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 G"d'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 G"d'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.
To save Egypt (and that raises yet other questions about why Joseph was sent to "save Egypt" - another exercise in teleological thinking) Joseph had to make Pharaoh a slumlord and Feudal ruler. All Egypt became property of Pharaoh through the state's control of the necessary resources to see the country through the famine. He could have been a ruler who simply gave the people the food they needed without extracting from them the price of the deeds to their property. Can we really say it was worth the price? Did the ends justify the means?
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? G"d 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? The typical answer when such questions are raised is that when G"d's plans are (apparently to us) thwarted by human choice/free will, then G"d just chooses an alternative. If not Joseph, then someone else and some other combination of circumstances would have led to the eventual slavery of the Israelites in Egypt and their ultimate redemption and covenant with G"d. All part of the plan, right? Any good manager or supervisor understands that it is an essential skill to be able to find alternatives when things gang aft agley. Better managers already have alternatives ready to go. Truly superior managers have the alternatives underway even while the main plan is proceeding apparently unimpeded.
So what happens when the Divine plan goes wrong? Don't be ridiculous, some argue. G"d is G"d. How much impact can our free will have on the Divine plan? It all depends on our conception/construction of Gd...or does it? G"d is what G"d is, regardless of how we construct our ideas of G"d!
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 young children do this all the time. Perhaps G"d likes to do this too-and we, with our free will, perhaps provide some interesting curves for G"d in the plan for the universe? Perhaps G"d 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 G"d 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 G"d" philosophy; that together we can finish the world. Joseph and his brothers seem to be merely pawns, yet surely Joseph is made of the stuff it takes to be a partner with Gd. It seems, however, that G"d was not yet ready to make such a covenant. So perhaps my answers aren't to be found in Joseph's story after all.
G"d does offer humanity choices. The clearest offering our of blessing and curse, death and life. [see Deut. 30:19] Nevertheless G"d 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 G"d 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.
Einstein didn't like quantum mechanics. He didn't like or accept a Universe in which G"d played dice, in which probabilities rather than certainties were the norm. Einstein didn't want to accept "spooky action at a distance" either and spent most of his later life trying to prove that the idea of quantum entanglement was wrong. Modern physics has been able to demonstrate, albeit at only modest distances so far (though an experiment is underway that will attempt to demonstrate it across many miles) that quantum entanglement is indeed the reality of our universe, like it or not.
(The existence of quantum entanglement also provides a strong argument against teleological ethics. Choices we make at a local level have consequences that we might never see happening at a distance that might come back to haunt us.)
Einstein was wrong-G"d (or at least G"d's universe) does play dice with the world. Human history as G"d'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.
Shabbat Shalom to you and yours,
Adrian A. Durlester
©1998, 2001, 2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
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