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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayigash: Playing in G'd's orchestra
After Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he wanted to appease them and establish a brotherly relationship with them. Joseph did not bear any hatred towards his brothers. It is only natural that siblings expect of each other more than they expect of strangers. Joseph had super-human control over his feelings. Just as we have a natural love for ourselves, we are obligated in every situation to love our fellow Jew. The Torah expects us to elevate ourselves to the level of angels and go against human nature and our natural inclination. Both Joseph and his brothers were on a much higher spiritual level, and the Torah's critical description of their conduct is magnified due to their special closeness to G'd. Joseph expressed that he understood and fully believed that everything was orchestrated by G'd Himself for a purpose, and the brothers were nothing but puppets in the hands of their Master. Every detail that happens to a person is Divinely orchestrated. Joseph saw the hand of G'd even in his misery and as a result G'd blessed him with success in prison. King David also accepted that everything is in the hand of G'd. We must strive to emulate Joseph and King David and live with a constant awareness that everything is orchestrated by G'd.
After Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he wanted to appease them and establish a brotherly relationship with them. He first described his position in Egypt and encouraged them to go home and bring their father, as Joseph's high status enabled him to care for all of their needs. In conclusion, he said to them (Bereishis 45:12) "And behold your eyes see and so do the eyes of my brother Benjamin how my mouth talks to you." This sounds very strange and it is apparent that there must be a deeper meaning to these words.
Not bear any hatred
To explain this Rashi quotes from the Midrash Rabba (93:10) what Joseph was expressing when he said "And behold your eyes see … how my mouth talks to you. You can see for yourself the honour I am being extended, as well as that I am your brother who is circumcised like yourself. In addition to this, you can see that I am talking to you in the holy language of Hebrew." To explain the extra words "and so do the eyes of my brother Benjamin" Rashi brings from the Talmud (Megillah 16b) that Joseph singled out Benjamin to convey to his brothers that his feelings towards all of them were the same. He actually said, "Just as I bear no hatred against my brother Benjamin, who did not take part in selling me, so I do not bear any hatred against any of you."
Many times people find it especially difficult to have a good relationship with their siblings if they feel wronged by them. It is only natural that siblings expect of each other more that they expect of strangers. Therefore, it can be much more difficult to forgive if someone is disappointed by the behaviour of one's siblings, than when one deals with a stranger.
The commentators explain that the brothers had felt that Joseph was persecuting and oppressing them, and therefore they condemned him to capital punishment. But from Joseph's perspective, they had definitely over-reacted. So how could he make such an amazing statement? How is it possible for a human being who has suffered so much for the past twenty two years to be so forgiving? His own brother's had forcibly removed him from his father's house as a teenager, and sold him into slavery. For thirteen years he languished as a slave, during which for two years he suffered in a subterranean Egyptian jail. One can only imagine how much he must have endured, especially as he had been so close with his aging father. And now, Joseph was in a most powerful position as the Viceroy of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. And here were his brothers, bowing before him. The very same people who had caused him all this anguish, were suddenly delivered right into his hands, finally giving him an opportunity to take revenge and punish them for their misdeeds. And what does Joseph say? "My feelings towards my little brother Benjamin and my feelings towards you, my other brothers, are on the exact same level." Such strength of character seems to be super-human. This is truly an example of what the Midrash says (Bereishis Rabba 67:8) "The righteous are in control of their heart." How does one reach such strength of character?
Love your fellow
In Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Just, Chapter 11) Rabbi Moishe Chaim Luzatto describes the difficulty for anyone to refrain from hating someone who mistreated the person and take revenge against him. Every human being is extremely sensitive to being put to shame and suffers great pain under such circumstances. "Revenge is sweeter than honey", says Rabbi Luzatto, as that gives relief to the pain and other negative feelings one has suffered from. He continues to explain that for a person to rise above the natural hatred against the one who caused him so many problems, and not take revenge when the opportunity comes about, such a person must gather enormous strength. Rabbi Luzatto further elaborates and says that such self-control is easy only for angels. However, G'd has decreed and written in the Torah (Vayikra 19:17-18) "You may not hate your brother in your heart … You may not take revenge and you may not bear a grudge." Rabbi Luzatto concludes that since it is so difficult to overcome the natural inclination to hate and take revenge, the Torah writes an additional commandment that includes every single Jew: "And you shall love your fellow as yourself." Just as we have a natural love for ourselves, and we forgive ourselves when we did something wrong, so are we obligated to love our fellow Jews, even when they do something wrong, and even if we are the victims of those wrongdoings.
Elevate to level of angels
We see that the Torah expects us to elevate ourselves to the level of angels and go against human nature and our natural inclination. We are expected to make a super-human effort to love the very person who afflicted us and caused us pain. This is the level of brotherly love that Joseph reached. But how did he get there? If we can learn his secret, we may also try to work towards such a lofty level of self-control.
