Miketz 5784: Between Free Will and Divine Providence

In Parshas Miketz, the mazal of Yosef the prisoner, the slave, the rejected, is about to change in the blink of an eye.  When Pharaoh dreams two dreams that no one can interpret to his liking – sickly and healthy cows on the shore of the Nile River, and parched and plump ears of grain in the field – the butler exclaims: אֶתחֲטָאַי, אֲנִי מַזְכִּיר הַיּוֹםmy sin I remember today! When Pharaoh became angry at me (the butler) and the baker and imprisoned us, וְשָׁם אִתָּנוּ נַעַר עִבְרִי, עֶבֶד לְשַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים, וַנְּסַפֶּרלוֹ, וַיִּפְתָּרלָנוּ אֶתחֲלֹמֹתֵינוּ: אִישׁ כַּחֲלֹמוֹ, פָּתָרAnd there with us was a Hebrew lad, a slave of the chief slaughterer, and we told him, and he interpreted our dreams for us; for each, he interpreted according to his dream.  וַיִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה וַיִּקְרָא אֶתיוֹסֵף, וַיְרִיצֻהוּ מִןהַבּוֹר; וַיְגַלַּח וַיְחַלֵּף שִׂמְלֹתָיו, וַיָּבֹא אֶלפַּרְעֹהSo Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they rushed him from the pit, and he shaved and changed his clothes, and he came to Pharaoh (41:9-14).

When Yosef correctly interprets the dreams – there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine – Pharaoh is smitten with Yosef, and he says to his servants:  הֲנִמְצָ֣א כָזֶ֔ה אִ֕ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֛ר ר֥וּחַ אֱלֹקְים בּֽוֹ“Will we find [anyone] like this, a man in whom there is the spirit of G-d?”!  And Pharaoh says to Yosef: You shall be [appointed] over my household, and through your command all my people shall be nourished; only [with] the throne will I be greater than you (41:38-40).

Through many seemingly random events – Yosef is orphaned young, he is the object of his father’s love, he receives a special cloak from father, he speaks lashon harah about his brothers, he dreams ‘random’ dreams, his brothers go from Shechem to Dosan, a “man” finds him in the field and redirects him, he is going to be killed, then thrown into a pit, then sold… he changes hands many times… the caravan smells like spices – redemption will come.  Suddenly, at the age of thirty, Yosef is ruler and viceroy over Egypt and the ancient Middle East.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z’l writes, “It is only in retrospect that we understand the story of our life.  Later events explain earlier ones.  In the beginning, neither Joseph nor his brothers could know that his dreams were a form of prophecy, that he was indeed destined for greatness and that every misfortune he would suffer would play a part in the dreams coming true.  At first reading, the Joseph story reads like a series of random happenings.  Only later, looking back, do we see that each event was part of a precise, providential plan to lead a young man from a family of nomadic shepherds to become viceroy of Egypt.

“This is a truth not about Joseph alone but about us as well.  We live our lives poised between a known past and an unknown future.  LInking them is a present in which we make our choices.  We decide between alternatives.  Ahead of us are several diverging paths, and it is up to us which we follow.  Only looking back does our life take on the character of a story.  Only many years later do we realize which choices were fateful, and which irrelevant.  Things which seemed small at the time turn out to be decisive.  Matters than once seemed important prove in retrospect to have been trivial.  Seen from the perspective of the present, a life can appear to be a random sequence of disconnected events.  It takes the passage of time for us to be able to look back and see the route we have taken, and the right and wrong turnings on the way…

“So it is with life itself.  As we live it day by day, we choose in the present in order to shape what is for us an unknown, undetermined future.  Only looking back are we able to see the consequences of our actions, and realize their part in the unfolding of our autobiography.  It is then, with hindsight, that we begin to see how providence has guided our steps, leading us to where G-d needs us to be… Only looking back do we see G-d’s providence interwoven with our life, never looking forward (cf. Ex.33:23).

“How sublty and deftly this point is made in the story of Josepsh – the supreme example of a life in which human action and divine intervention are inextricably entwined… We are free.  But we are also characters in a divinely-scripted drama.  We choose, but we are also chosen.  The Jew lives in the tension between these two frames of reference: between freedom and providence, our decisions and G-d’s plan” (Covenant and Conversation, Genesis, p.280-283).

Before he fell last week (on 12/3/23) in battle in Gaza, Ben Zussman HY”D, aged 22 from Jerusalem, penned the following letter:  “I’m writing this letter on the way to the base.  If you’re reading this, something must have happened to me.  As you know me, there’s probably no one happier than me right now.  It’s not just that I was really happy for the realization of my dream.  I’m happy and grateful for the privilege to protect our beautiful land and the people of Israel.

“Even if something happens to me, I don’t allow you to sink into sadness. I had the right to fulfill my dream and my vocation and you can be sure that I look down upon you and smile a huge smile… If, G-d forbid, you sit shiva for me make it a week of friends, family and fun… Another very, very important point.  If, G-d forbid, I fall into captivity, alive or dead, I’m not ready for a single soldier or citzen to be harmed because of some deal for my release.  I’m not ready for terrorists to be released in exchange for me.  In no way, shape or deal.

“I’ll say it again.  I left the house (to fight) without even being called up to the reserves.  I’m full of pride and a sense of mission and I’ve always said that if I have to die, I hope it will be in defense of others and the country.”  עַל־חֽוֹמֹתַ֣יִךְ יְרֽוּשָׁלִַ֗ם הִפְקַ֙דְתִּי֙ שֹֽׁמְרִ֔ים כָּל־הַיּ֧וֹם וְכָל־הַלַּ֛יְלָה (Is.62:6) “Jerusalem – I left guards, that one day I’ll be one of them.”

While we live through the curernt, exceedingly painful present, it is oftentimes difficult to perceive the hand of our Compassionate Father guiding His nation and His land. Yet, with all the choices la’tova that we make, ultimately we know and believe that we are fulfilling ratzon Hashem, and while we “are free to choose, we are also chosen.”

May we merit the immediate end of days, when Hashem’s plan will be revealed, and then, like Yosef, we will see all our dreams come to fruition, אָז יִמָּלֵא שְׂחוֹק פִּינוּ וּלְשׁוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה, then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with song (Tehilim 126:2).

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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