Midrash Tanchuma Vayeshev – Does G-d tamper with Human emotions

How did the Jewish People end up enslaved in Egypt.

Does Jewish history follow a storyline where one episode leads to the next? Did it all begin in the opening verses of our Parsha? The seeds of hatred are woven into a coat of many colors.

…And Joseph brought derogatory reports (about his brothers) to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age and made him an multi-colored tunic. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him (Joseph) more than any of his brothers, they hated him and could not relate to him in a peaceful manner.” (Genesis 37:2-4)

It was a tragic tale. A passion crime. Joseph’s dreams turned into Jacob’s worst nightmare. But when the dreams turned out to be true Jacob and his sons make their way to Egypt. They are enslaved in Egypt (as was foretold by G-d to Abraham). The miracles of Exodus leads to receiving the Torah and taking possession of the Promised Land.

Is that the story? One opinion in the  Midrash says, well, yes.  But not in the way you think.

Reimagining Adam, Eve and Moses

Let’s take another assumption in the Bible. Adam brought death into the world.

“For on the day that you eat from it, (the Tree of Knowledge) you shall  surely die” (Genesis 2:12).

He was told that if he ate from the Tree of Knowledge he would die. It didn’t mean he would drop dead on the spot. It meant he brought mortality upon humanity for the rest of time. Once again, one opinion in the Midrash Tanchuma says, “not so simple.”

Finally, as long as we are tearing down assumptions. What about our great leader Moses. He sacrificed so much for the Jewish People. All he wanted in return was to enter the Land of Israel. But he hit the rock.

Is that really when G-d “decided” not to let him cross the Jordan River with the rest of the Jewish People.

One opinion says “not really.”

Cause and effect or not

Let’s go back to Joseph. Here is a more familiar opinion in the Midrash as to why we had to go down to Egypt and be enslaved:

“Because of the cloak of many colors, all the tribes were compelled to descend to Egypt.”

It all started with favoritism and jealousy represented by the coat of many colors. Here are more statements from Midrash Tanchuma along the same lines. That Joseph was punished for the exact slanderous words he used in speaking about his brothers:

“What (slander) did he (Joseph) tell Jacob? Our Rabbis maintain that he told his father: They (the other brothers) treat the children of (the maidservants) Bilhah and Zilpah as though they were servants. They call them servants…The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Be assured you will be punished with the very word you have spoken, as it is said: And Joseph was sold for a servant.” (Psalms 105:17).

And why was Joseph tested in Egypt with seduction? Again, one approach of the Midrash is that it was a punishment for the way Joseph slandered his brothers:

Rabbi Yosé maintained that he (Joseph) told his father: They (The brothers) looked licentiously at the (non-Jewish) native women. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Be assured you will suffer from this very thing. Your master’s wife will look licentiously at you, as it is said: “.. his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, “have relations with me.” (Genesis 39:7)

A surprising second opinion in the Midrash

Rabbi Yudan declared: The Holy One, Blessed Be He, desired to fulfill the decree (He made to Abraham) “…“Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed  for four hundred years;.” (Genesis 15:13)

The Midrash goes on to explain the unfolding of events using a most unusual word.  “Alilah” which means subterfuge or “working behind the scenes” or “influencing the outcome of events.” How ever you translate it, it’s not what we learned in 4th grade.

..but He (G-d) resorted to subterfuge to insure events unfolded this way. He made Jacob love Joseph, so that his brothers hated him (Joseph), and as a result they sold him to the Ishmaelite’s, who brought him to Egypt. When Jacob heard that Joseph was alive in Egypt, he descended there with the (future) tribes (of Israel). They were enslaved there. The verse says: “And Joseph was brought down to Egypt” (Genesis 39:1) ,(since there are no vowels in the Torah) don’t read it (in the passive tense) as  “hurad” (“Joseph was brought down”) rather as “horid (“Joseph  caused”) his father and the tribes to descend to Egypt.”

This opinion holds that the episode of Jewish slavery in Egypt was foretold to Abraham and G-d had to manipulate events to insure the outcome. In fact, the Midrash says that the Jews could have come down to Egypt in chains. Instead, G-d engineered a way for  them to come down with pride – under the protection of the Viceroy of Egypt.

