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Human Action or Divine Plan? Dr. Sarah Schwartz on Parashat Vayigash

Bible
Shavua Tov @ Schechter

Judah or Joseph?  Which brother’s point of view would you adopt?

Dr. Sarah Schwartz, head of Bible studies at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, discusses the two seemingly opposing world views of the recently reunited brothers, Judah and Joseph.  Were the events that led to the brothers’ sojourn in Egypt part of a Divine plan? Or were they the result of human choices?

The story of Yosef and his brothers is one of the most beautiful and touching stories in the Bible. The dramatic peak of the story is described in this week’s parasha, Parashat Vayigash, when Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers. This is a human story about jealousy, hatred, and reconciliation. But what is the theological message of the story? What worldview does it seek to establish? the moment of Yehuda’s speech and Yosef’s revelation contains the essence of the ideology voiced by the entire story. In this moment, two players take center stage: Yehuda and Yosef, and each represents here a different theology.
Yehuda represents a worldview that places complete responsibility for human actions on the individual. Yehuda is always active, a doer: in this moment of crisis with Yosef, he bravely approaches him. He believes he can change the position of the other, and offers a remarkable rhetorical speech. The content of the speech of Yehuda attests not only to his belief in the ability of others to change, but also in his own ability to change. Contrary to the story of Yosef being sold to slavery, in which the brothers deceived Jacob and caused him incurable pain, Yehuda promises his father that he would guarantee the safety of his youngest child. Contrary to his suggestion to sell Yosef this time Yehuda is willing to become a slave to Egypt himself in order to protect his little brother. Contrary to his abandonment of the family after Yosef is sold, Yehuda here shines as the brother with a sense of responsibility for the entire family. In his speech to Yosef , God is not mentioned, because Yehuda represents human accountability for wrongdoing, as well as human responsibility and ability to amend.
Conversely, Yosef represents the reverse perception, where God is the one who determines historical events instead of human action:

״וַיֹּאמֶר אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה: וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה. כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם״ Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me ; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you (Gen 45: 4-5).

Yosef knows that his brothers sold him into slavery, and at one stage of the story a remark is made about him begging them to refrain from doing so. But looking back Yosef understands that the selling and the events that followed were the realization of a greater divine plan, with the ultimate purpose of the preservation of life. What is the human role in this plan? Man is the emissary through which the divine plan is realized. Yosef consistently represents this position, since years later, after Jacob’s death, he repeats his claim that all the events that transpired are part of the divine plan:

״וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף אַל תִּירָאוּ. כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי: וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה. אֱלֹהִים חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה לְמַעַן עֲשׂה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה לְהַחֲיֹת עַם רָב״
“But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people”(Gen 50. 19-20).

Which of the two perceptions are we meant to adopt – the perception of Yehuda or the perception of Yosef? the story’s dramatic peak juxtaposes these two perceptions in order to teach us that they should live side by side. Man should know that he is entirely responsible for human action, and had the ability to change, and be changed. He is able to alter reality, for better or worse. At the same time, there is a divine plan, which can be realized in one way or another through human action, even if inadvertently.

This dual perception is significant not only theologically, but also psychologically. Exclusive human liability can lead to initiative and create a moral compass, but may also induce anxiety, anger, and guilt. Exclusive divine responsibility enables self-forgiveness, but may induce a sense of removing all human responsibility which leads to passivity. Only the combination between these perceptions creates the correct balance and enables a full and moral religious and emotional existence.

Dr. Sarah Schwartz holds a MA and doctorate in Bible from Bar Ilan University. She joined the Schechter faculty in 2019 and heads the Bible Studies Program. 

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