- A man came upon him wandering in the fields. (Genesis 37:15)
- Adonai was with Joseph. (Genesis 39:2)
Yiddish permeated my childhood, being my mama loshen. The reverberations of Jewish wisdom echoed through my home. "Man plans, God muses"; "man drives, but it is God who holds the reins"; "it's all in God's hands." It was most comforting to believe God was in complete control. But one fateful Simchat Torah, God's plan resulted in the sudden death of my father, leaving my mother a young widow with two children, my sister sixteen years old and me barely thirteen. I was no longer secure in or happy with the notion that God makes it all happen, that God's plan prevails. Now, having experienced both additional tragedies and many joys in my life, I am far closer to coming to terms with an oxymoron of religious faith. There is free will in a world where God's master plan is in control.
This week's parashah, Vayeishev, is a perfect example of the two forces—man's free will and God's plan—shaping our destiny. As Vayeishev begins, Jacob sends Joseph from the valley of Hebron (Genesis 37:14). Later, as Nehama Leibowitz notes in Studies in Bereshit (p. 394), the story of Joseph concludes with the following words of Joseph to his brothers: "So it was not you who sent me here, but God" (Genesis 45:8).
These bookend statements set the stage for the interweaving of free will (our choices) with God's plan. What appears to be a human intent, Jacob's decision to send Joseph from the valley of Hebron, is an unfolding, as well, of God's plan. As we examine the Joseph story, through all its permutations of human intent, we see that "Adonai was with Joseph" (Genesis 39:2) throughout.
On his way to Shechem, Joseph meets the "man" who redirects him from Shechem to Dothan: "A man came upon him wandering in the fields" (Genesis 37:15). This mysterious man, as noted by many commentators, is reminiscent of the man with whom Jacob struggles at the river Jabbok: "And a man wrestled with him until the break of day" (Genesis 32:25). In both instances, the man is seen as representing God's role in the events taking place. However, Jacob and Joseph themselves play roles in these encounters by choosing to interact with the stranger, by wrestling and by following the directional advice, respectively.
We are told early in the Book of Genesis what will come to pass. God said to Abram, "Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed for 400 years . . . and in the end they shall go free with great wealth" (Genesis 15:13-14). We will be enslaved and we will be freed—that is God's plan. The story of Joseph is the unfolding of that plan. With every step, the players make choices that fulfill the words of God.
When Joseph comes upon his brothers at Dothan, their first intent is to murder Joseph. Through Reuben's intervention, Joseph is not murdered but cast into a pit. Later, while sitting down to a meal, the brothers look up to see a caravan of Ishmaelites, to whom they decide to sell Joseph. They look up and see and make a decision. This incident echoes Abraham's actions during the Akeidah when he looks up and sees the ram caught by its horns in the thicket. Abraham sees what is to be done. He makes a choice. The brothers' choice brings Joseph and eventually all the Israelites into "a land not theirs" and into 400 years of slavery.
Other events in Joseph's story continue this interweaving of coincidence (or preplanning) and human choice. Joseph is put into a cell with two slaves, who have experienced troubling dreams. Joseph sees their distress and acts proactively, asking why they appear downcast. A far more compassionate Joseph than we have seen thus far goes on to interpret these dreams, he himself realizing that it is "surely God" who can interpret (Genesis 40:8).
Even the apparent interjection of the Judah and Tamar incident (Genesis 38) continues the same thread. Tamar will produce offspring. Neither the death of Er and Onan, nor the reluctance of Judah to give Shelah to Tamar will prevent the birth of Zerah and Perez, from whom David, and ultimately the Messiah, will descend. But it is Tamar who wants and rightly knows she is deserving of these children. It is she who disguises herself, and it is Judah who chooses to lie with one whom he thinks is a prostitute.
God's blueprint of creation, the Torah, will unfold, but we are God's partners in this unfolding. As a parent sees a child and knows how the child will choose to react, God knows how we will respond in certain situations. As in the Moses story, where it is said that God stiffened Pharaoh's heart, we see that God already knew how Pharaoh would respond, since Pharaoh himself had hardened his heart in the early plagues.
God has created the big picture. We choose our part, be it by wrestling with the stranger or asking to help the downtrodden dreamers. Man has his plans, but God is in control. Free will exists within God's plan. Jealous brothers want to hurt their brother, and a compassionate brother saves his life. Tamar gives birth to Perez, and we become slaves who will experience both redemption and revelation. We may not see it all, but we are God's partners in the realization of the plan. As long as we remain in covenant with God, just as in the Joseph story, God's plan will ultimately result. Kein y'hi ratzon!
By the Way
- Interwoven into the account of moral doings is the unseen hand of Divine Providence. On the surface, the actors in the story set in motion their own plans, succeed or fail, start again, all on their own initiative. That is the immediate superficial impression. In fact, however, it transpires that it is Divine Providence which is carrying out, through mankind, its own predestined plan. (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit, 3d rev. ed. [Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1976], p. 394)
- The Judah-Tamar interlude is, therefore, not merely an old tribal tale but an important link in the main theme: to show the steady though not always visible, guiding hand of God who never forgets His people and their destiny. (Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary [New York: UAHC Press, 1981], p. 252)
- From the moment that Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, humanity has been directed by "free will." Yet, even in their exile, Adam and Eve are "clothed" by God. How does free will exist if God still "clothes" us, takes care of us?
- Numerous health articles have been published suggesting people of faith can cope with, and often survive, illnesses better than the "faithless." What strengths are derived in believing that God is the master planner?
- Each one of us has suffered or will suffer personal tragedies. If we see that these losses are part of God's plan, will our faith be shaken, strengthened, destroyed? How do we react when the "plan" grievously affects our lives?
Arliene Botnick, R.J.E., is Director of Education at Solel Congregation, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.