The Midrash discovers more of G-d’s fingerprints

When Jacob first asked Joseph to go and check on his brothers, Joseph couldn’t find them. But then an unnamed “man” pointed him in the right direction.

“The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: ‘Let us go to Dothan.’ So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan.’” (Genesis 37:17)

That man ensured who Joseph would fall prey to his brothers and Jewish destiny would unfold. According to Midrash Tanchuma, that “man” was the angel Gabriel.

“The “Man” was none other than Gabriel”

G-d as the 10th man

After Joseph was sold into slavery, the brothers took a vow that no one should tell their father Jacob what really happened. According to the Midrash, they needed a 10th man to put the vow in force. G-d agreed to act as the 10th man:

“…Judah said: “Reuben is not here, and a vow of excommunication cannot be executed unless ten witnesses are present.” What did they do? They included the Holy One, Blessed Be He, in their pact of excommunication..”

G-d’s subterfuge with Adam

According to the Midrash, Adam gets a bad rap for having brought mortality in the world when it was there all along. After all, Adam was created on the 6th day of creation and the  Angel of Death was created on the very first day.

“Rabbi Joshua the son of Karha declared: …when the Holy One,Blessed Be He, created His world, He fashioned the angel of death on the first day. Where do we know that? Rabbi Berechiah said: We know it from the verse ‘And darkness was on the face of the deep’ (Genesis. 1:2). Darkness refers to the angel of death, for he darkens the face of Mankind.”

Furthermore, since the Torah (which was the blueprint for creation) refers to laws about death, G-d must have planned for this in advance of Adam eating from the forbidden fruit. So it’s an  “Alilah”or subterfuge to blame death on Adam.

G-d’s subterfuge with Moses

Midrash Tanchuma derives from 2 verses in the Torah that G-d had already determined that Moses was not to enter the Promised Land before Moses hit the rock. So, once again, it seems unfair to say that Moses was to blame for his inability to enter the land.

Adam and Moses do not present insurmountable theological issues

Both in the case of Moses and Adam there is a simple answer. G-d knows in advance what we will do even though we made our choice out of free will. (It’s like watching a movie twice. Just because you know the outcome, the person who wrote the script had free will to write the story any way they wanted to).  So  G-d can make a subtle reference to Moses not entering the land, knowing full well that Moses will incur an infraction in the future. Perhaps the minor infraction was indeed not the real reason Moses can’t enter the land. G-d had some other reasons fundamental to our destiny. G-d need not provide justification.

Similarly with Adam. Perhaps G-d determined that the destiny of the world needed mortality. It doesn’t detract from the fact that Adam was warned not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and told the precise punishment. Is the Midrash implying that he was set up for failure. Adam had the cards stacked against him. His lovely young wife offered him a bite of the forbidden fruit. Is it too  hard to turn her down even if G-d did provide clear, unequivocal instructions to the contrary?

G-d manipulates events. Get used to it.

In the case of Jacob, the manipulation of events seems to be that G-d planted in Jacob’s heart a special love for Joseph. Which, perhaps diminished his free will and “compelled” Jacob  to demonstrate his love for Joseph with a coat of many colors. And the rest is history.

This view in the Midrash is saying that human beings have free will but there is also another force a work. Let’s call it Jewish destiny.  Thank G-d, the world is not hostage to human machinations. G-d has a plan for the world. A independent trajectory that the world must follow.  The exact details and timetable of our final redemption are affected by a myriad of individual, free, choices along the way.  As well as some divine meddling – as our Parsha exemplifies.

In the case of Jacob, the manipulation of events seems to be that G-d planted in Jacob’s heart a special love for Joseph. Which, perhaps diminished his free will and “compelled” Jacob  to demonstrate his love for Joseph with a coat of many colors. And the rest is history.

This view in the Midrash is saying that human beings have free will but there is also another force a work. Let’s call it Jewish destiny.  Thank G-d, the world is not hostage to human machinations. G-d has a plan for the world. A independent trajectory that the world must follow.  The exact details and timetable of our final redemption are affected by a myriad of individual, free, choices along the way.  As well as some divine meddling – as our Parsha exemplifies.

All of which leads to the world’s final purpose – whether we like it or not.

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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