I've written on this issue before, even in relation to this Torah parasha. It continues to haunt me so I continue to plumb the depths of the question "can good come from evil?"
Joseph calms his brothers' fears, and tells them they need not be distressed as their past actions towards him. They were all merely pawns in Gd's plan. [Gen 45:5-9] The obvious inference from this is that the actions of Joseph's brothers in selling him into slavery were forgivable, as the end result was fortuitous? Such a teleological [outcome or end-result oriented] ethic is surely a dangerous one.
The people who come out on top always write the history. Hindsight is always 20/20. [Insert your own tired cliché here.]
Pharaoh could have used Joseph and then done away with him. Joseph could have slept with Potiphar's wife (there are some who suggest he did!) Of course, if one accepts the idea of a divine plan, then no deviations were really possible. More on this later.
Many interpreters of Torah support the viewpoint that good can come from evil, if it is part of the divine plan. Yet this idea has been used by the perpetrators of the most vicious crimes against humanity. Was the Shoah truly part of Gd's plan? That medinat Israel is the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust seems little justification for the deliberate slaughter of millions.
Some suggest that a "global view" of events facilitates the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. This reconciliation, too, as a worthy end, is further justification of the evil acts previously perpetrated.
We could play many "what if" games that might affect our willingness to accept that "good can come from evil." Things certainly could have turned out quite differently. Even Joseph's brothers seemed to think so. In Vayechi, they will wonder if, after Jacob's death, Joseph will finally take his revenge. [Gen 50:15] Maybe they weren't buying Joseph's "big picture" story after all.
But the what ifs didn't happen. History unfolded as it did and none of us would be here if it hadn't. Oh, really? Gd wouldn't have had realization of the Divine plan if Potiphar had simply decided to kill Joseph? If Joseph's brothers, fearing his retribution, simply fell upon him and killed him when he revealed himself to then, alone and exposed?
Don't be ridiculous, some argue. Gd is Gd. How much impact can our free will have on the Divine plan? It all depends on our construction of Gd...or does it? Gd is what Gd is, regardless of how we construct our ideas of Gd!
I remember how, as a child, I loved playing with erector sets, Lincoln logs, etc. Legos are the new equivalent. I also remember how I would like to throw a curve in the works-take something that wasn't from the set, and fit it into my plan. I watch our 4 year old at home do this all the time. Perhaps Gd likes to do this too-and we, with our free will, perhaps provide some interesting curves for Gd in the plan for the universe? Perhaps Gd enjoys the chance in allowing humanity free will and the possibility of our interfering in Divine choice?
I also remember it was sometimes fun, and sometimes not, to create something with a friend. Ultimately, when the final shape deviated from my plan too much because of a friends participation, I had several choices- knock it down and start again (the flood?)-restructure it the way I wanted (Torah?)-or revel in the beauty of having created something that neither of us could have done alone (covenant?). Perhaps you, my readers, can think of other examples where Gd chose options one two or three?]
One can take a modernist viewpoint and say that history is all hindsight, and write off any concept of Divine plan. Joseph got lucky, so he was willing to forgive and forget. After all, what cost to him to be a nice guy? He can well afford it. The idea of Divine plan is so fraught with consequentialist ethics that it frightens me. Yet it also intrigues me. For a nihilistic [meaningless] view of life has little to recommend it.
My personal world view, at this point in time, incorporates the best of both worlds-Divine plan and free will. It is the "partnership with Gd" philosophy; that together we can finish the world. Joseph and his brothers seems to be merely pawns, yet surely Joseph is made of the stuff it takes to be a partner with Gd. It seems, however, that Gd was not yet ready to make such a covenant. So perhaps my answers aren't to be found in Joseph's story after all.
Gd does offer humanity choices. The clearest offering our of blessing and curse, death and life. [see Deut. 30:19] Nevertheless Gd gives us some advice: choose life!
In Mishna Avot 3.15, R. Akiba tells us that although there is a plan, man does indeed have free will.
Theologians go back and forth on these issues. A popular notion is the idea of a Gd who is persuasive but not all powerful. A less popular notion these days in the "ineffable Gd." Both theologies think they wrap up the problem with a nice little bow, but in reality, they succeed no better than other solutions to the question of teleology, divine plan and humanity's free will.
Maybe Einstein was wrong-maybe Gd does play dice with the world. Human history as Gd's crapshoot. Hmmmm.
There is much to understand, study, and question about Joseph's reconciliation with his brothers. While we may not find the answers we are seeking, as I often suggest, we will surely find the questions we need to be asking.
© 1998, 2001 by Adrian A. Durlester
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