It’s a popular use of the Yosef story – as a proof text that good can come from evil, that all that befell Yosef was part of a Divine plan. That all that transpired was necessary, so that the Israelites would wind up in Mitzrayim, eventually be enslaved, cry out to G”d and be heard, then to be led out of Egypt by G”d’s mighty hand and enter into a covenant with G”d at Sinai. A nice, perfect little package. When trying to deal with questions of theodicy, of why bad things happen to good people, it is, for some, an inspiring and explanatory tale. (Now, I make no pretense of my utter contempt for the sort of teleological “ends justifies the means” argument that underlies the whole Yosef story. So it’s not so inspiring a tale for me.)
In any case, there’s a problem, and they rest with the very words of Yosef himself, explaining his understanding of what had transpired.
Yaakov gets in his last digs by “adopting” Menashe and Ephraim as if they were his own sons, placing the younger Ephraim before Menashe, then offering his little death-bed poem of psychological analysis of his sons. He dies, and, true to the promise Yaakov exacted from him, Yosef takes Yaakov up to Canaan to be buried in the cave of Machpelah. A brief aside here. Yaakov couldn’t be bothered to have his beloved Rachel brought to and buried at Machpelah – he buried her at the side of the road. Yet he asks Yosef to swear an oath to be sure he is buried at Machpelah. he later asks the rest of his sons to insure the same, but does not make them swear an oath to that effect. Clearly, he saw that only Yosef was able to insure this happening due to his status as Vizier of Egypt. I find this nod to power a bit troubling, and it’s probably fodder for an entire musing sometime in the future.
With Yaakov’s body returned to Canaan and buried at Machpelah done (with much pomp and circumstance, Yosef still being an Egyptian muckety-muck) the brothers again fear what Yosef might do to punish them, especially now that Yaakov was gone. They concoct (yet another) lie and tell Yosef that before he died, he told the brothers to tell Yosef to forgive his brothers for what they had done to them.
Yosef tells them not to fear, and utters those memorable words I and others have written about many times before: “Ki hatakhat Elokim ani?” “Am I to take the place of G”d?” (or, as the JPS says “Am I a substitute for G”d.”) Gen 50:19. I’ll leave you to muse over those words and I’ll move on.
Yosef next says to his brothers that although they intended him evil, G”d intended it for good,
וְאַתֶּ֕ם חֲשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם עָלַ֖י רָעָ֑ה אֱלֹהִים֙ חֲשָׁבָ֣הּ לְטֹבָ֔ה
in order to. . .
לְמַ֗עַן עֲשֹׂ֛ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה לְהַחֲיֹ֥ת עַם־רָֽב׃
And here comes the nub of my argument. Yosef says: “l’ma’an aseh kiyom hazeh, l’hakhayot am-rav.” Literally, “in order to make (bring about?) like (they are) this day, to cause many to live.” Or the smoother JPS: “so as to bring about the present result-the survival of many people.” (Gen 50:20)
Am-rav. Great Nation. Great people. Many people. A populous nation. A numerous people. All valid meanings. When we read the word in this context, most of us generally tend to view “am” as referring to the people Israel. But is that truly what Yosef meant, that this was all about the survival of the people of Israel? The 70 who came down to Egypt (and eventually became many more.) Yaakov, his sons, their wives, slaves, maids, etc. were not a huge multitude. It is quite likely that thousands upon thousands of Egyptians were saved from starvation through the ultimately fortuitous set of circumstances that arose out of Yosef being sold into slavery by his brothers. (On the other hand, they were also made into serfs, having to give up all their money and land to the state in order to survive.)
I think all the inhabitants of Egypt and the surrounding lands, along with Yaakov, his family clan and retainers, are the entire “am-rav” that Yosef is referring to. I think this is an important reminder to not be myopic in our thinking. This whole Yosef thing might not have been entirely about us, “am-Yisrael.” Yes, it’s our story, our Torah that we’re analyzing here. Yet if we are to be or l’goyim (a light to the nations) can we limit our vision this way?
Which the desired result and which the unintended but beneficent consequence? Can we really be sure? Does G”d have it all plotted out, down to the end of time? Or does G”d perhaps sometimes use more short-term strategies, assess and then move on? It’s all a matter of how direct a hand G”d takes in human affairs. Therein lies a whole other discussion, and a whole series of musings.
But I digress. My point is that, while this may be a proof text used by some to rationalize good arising from evil deeds, I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to use it only as proof that the people of Israel were the ultimate intended recipient of the good. G”d created us all, and G”d surely cares about us all, even those, like the Egyptians, who pray to false gods.
Good isn’t always something that happens to us. Good is something that we want to happen to others, in fact, to as many people as it can happen to. And not just people-but animals, living matter, our planet, our universe.
So let’s try to be a little more global in our view of parashat Vayekhi. If we’re going to accept that sometimes good can come from evil (and though I shudder to think so, it is part of the conversation we are having here) then why not allow as much good to come from evil as is possible? G”d knows, in these times, we need that kind of attitude. Let’s not be selfish, and wish that whatever good might come out the Newtown tragedy, (or, as I wrote at the time of the original version of this musing – from the ashes of 9/11) is good for America. That bad events in the middle east might yield good for Israel. In 5762 I wrote: “Let us hope, pray (and work! To insure) that the good that comes is a good for all the world.” Today, I modify these thoughts. Let us first hope and pray that we can eliminate evil, or at least sweep as much evil as we can from our midst, and work always for the good. Despite our efforts, should evil occur, may it be Your will and ours that we turn the outcome of the evil into as much good as is humanly (and Divinely) possible.
Ken y’hi ratson. May this be (Gd’s) will. Ken y’hi ratsoneinu. May this be our will.
Shabbat shalom, and happy secular New Year to all.
Hazak, hazak, v’nitkhazeik.
©2012 (portions 2001) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Vayekhi 5772 – A Different HaMalakh HaGoel
Vayekhi 5771-Trading Places (Redux & Updated from 5759)
Vayekhi 5770 – Musing Block?
Vayekhi 5769 – Enough With the Hereditary Payback Already!
Vayekhi 5767-HaMalakh HaGoel
Vayechi 5766-Thresholds (Redux 5764 with Reflections
Vayechi 5761/5-Unethical Wills
Vayechi 5763 – I Got it Good and That Ain’t Bad (Redux 5760)
Vayechi 5759-Trading Places