“The Lord was with Joseph and he was a successful man…” (Genesis 39:2)
Parashat Vayeshev begins the saga of Joseph and his brothers, the longest narrative in Genesis. Joseph’s fate swings wildly from being his father’s favorite, to being sold into slavery, from rising to prominence in Potiphar’s house, to being accused of seduction and cast into jail. Yeshayahu Leibovitz (1903–94; an Israeli intellectual known for his outspoken opinions on Judaism, ethics, religion and politics) explains that behind the drama lies a serious theological question.
Vayeshev states, “Joseph was brought down to Egypt” (Gen 39:1). The brothers are usually blamed (they do sell him, after all). But, earlier in the Torah, God tells Abraham his descendants will become oppressed slaves for four hundred years (Gen. 15:13). It would seem Joseph’s (and all of Israel’s, by extension) descent into slavery is God’s will, not Joseph’s brothers’ fault. This is the crux of a remarkable midrash (a rabbinic interpretations of the Biblical text) which accuses God of making an alilah, or false accusation against man and offers the Joseph story as one of three examples. The question is does free will exist or does God know all?
Maimonides (1137-1204; the preeminent Spanish medieval Jewish philosopher) resolves the conflict by claiming the way humans know and the way God knows are different. That is because God cannot be separated from God’s knowledge; they are one and the same. Our human limitations keep us from comprehending how this works. Maimonides says simply hold fast to both propositions. (Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah, 5:5) That’s great if you’re a philosopher, but what are the rest of us supposed to do?
Ultimately, there is no resolution to the dilemma; it is a matter of faith. And faith, unlike reason, does not require proof, only belief.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom