.
None of this could have happened to a self-reliant people living independently in their own land, in comfort and security. The Jewish people needed to be born in a state of natural upheaval, into miracles, amid "signs and wonders". And so Joseph's personal story, all the suffering he endured, all the great challenges he faced, ended up being nothing less than the vehicle for the unfolding of Jewish destiny. In fact, it was the reverse of what Joseph thought: he thought he had been 'sent' to Egypt because of the famine to prevent and save his family and the region from starvation - but God sent the famine as a catalyst to bring the family of Jacob down to Egypt. So Joseph went ahead, to be able to save them all, and to bring them all down to Egypt. And that was the plan.
This plan unfolded not over years, but over centuries. And, ultimately, it was a plan that came full circle. Joseph's dying wish was that he not be buried in Egypt, but rather be taken with the Jewish people, when they later left Egypt, and buried in the land of Israel. His wish was fulfilled and he was eventually buried by Joshua in a place called Shechem. Rashi notes this was the very place where Joseph was captured by his brothers and sold into slavery. And so Joseph's journey - and along with it, God's grand plan for the Jewish people - comes full circle.
This helps us to understand what faith in God means - to trust that whatever befalls us, it's all for the best. The famous Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva says our response to anything that befalls us should be: "Gam zu letova - this too is for the good." But, this doesn't mean everything will turn out the way that we wish it to, or even the way we expect it to. Things happen that are extremely painful and often tragic - but faith in God means to trust that there's a plan, no matter how confusing and chaotic things seem, and no matter how hard it is to see what that plan is.
The truth is, as mere mortals, how can we see God's plan? How can we understand a plan that spans not just centuries and millennia, but planes of reality - this world and the World to Come. How can we fathom the mind of God? These are some of the deepest secrets and mysteries of the world that even Moses - the greatest prophet who ever lived - could not understand. According to the Talmud, when he was on Mount Sinai, he asked God why it is that some righteous people suffer and some wicked people prosper. And God answered: "No man can see me and live." In other words, to understand the answer to such a question would be going to the depths of the very essence of creation; it would be like gaining the deepest knowledge of Hashem, Himself, who is beyond human comprehension. How this world actually functions - how Hashem governs it - is not something that as mortals of flesh and blood we can properly understand. And if Moses didn't know and God refused to tell him, who are we to be able to claim insight into these things?
This is the message of Joseph's life. We never quite know what's going on beneath the surface; the mysterious inner workings of the universe are beyond our understanding. But our calling is to trust that God is in control, and have faith that He loves us and wants the best for us.