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The Subtlety of Divine Providence

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Subtlety of Divine Providence

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


Our parasha recounts the story of how Yosef was sold by his brothers, but the significance of this sale becomes apparent only later: it is this event that ultimately leads to Yaakov and his family moving to Egypt. Yosef himself says, "And now, it is not you who sent me here, but rather God..." (Bereishit 44:5). God sent Yosef to Egypt in order that Yaakov and his sons would go there, and there Am Yisrael would begin its history.

There is an astonishing comment in the Midrash on this week's parasha (Tanchuma, Vayeshev 4):

"'And Yosef was taken down to Egypt' - this is what is meant by the verse (Tehillim 66:5), 'Go and see the works of God; terrible are His plots regarding man.'

R. Yehoshua ben Korcha said: Even the terrible things that You bring upon us - You bring them through plots. See here: when the Holy One created the world, on the first day He created the angel of death... as it is written, 'and darkness upon the face of the deep' - this refers to the angel of death who darkened the faces of the creatures. Man was created on the sixth day, and a plot was set for him [to accuse him of] having brought death into the world, as it is written, 'For on the day you eat of it you will surely die.'

[This may be compared to] someone who wished to divorce his wife. He had a divorce document drawn up, then he went to his house with the document in his hand and sought an excuse to give it to her. He said to her, 'Pour me a drink;' she poured for him. As he took the cup from her hand he said to her, 'Behold, this is your divorce.' She said to him, 'What have I done wrong?' He answered, 'Get out of my house, for you have handed me a lukewarm cup.' She said to him, 'Did you knew in advance that I would give you a lukewarm cup, that you drew up the divorce and brought it in your hand?"

Similarly, Adam said to the Holy One: Master of the Universe, for two thousand years before You created the world You had the Torah... and in it is written, 'This is the Torah: When a man dies in a tent...' (Bamidbar 19:14). Had You not already established death for Your creations, would You have written this in the Torah? Rather, You are trying to lay the blame on me...

Likewise, the Holy One sought to fulfill the promise [made to Avraham], 'You shall surely know [that your descendants will be strangers in a land not their own],' and He created a plot out of all these events, and so they went down to Egypt and paid the debt..."

Much can be learned from this with regard to the relationship between Divine Providence and man's free choice. The Holy One seeks to fulfill His plans; He guides events in such a way as to fulfill them, but He still leaves a certain amount of room for human action. He does not decide exactly what will happen, and a person is free to act as he chooses. Adam was punished for the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge; it did not help him to claim that this was a "plot" by God, Who was originally responsible for bringing death to the world.

Likewise, Yosef's brothers were unable to claim that they had not sinned by selling him. True, their deed did in fact form part of the Divine plan to fulfill the decree of "You shall surely know that your descendants will be strangers in a land not their own, and they shall enslave and oppress them four hundred years." Nevertheless, no one forced them to sell their brother, and they are culpable for their actions.

The Gemara (Shabbat 89b) teaches: "Yaakov our forefather should by rights have been taken to Egypt in iron chains, but his merit saved him." In other words, Yaakov was destined to go down to Egypt because of the promise made to Avraham ("You shall surely know..."), but he will still left with enough room to act as he chose and to decide how he would go down.

Immediately after the sale of Yosef, the Torah tells us that Yehuda went to find a wife: "And it happened at that time that Yehuda went down from his brothers..." (38:1). The Midrash teaches (85:1):

"The brothers were busy selling Yosef, Yosef was busy with sackcloth and fasting, Reuven was busy with sackcloth and fasting, Yaakov was busy with sackcloth and fasting, Yehuda was busy taking a wife and the Holy One was busy creating the light of the future King Messiah [a descendant of Yehuda]."

The significance of events becomes clear only in the future - sometimes in the very distant future. While Yosef was being sold and Yehuda was busy taking a wife, everyone was in mourning; no one attached any significance to Yehuda's marriage and the whole story of what had transpired with Tamar. But it turns out that these seemingly trivial events regarding Yehuda eventually led to the birth of the Messiah. The Holy One guides events, and we are unable to understand them as they take place. The story of Achashverosh's party and what Vashti had done must have been a matter of little interest to the Jews of that time; only many years later did their importance become clear. And this is the real significance of the teaching of Chazal, "The deeds of the fathers are a sign for the children" - the deeds of the fathers and their significance only become clear during the generations that follow. The conflict between Yehuda and Yosef turned out, only after many generations, to be a fundamental debate of principle and philosophy, leading to two messiahs – Mashiach ben Yosef and Mashiach ben David.

In our times, too, there are many events whose significance is not always clear to us. We should not belittle their importance, but rather have faith that later on their full significance will be revealed.


(Delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Vayeshev 5755 [1994].)


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