It's a popular use of the Yosef story. A proof text that good can come from evil, that all that befell Yosef was part of a Divine plan. That all that transpired was necessary, so that the Israelites would wind up in Mitzrayim, eventually be enslaved, cry out to Gd and be heard, then to be led out of Egypt by Gds mighty hand and covenanted with Gd at Sinai. A nice, perfect little package. And when trying to deal with questions of theodicy, of why bad things happen to good people, an inspiring and explanatory tale.
But there's one big problem, and they rest with the very words of Yosef himself, explaining his understanding of what had transpired.
Yaakov gets in his last digs by "adopting" Menashe and Ephraim as if they were his own sons, placing the younger Ephraim before Menashe, then offering his little death-bed poem of psychological analysis of his sons. He dies, and, true to the promise Yaakov exacted from him, Yosef takes Yaakov up to Canaan to be buried in the cave of Machpelah. This done (with much pomp and circumstance, Yosef still being an Egyptian
muckety-muck) the brothers again fear what Yosef might do to punish them, especially now that Yaakov was gone. They concoct (yet another) lie and tell Yosef that before he died, he told the brothers to tell Yosef to forgive his brothers for what they had done to them.
Yosef tells them not to fear, and utters those memorable words I and others have written about many times before: "Ki hatakhat Elokim ani?" "Am I to take the place of Gd?" (or, as the JPS says "Am I a substitute for Gd.") Gen 50:19. I'll leave you to muse over those words and I'll move on.
Yosef next says to his brothers that although they intended him evil, Gd intended it for good, in order to. . .
And here comes the nub of my argument. Yosef says: "l'ma'an aseh kiyom hazeh, l'hakhayot am-rav." Literally, "in order to make (bring about?) like (they are) this day, to cause many to live." Or the smoother JPS: "so as to bring about the present result-the survival of many people." Gen 50:20
Am-rav. Great Nation. Great people. Many people. A populous nation. A numerous people. All valid meanings. We always tend to view "am" as referring to the people Israel. But is that truly what Yosef meant, that this was all about the survival of the people of Israel? Yaakov, his sons, their wives, slaves, maids, etc. were not a huge multitude. It is quite likely that thousands upon thousands of Egyptians were saved from starvation through the ultimately fortuitous set of circumstances that arose out of Yosef being sold into slavery by his brothers.
I think that these, along with Yaakov, his family clan and retainers, are the entire "am-rav" that Yosef is referring to. And I think this is an important reminder to not be myopic in our thinking. This whole Yosef thing might not have been entirely about us, "am-Yisrael."
Which the desired result and which the unintended but beneficent consequence? Can we really be sure? Does Gd have it all plotted out, down to the end of time? Or does Gd perhaps sometimes use more short-term strategies and then assesses and moves on? It's all a matter of how direct a hand Gd takes in human affairs. And therein lies a whole other discussion, and a whole series of musings.
But I digress. My point is that, while this may be a proof text for good arising from evil deeds, I'm not sure it's fair to use it as proof that the people of Israel were the ultimate intended recipient of the good. Gd created us all, and Gd surely cares about us all, even those, like the Egyptians, who pray to false Gds.
Good isn't always something that happens to us. Good is something that we want to happen to others, in fact, to as many people as it can happen to. And not just people-but animals, living matter, our planet, our universe.
So let's be a little more global in our view of parashat Vayechi. Let's allow as much good to come from evil as we can. Gd knows, in these times, we need that kind of attitude. Let's not be selfish, and wish that whatever Gd might come out of the ashes of 9/11 is good for America, or good for Israel. Let us hope, pray (and work! To insure) that the good that comes is a good for all the world. Ken y'hi ratson. May this be (Gd's) will.
©2001 by Adrian A. Durlester
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