We must always remember that both Joseph and his brothers were on a much higher spiritual level than we can ever obtain. The Torah's critical description of their conduct is magnified as G'd expects more of them due to their special closeness to G'd. Nevertheless, the Torah relates parts of their personal lives to us so that we, on our level, can learn from their mistakes and try to emulate their positive conduct.
Orchestrated by G'd
In the beginning of Joseph's talk of appeasement to his brothers Joseph said (ibid 5-9) "And now do not be stressed and do not reproach yourselves that you sold me here, for G'd sent me here to provide sustenance ahead of you … And now it was not you who sent me here but G'd, and He made me a father to Pharaoh … and a master of all of Egypt." In these words lies the answer to Joseph's super-human conduct towards his brothers. Joseph expressed that he understood and fully believed that everything was orchestrated by G'd Himself for a purpose, and the brothers were nothing but puppets in the hands of their Master.
In general, we get excited when things work out exactly as we had hoped, and we say "this is a real hashgacha pratis". We feel that we have merited a direct, special conduct by G'd to bring about what we wanted to achieve. We forget that when things become difficult and we do not achieve what we want, this is brought about and orchestrated by the exact same G'd as when we succeed. This is what King David says (Tehillim 16:8) "I always set G'd before me." Every detail that happens to a person is Divinely orchestrated. No one can harm me and no one can help me but with G'd's permission. When I succeed, it is with G'd's help. When I fail, it is because G'd so decreed. In most cases, we feel it is us who act on our own. As believing Jews we express that we succeeded in our business venture with G'd's help, or we thank G'd that we found a good doctor, and similar expressions. Joseph teaches us that this is not the ultimate truth. As it says in last week's portion (Bereishis 39:3) "And his master saw that G'd was with him and whatever he did G'd made it successful in his hands." Joseph's master perceived that Joseph's success was not due to his personal prowess. Rashi brings from the Midrash (Tanchuma 8) that this was because of the way Joseph expressed himself. Joseph was accustomed to refer his success to G'd's intervention. Joseph would not say "I succeeded in this venture with G'd's help"; rather he would say "G'd brought me success in my venture" or "G'd provided me with a good doctor", and so on.
Hand of G'd
When Joseph saw success he ascribed it to G'd's work. When he was deprived and thrown into prison, Joseph continued to attribute everything to the hand of G'd. As it says (ibid 20-21) "And Joseph's master took him and put him into the prison, and G'd was with Joseph." Joseph saw the hand of G'd even in his misery. As a result G'd blessed him with success, even in prison, as it says (ibid 23) "The officer in charge of the prison did not watch anything that was in his [Joseph's] hand, as G'd was with him, and whatever he did G'd made it succeed." When finally Joseph had an opportunity to be freed from the prison, he expressed strongly his belief that everything is in the hand of G'd. Pharaoh said to Joseph (ibid 41:15) "And now I have heard saying about you that you listen to a dream and you are able to interpret it." To this Joseph answered (ibid 16) "It is beyond me. G'd Himself will respond to Pharaoh's welfare." Joseph was well aware that Pharaoh may get infuriated by this answer, as it sounded like that Joseph was totally useless and could only refer him to G'd. Chances were that Pharaoh would send him straight back to the dungeon upon hearing these words. However, Joseph knew the truth and would not compromise on it. Man has no ability and no power of his own. It is all in the hands of G'd. At the end of the day, this bold statement of Joseph brought about his success. Pharaoh understood that not anyone merits to be a proxy of G'd, and eventually said to his servants (ibid 38) "Does anybody else like this exist, a man who has in him the spirit of G'd?" And to Joseph he said (ibid 39) "After G'd has informed you of all this, there is no one as wise and clever as you."
Joseph is not the only one who conducted himself with such self-neglect, accepting that everything is in the hand of G'd. Before King David was accepted as king over the Jewish nation, he was pursued by Shimi ben Geira who cursed David and hurled rocks at him and his servants. One of David's officers, Avishai ben Tzeruyah offered to go and kill Shimi. To this King David responded and said, (Samuel 2, Chapter 16:10) "Let him curse. For G'd has said to him, 'Curse David'. And who can say, 'Why did you do so?'" King David explained that this was not a matter between Shimi and him. Shimi was just the proxy of G'd. The real issue was why did G'd let this happen? Obviously, this did not justify Shimi's behaviour. When someone damages another person's property, the Beth Din cannot let him go free and say "this was orchestrated by G'd." In the same way, David on his death bed, instructed his son, Solomon, to judge Shimi for his misconduct (see Kings I, 2:8-9). But on a personal level, David understood that no curse could be uttered by anyone unless G'd allowed it.
Emulate Joseph and David
Both Joseph and King David were spiritual giants living their lives on a very high level. However, we must strive to emulate them and live with a constant awareness that everything is orchestrated by G'd. We may be in a situation where someone embarrassed us or did damage to our property, and we have a claim against the person in Beth Din. However, if we manage to internalize the conduct of Joseph and King David, we can still live in peace with this other person, and even love him as a fellow Jew.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network