Recently, I was awakened from an extremely brief nap by a loud noise.
I was in the driver’s seat, coasting along Interstate 80 the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and I fell asleep and hit the car in front of us. The sound of the impact woke me.
It could have been so much worse. Traffic was heavy and moving very slowly; no one was hurt, and the damage to the other car was minimal.
Of course, I was tremendously shaken up. The shock expressed itself in a litany of thoughts (dreams?) as my husband took the wheel and I spent the next several hours drifting in and out of sleep on the passenger’s side.
Naturally, the first path my mind traveled was guilt. I had my husband and four children in the car; what if something had happened to them and it was my fault? What about all the people on the road around us that I could have hurt? What about the people whose car I did hit, who would now have the headache of dealing with repairs?
I began to imagine ripple effects that could extend beyond the obvious negative effects on myself, my family, and the people in the car I hit. How many people might have been affected by my falling asleep at the wheel just at that moment, in how many ways? Could I think of a possible positive result? Maybe, I thought, G-d was helping out a particular body shop owner who desperately needed the business – reminding myself, even as I speculated in dangerous philosophical territory, that everything that happens could have a domino effect far beyond anything we can see, and that to whatever extent G-d intervenes in particular events, His infinite reasons are His business and not mine.
I found myself thinking about the story of Yosef. Yosef, whose brothers hated him – because of his father’s favoritism, because of the dreams G-d sent him, because of his own conduct and how he spoke to and about his brothers. Yosef, who years after a particular confluence of factors led to his being sold as a slave, tried to absolve his brothers of their guilt – because he thought he’d found the explanation. “Don’t feel bad about what you did to me,” Yosef tells them in this week’s parsha. “You didn’t really send me here; G-d did, so I would be in a position to provide food for you in the famine.”
Yosef thought he had the perspective of hindsight to be able to understand what happened to him in a different light, to see G-d’s Plan and how everything was for the best.
Beautiful, right? Inspiring? Sure, but there are a few issues to keep in mind with his approach.
First – it’s not my focus here, but it is crucial to remember that no one should ever impose this sort of gam zu l’tovah (“this too is for good”) thinking on someone else who is in pain. If the brothers, or even an innocent third party, had said the same thing to Yosef – “Yosef, it’s really you! Look at you, so powerful, able to help your family! Aren’t you glad now that your brothers sold you? Everything worked out for the best!” – we would be horrified by their insensitivity. Yosef is the only one who gets to place Yosef’s suffering in perspective.
Second and third – Yosef’s reassurance to his brothers leaves out two important elements.
The first is that, as really we all know even if we sometimes speculate, any attempt to explain why things happen will necessarily be incomplete. Yosef was able to look back at a particular slice of his life and see a connection between a bad event and a later good result – but the arc of history is much broader and longer than that slice of his life. He didn’t know about the body shop owner who needed the business – or rather, the members of the caravan whose lives, for all he or we know, were affected in inexplicable ways by buying and selling him. He didn’t know (apparently) what we, as readers of Tanach, do know – that he was sent on the journey which led to his sale “because of the deep counsel of the one buried in Chevron” (Rashi on Bereishit 37:14). Yes, G-d played a role in how things worked out, but it wasn’t just so Yosef could provide for his family during a famine; it was part of the fulfillment of G-d’s promise to Avraham that “your children will be strangers in a land which is not theirs…and the fourth generation will return here…” (15:13).
Yosef thought he saw the big picture, but the picture is always much bigger than we can see. That doesn’t mean it’s worthless to look for the good that we can find in our own troubles, as we learn from Nachum ish gam zu (Taanit 21a), Rabbi Akiva (Berachot 60b), and Yosef himself. Among other benefits, the very exercise of looking for some good result can, I think, serve as a simple reminder of the basic notion that there might be good reasons for everything that happens – but it must be accompanied by the humility of knowing we will never really know them, even when we think we’ve found one.
Even we, as readers of the full span of Tanach, able to see a bigger picture than Yosef could, still don’t fully know. That gap, between Yosef’s perception of the Reason and our own knowledge of a deeper Reason, should remind us that there are gaps in our own knowledge too. Why the promise of slavery in Egypt in the first place; why was that part of the Plan? We can speculate, but we can’t know.
And the second piece missing from Yosef’s reassurance? Putting aside a minority opinion that the brothers did not freely choose to do what they did (!) (see Malbim) – they were responsible. However their choices and actions might have fit into G-d’s Plans – they were still responsible for those choices and actions.
The Gemara in Shabbos (10b) even holds Yaakov responsible, not only for unwittingly inciting the brothers’ hatred, not only for beginning the chain of events that would lead to their decision to sell Yosef, but even for the slavery in Egypt that followed.
And because the factors which contribute to any event are innumerable – some even hold Yosef himself partly accountable. The brothers hated him (and decided to sell him) partly because he tattled on them. Was he right or wrong to do so? Ah, you’ll say, it was all part of G-d’s plan for them all. You might even argue (as many do) that he thought he was right to do so. Too bad; according to Rashi (on Bereishit 37:2), he was still punished for it. He was still responsible for his actions – just like his father, and just like his brothers.
Maybe the people whose car I hit will end up with a nicer bumper and decide to forgive me like Yosef forgave his brothers. That would be lovely for me. But it wouldn’t mean we’d found the Purpose of the whole incident, and it wouldn’t absolve me of responsibility – for the past or for the future.
Speculations about what happened and why are useful only insofar as they help us move past our own suffering, remind us that there could well be unknown “why”s out there – or lead to improvement.
Certainly, my awareness of highway fatigue is heightened now that I’ve lived (thank G-d) through falling asleep at the wheel, rather than just worrying about it in the abstract, and I’ll be even more vigilant in the future. There are factors in my control, which I can and must handle responsibly. And I hope that by sharing my story, I can offer a reminder to others to be uber careful as well, because the danger is real!
But the things beyond our control? The confluence of factors, human or natural, as well as any elements of divine Planning?
Why did I fall asleep at the wheel, that day of all days? Why was Yosef sold? Why were the Jewish people slaves in Egypt?
When we are living our own story – like Yosef was – we can never know all the choices, circumstances, or Plans that play into the way things work out. Even when we have the book and see the bigger picture, we never really know it all.
All we can do is make our best choices and learn what we can, without driving ourselves absolutely crazy trying to piece together puzzles we will never complete. And we can thank G-d that it wasn’t worse.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz also suffered a recent traffic mishap. See his take here.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.