Who's Running the Show?
Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )
"Everything is foreseen, and permission is given."
These words contain one of religion's greatest paradoxes, that of "foreknowledge vs. free will." This sounds like some academic, philosophical topic, but the questions it raises touch the heart of our lives in very profound ways.
Two Levels of Reality
First of all, what exactly does the expression mean? "Everything is foreseen" means that God knows in advance everything that will happen. In fact, God is the one who makes it happen. Everything comes from Him, everything is actually Him.
"Permission is given" means that people are empowered to act out of free will. At any given crossroads, if a person decides to go right or left, to choose good or to choose evil, is up to him or her.
How do these two things go together?
The key to deciphering this riddle lies in the simple fact that we the future is inherently unknowable. The future may be "foreseen," but only from the perspective of God, who, as it were, looks down upon the maze of space-time and sees it in its entirety, sub specie aeternitatis (from the point of view of eternity). For us, who are walking through the maze and don't know what's around the corner, it seems that there are a number of options: We can turn at the next corner, continue straight, or backtrack, all the while imagining how each choice will lead to a completely different future. In the end, we're bound to choose only one path – the one God foresaw; but because we don't yet know which it is, we've no choice but to go through the process of deliberation, decision, and finally action. It is in this process, that we actualize our God-given power of choice, despite the fact that we end up doing exactly what He had planned and foresaw in advance.
The upshot of all of this, is that we must regard everything that happens as taking place on two independent levels: the level of human choice, and the level of Divine providence. This is especially challenging when bad things happen, and it is challenging to both the suffering party and for the person inflicting the suffering.
Let's examine what each side has to contend with.
A person who has been wronged is perfectly poised to fall into what I call "the pit of victimization and blame" – a narrow, dark place in which we feel sorry for ourselves, are angry at others, and are consequently unable to move forward with our lives in any way.
Although this is a primarily emotional experience, it's rooted in a certain cognitive outlook on reality. Specifically, one that acknowledges only the existence of human choice, not that of Divine providence. In this case, everything seems very simple: Someone hurt us, and everything wrong with our lives is their fault. There's no point in soul-searching, looking for meaning in what happened, or taking ethical stock of our lives. We're the innocent victim and the other is the evil victimizer – end of topic.
This experience changes completely when we add the concept of Divine providence. It then turns out that the person who hurt us was, unconsciously, an emissary of God. God wanted us to undergo a certain negative experience (for our good), and chose that person to deliver it to us. The Sages call this "a bad thing is brought about through a guilty person": When the Heavenly powers want something bad to happen to someone, they choose a perpetrator who – independently and from his own volition – wants to perform that action, and then "marry" the two: They turn the evil-doer into the oblivious agent who carries out a Divine mission.
The person who perfectly exemplifies this approach to life is Joseph. From the moment he's left in the pit, he raises his eyes only to God. In every place that he finds himself – Potiphar's house, prison, Pharoah's palace – he tries to make the best of his circumstances. Later, he names his first son after the idea that "God has caused me to forget all my toil and all my father's house," and his second son after "God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction". Everything that has happened to him he attributes only to God.
The pinnacle of this behavior is seen in the confrontation between Joseph and his brothers. After finally revealing his identity to them, Joseph emphasizes that, from his perspective, it wasn't them who sent him to Egypt, but God:
It was to preserve life that God sent me before you…
God sent me before you to make for you a remnant in the land…
And now, you did not send me here, but God…
The peak comes in the next parsha, when he says,
Indeed, you intended evil against me, but God designed it for good…
Joseph has completely acquiesced himself to the concept that there are two levels to reality. His brothers committed a serious sin – but they were also agents of God. They should repent for their deeds – but his personal accounting is not with them but with God. His job is to ask God, What is the Divine purpose of this new reality in which my brothers' actions have left me? Thus Joseph climbs out of the pit of victimization and blame, and transforms from victim to victor, becoming the ruler and leader of his life.
Now, what of those who committed the wrongdoing – in this case, Joseph's brothers? Should they also say, "We can't be held accountable, we were just God's agents"? Of course not. The expressions "permission is given" and "through a guilty person" in the above quotes make it clear that a person who has sinned is responsible for his actions and must repent for them. And yet, belief in Divine providence can offer some solace to the sinner: It can save him from a certain type of negative, destructive guilt, the sole purpose of which is to depress us and bury us alive. The sinner too can be saved, and part of their salvation lies in the understanding that, as bad as their sin was, it too – in some unfathomable way – was part of God's plan.
This idea is reflected in Joseph's beautiful words to his brothers:
But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you.
Loosely translated, what he said was: It's true, you've sinned; but now that you've repented, dry your tears: everything, including your sin, was for the good.
Point to ponder: When someone hurts us, we must make a clear distinction in our heads: That person behaved wrongly, and will have to stand in judgment, whether before the Heavenly or earthly court. But next to this truth stands another one: Heaven intended this to happen, and it's for my own good. It was meant either to punish me for something, purify me, or both; what's certain is that my process of rectification vis-à-vis what happened has nothing to do with the perpetrator of the wrongdoing. It's between me and God, which means that at its root, and in the long run, what happened is completely for my own good.
May we all merit to look at the world through Joseph's good eyes, and in this merit have the words spoken about him be said about each one of us too:
The Lord was with him, and whatever he did the Lord made prosper in his hand.