Yosef ’s wrenching descent into Egyptian bondage begins innocuously as his father, Yaakov, sends him to inquire after the welfare of his brothers in Shechem: “And he (Yaakov) sent him (Yosef) from the valley of Hevron and he arrived at Shechem…”
Strangely enough, at this critical turning point, Rashi focuses on a seemingly minor, ancillary problem in the text: “Was not Hevron on a mountain?”
The answer that Rashi proposes, however, moves far beyond geography and touches upon a powerful issue, central to the story of Yosef and his brothers.
Rashi cites a Talmudic passage which explains that by referring to the “Valley of Hevron,” the Torah allegorically alludes to the “deep plan” which had been revealed, decades earlier, to Yosef ’s great-grandfather, Avraham, who is buried in Hevron.
During the Covenant between the Pieces, God told Avraham:
“Know full well…your children will be strangers in a land not their own, where they will be enslaved and persecuted for four hundred years.” (See Lech Lecha 4.)
Avraham’s prophetic vision is now about to unfold, generations later. The sale of Yosef is the mechanism which will set the initial events of the prophecy in motion. The Torah, therefore, introduces the story of Yosef ’s sale with a reference to the “Valley of Hevron” – the deep plan rooted in Hevron.
With his short, seemingly technical observation, therefore, Rashi alerts us to a fundamental truth concerning the story that we are about to read. The tale of Yosef and his brothers overlays deeper currents. This is not only the painful, personal story of a family in crisis. Yosef ’s first steps towards Shechem are also the first steps in another
journey, which will ultimately transform the patriarchal family into an eternal people.
We are about to experience the divinely guided transition from the patriarchal era to the national era of Jewish history.
While God’s providence is forever present in our lives, rarely is his silent guidance as evident as in the story of Yosef and his brothers. As Yosef himself maintains, their personal saga serves the higher purpose of effectuating God’s overall plans.
God’s “behind the scenes” involvement, however, raises serious questions about the personal free will of the players in the story.
Considering that the descent of the Jewish nation into Egypt was preordained generations earlier, how much choice did Yosef and his brothers really have in the unfolding events? Were they simply acting out a predetermined script or can they be justifiably held accountable for their actions?
How does this narrative reflect upon the delicate balance between prescience (God’s foreknowledge of events), free will and predestination; a balance which normally defines our lives? (See Bereishit 4, Approaches a).
While a full discussion of these complex issues remains beyond the scope of this study, viewing the story of Yosef as a microcosm of a larger, more familiar paradigm may prove instructive.
The Jewish view of history, on a global level, mirrors the issues found in the story of Yosef and his brothers.
On the one hand, Jews certainly believe in a measure of preordination on a national level. A belief in such preordination is, in fact, critical to our worldview. The best known of the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith emphatically states: “I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Mashiach (Messiah), and even though he may delay, nevertheless I anticipate every day that he will come.”
To believe in a Messiah is to believe in a predetermined, inevitable end point to history. Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, in fact, maintains that our introduction of the idea of Mashiach signaled a major revolution in the way man thought about his historical journey. We brought to the world the concept of a destiny-driven history. Where others saw history governed only by causality, with each era simply the product of what came before, we saw a march towards a specific destination. Where others saw civilization only propelled by the past, we claimed to be pulled, as well, by the future.
Suddenly, the world stage contained a nation which believed that there was rhyme, reason and goal to the currents of history; a nation which saw itself traveling towards a predetermined, inevitable end point: the messianic era.
On the other hand, our belief in the inevitability of the messianic era does not diminish our acceptance of the role and responsibility that individuals and communities bear in any given generation. While our nation’s destination may be clear, the parameters of the journey towards that destination are not. Within the broad brushstrokes of national preordination we each freely choose the role we will play in our people’s unfolding story.
The rabbis, however, go even further. In order to preserve the all-important concept of free will within our national journey, they presume flexibility even concerning the preordained elements of our history.
That the Mashiach will arrive, they agree, is clear. When he will arrive, however, how he will arrive, and, most importantly, who among us or among our children will be there to greet him upon his arrival – all these variables are in our hands.
Much of our people’s story remains unwritten. We are the authors of that portion of the story.
We can now begin to understand the interplay between free will and predestination as it unfolds in the Yosef story. For while the descent of Avraham’s progeny into a foreign land was predicted by God decades before it occurred, the prophecy granted to the patriarch was general in scope. Egypt was never mentioned as the place of exile. The mode by which Avraham’s descendants would be exiled was never detailed nor was the exact quality of the servitude they would experience.
Even the minimal details that were clearly preordained were also potentially flexible. God predicted to Avraham, for example, that the period of servitude would last for four hundred years. Our ancestors were actually slaves in Egypt, however, for only two hundred ten years. The rabbis explain the discrepancy by maintaining that the period mentioned in Avraham’s prophetic vision began with the birth of Yitzchak (who was, in a sense, an exile, never fully comfortable in his own land). By beginning the count with Yitzchak’s birth, God, in his mercy, diminished the pain that his people would endure.
We must accept that, one way the other, our ancestors were destined to spend a period of time as strangers persecuted in a strange land. The story, however, did not have to play out exactly as it did. If sibling hatred and jealousy had not been the catalysts for our exile, perhaps the exile itself would have been less painful.
Far from acting out a predetermined script, Yosef and his brothers wrote their own story, of their own free will, within the context of a larger tale. The story they wrote then reverberated across the years, affecting the lives of all the generations that followed. So too, we, in each era, write our own stories, as we freely determine the roles we will play in the unfolding journey of our nation. The stories we author shape the quality of our days and affect the lives of countless generations to come.