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Morality or Divine Charge?

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Morality or Divine Charge?

Summarized by Dov Karoll



            Our parasha opens with Yehuda pleading with Yosef to release Binyamin.  A central aspect of his plea is based on the suffering that would be caused to Yaakov were Binyamin not to return with the brothers.  The real question is how could Yosef act in a way that caused Yaakov so much suffering?  Commentators throughout the ages have dealt with the question of why Yosef did not write home in the years after he ascended to greatness.  In my opinion, none of these explanations seem to answer satisfactorily how Yosef could justify the suffering caused to Yaakov in the interim. 


            To give but one example: the Or Ha-chayim (45:26) explains that Yosef did not want to embarrass his brothers by telling Yaakov what happened, because of the severity of embarrassing another.  This is based on the Gemara (Bava Kamma 59a) stating that one should rather be thrown into a furnace than embarrass someone.  The problem is that the suffering caused to Yaakov was so great!  I would think that this suffering would outweigh the problematic aspect of embarrassing his brothers.  It is true that "he who embarrasses his fellow is considered as if he killed him," but was not leaving Yaakov to suffer also comparable to killing him?


            Rather, what appears to me to be the best explanation is that Yosef was convinced that the Divine plan was being executed through him.  Yosef was convinced that God had placed the responsibility for carrying out His plan on Yosef's shoulders.  Accordingly, Yosef felt that he needed to accomplish certain goals, as revealed to him in his dreams, regardless of the consequences, even for his beloved father Yaakov.


            In a similar vein, returning to the sale of Yosef, the brothers were convinced that they, the children of Leah, were the chosen ones, and Yaakov and Yosef were blind to this reality.  They were convinced that the Divine plan required throwing Yosef out of the family.


            Only people convinced they are acting on Divine orders, charged with carrying out God's plan, are capable of acting in the way that Yosef and his brothers, respectively, acted. They had not received direct divine commands, but they saw it as their responsibility to bring about a certain situation which they believed to be desired by God.


            However, the Torah strongly criticizes Yosef for acting as he did.  The Torah describes the intense pain and suffering caused to Yaakov throughout the many years Yosef was away.  It also makes clear how difficult it was for Yaakov to allow Binyamin to go down to Egypt, despite the fact that over twenty years had passed, and the fact that Binyamin was a grown man with many children of his own.  The inclusion of these descriptions in the Torah's presentation of the story clearly indicates that the Torah views Yosef's plan negatively.


            Yosef may have been convinced he was acting in accordance with a Divine plan, but apparently he was meant to act on the human plane, and was meant to follow regular moral norms.  He should have acted reasonably, and shown compassion for his father, rather than acting as one who is convinced that he knows with certainty the Will of God. God can bring about the realization of His plans, and does not require of man to forsake human and moral considerations.




[Originally delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Vayigash 5762 (2001).]