With Yaakov’s death, Yosef’s brothers sensed the potential that their world would come crashing down on them. Fearing the possibility that their brother would seek out revenge for what they had done to him years before, they conjured up a story that their father Yaakov had commanded Yosef to abandon any ill will he might harbor against them:
Your father left a charge before his death, saying, “Thus shall you say to Yosef, we beseech you, forgive, pray the crime of the servants of your father’s God.” (50:17)
They then offered themselves up as slaves to their powerful brother. Taken aback, Yosef sought to assuage his brothers’ concerns:
“Fear not, for am I in place of God? While you meant evil toward me, God meant it for good… And so, fear not…” And he comforted them and spoke to their hearts. (50:19-21)
Yosef’s response here is taken by some as an indication that God predetermined the events leading up to Yosef’s rise to power and including the descent of the children of Israel to Egypt. This brings to a fore the ubiquitous debate over free-will and divine determinism, that is to say, whether human beings control their actions or whether life is all a predetermined divine play. Yosef’s words seem to come up against the “Jewish” insistence on the significance of human free-will.
One Hasidic master, Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica (Poland, 19th century), is renowned as an advocate for the idea that all of life and human actions are part of God’s predetermined plans. Here is what he has to say about Yosef’s words:
God showed how it is possible to bring the tribes into the Egyptian exile; but more important were the divisions [among the people], for when there is unity among Israel, nothing can overcome them. This is the story. Yosef had separated himself from the other tribes, for while Yaakov our patriarch was alive, it was not noticeable which of the tribes (brothers) was more important than others… but before his death when he blessed them and said to Yehuda – the sons of your father will bow down to you, then all of them recognized that Yehuda was more important than his brothers. At this point, Yosef did not know how to behave, for if he would recognize Yehuda as the leader, how would he reconcile this with the fact that he was the king since it is forbidden to show scorn for the king. And if he designated himself as the head, how would that sit with the fact that he himself knew that Yehuda was the head. [What did he do?] He sat by himself separate from the tribes (his brothers), leaving his brothers with the impression the he did this out of hatred. On account of this, they were punished with exile for the brothers should have given him the benefit of the doubt. And Yosef, as well, was considered a sinner for giving them a reason to err. In truth, he should have acted as the leader since right now he was the king, but in his heart, he knew that Yehuda was greater than him. And, in truth, since the tribes (brothers) erred regarding him (Yosef), there still exists a bit of this discord in people’s minds. Therefore, people need to continuously pray before blessed God that we should not judge others unfavorably, nor should others do so. For it was on account of this that the tribes were punished since they transgressed the command to judge others favorably. (Adapted from Mei Shiloah 1, Parshat Vayehi – end)
Let’s take a closer look at what Leiner is saying. There seems to be a significant contradiction in his message. Leiner notes that God determined that the children of Israel were to go into exile in Egypt and that Yehuda was the intended future leader of the nation, but the rest of his message focuses on how events were humanly determined by the behavior and interaction of the tribes. And his ultimate message is that the rise or fall of the people would be fashioned by human interaction.
One is left with the impression that Leiner’s theological message can be viewed from two different perspectives. From the divine vantage point, this message expresses God imminent involvement with the events in the world, while from the human perspective, human actions have a significant role in shaping life.
This theological quandary leaves us perplexed and this is as it should be. The recognition of the complexity of the important questions about our existence and the events which confront us is sorely lacking in our day. Leiner’s sort of thinking might be just what we need as an antidote.