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"... Ki l'mikh'yah sh'lakhani Elokim lif'neikhem." (Gen. 45:5b)
"...for it was to save life that Gd sent me ahead of you."
"Vayishlakheini Elokim lif'neikhem lasum lakhem sh'eirit ba-eretz, ul'hakhaiyot lakhem lif'leitah g'dolah." (Gen. 45:7)
"Gd has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in a great* deliverance."
(JPS uses "extraordinary".)
Taken in context, these are words of explanation and consolation spoken by Joseph to his brothers. It's basic teleology, with good coming from evil. That's a troubling enough concept, and one I've enumerated on many times in these musings.
This year, however, I am moved to focus on another aspect of these words. It's the identification of the "you (plural)" that Joseph is referring to in these words.
The implication from the text is that these things happened in order that Joseph might eventually save his own family (and thus the lineage of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.) And by further implication on the part of the reader, who already knows the rest of the story, all these things happen so that Israel might eventually be redeemed from slavery in Mitzrayim and given the Torah at Sinai.
All this strikes me as terribly selfish as well as clan-centric and Deo-centric. Are the thousands of lives saved by Joseph's wisdom of no consequence? Just incidental to the story and Gd's miraculous deliverance? I speak of the lives of Egyptians and many peoples from neighboring countries who sought to purchase food from Egypt during the times of famine (just as Jacob had sent his sons to do.)
Is their salvation simply an incidental outcome of Gd's long-term plans? If so, I have to wonder just a little bit about Gd's attitude. We are all Gd's creations-that is clear from the beginning of this holy book. So the Egyptians and others are Gd's creations, and deserve Gd's attention and thoughtfulness as much as anybody else.
Yes, this Torah is about a specific story--our story--the story of the Jewish people, their encounters with Gd and their covenant with Gd. And yes, this is an early stage in the formation of the Jewish people. So perhaps, to some degree, we can excuse the inward focus.
And yet, I am troubled by this. Only a slight modification to the text might ameliorate my concerns. A simple reference that all that transpired saved no only Joseph and his family, but many others as well. (One can perhaps eisegete the meaning into the text because of the plural you forms, but the context really suggests otherwise.)
After all, here's a big PR opportunity for Gd. A chance for Gd to win over many other adherents. (One wonders if "numbers" are as important to Gd as they seem to be to synagogues these days.) Yet, instead of this wonderful opportunity, Gd squanders the potential positive feelings generated by this miraculous saving of many from the famine. No, Gd has longer term plans in mind. A Pharaoh must arise who does not know Joseph, and the Israelites are reduced to oppressive slavery, all so that Gd might later send Moses to bring them out, and lead them to Sinai and the promised land.
I don't know about you, but I look at this lost opportunity and scratch my head. Once again a stubborn, capricious and ineffable Gd chooses to go from Ur to Jerusalem by way of China. And generations of Israelites must suffer under the oppressive yoke of Egyptian slavery.
Gd could have chosen to use the positive capital generated from the miracle that was wrought through Joseph, perhaps even fulfilling the promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Joseph's generation! Surely the many that had benefited from Joseph's leadership would follow him and his Gd?
Think about it. Joseph reunites with his brothers, his father, etc. But rather than having the whole mishpacha move down to Egypt, Joseph takes advantage of his popularity, gathers a following among Egyptians and others, and leads them back in triumph to Canaan, there to fulfill Gd's promise. Gd is pleased, and gives the people the Torah right there in Canaan, perhaps even in what would become Jerusalem. None of this desert wandering.
Of course, this also means no Moses. It means no metaphorical sieve or chafing dish of tribulations for the Israelite people to pass through in order to earn the right to receive the Torah. However, this view is all in hindsight. If you were suffering through Egyptian slavery, or wandering through the desert with Moses, and found out that Gd could have bypassed all this, how would you feel?
Yet this is but "alternate history" of the kind that one often finds dotting the shelves of the science fiction section in bookstores. (Hmmm. The Torah isn't really a historical book, so is what I am creating here really "alternate history?" Now there's a quagmire.)
Over the millennia, Judaism has oft been subjected to the criticism that it is a particularistic faith, that it lacks a universalistic component. It is not an entirely fair or accurate criticism. However, when I read the words of Gen 45:5 and 7, it certainly appears to me that the saving of countless Egyptian and other lives was merely an incidental outcome to the story.
There are consequences to all actions, decisions and choices. And this is a truism for Gd (although, if you subscribe to the idea of an unlimited omnipotent deity, then Gd could undo those consequences at will.) Gd must have some awareness of this--one example that springs to mind is that Gd decides to side with Sarah and advises Abraham to let Hagar and Ishmael be cast out; then Gd later decides to see to the welfare of Hagar and Ishmael--whether from feelings of guilt or obligation we'll never know. A clear example of Gd "fixing" the outcome of an earlier, capricious (or deliberate?) choice.
I've always wanted to try my hand at writing a book. Maybe an alternate history with Joseph pre-empting any need for a future Moses. (Although, as the book idea forms in my mind, perhaps the plot will require an eventual Moses anyway. Joseph had leadership skills, but is he the right person to fulfill Gd's covenant with his father, grandfather and great-grandfather? We shall see.)
I sure wish Torah had acknowledged the great miracle that Gd had wrought for many people through Joseph, but, alas, it does not.
Knowing my propensity for being verbose, I'll try and wrap things up here. I know I've left a lot of loose ends, and unfinished thoughts and ideas. We could go much deeper and further exploring this whole issue. Which is what I hope I have inspired you to do this Shabbat.
©2004 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some Previous Musings on the same parasha
Vayigash 5763-Things Better Left Unsaid
Vayigash 5761-Checking In
Vayigash 5762-Teleology 101: Does Gd Play Dice With the World?
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