Torah Fax

Thursday, December 20, 2007 - 11 Tevet, 5768

Torah Reading: Veyechi (Genesis 47:28 - 50:26)
Candle Lighting: 4:13 PM
Shabbat ends: 5:18 PM

Naturally Miraculous

After Jacob's burial, the Torah in this week's parsha relates how, "Joseph's brothers saw that their father died, and they said, 'perhaps Joseph will bear a grudge against us and will repay us for all of the evil we have caused him.'"
Why were the brothers so concerned now that Joseph was going to exact revenge from them? Joseph treated them so magnanimously for seventeen years – until Jacob's death - why would he suddenly have a drastic change of heart?
Rashi explains that when Jacob was alive he invited them to eat at his table and treated them with warmth, in his father's honor. However, now that his father was gone he no longer acted close to them.
This is how Rashi explains what the Torah means when it says that "The brothers of Joseph saw that their father died." They saw how the passing of their father changed Joseph's behavior towards them. They therefore feared that Joseph was contemplating taking revenge and plotting to punish them for what they did to him.
Joseph, of course, had no such intention and clearly harbored no grudge against them.
The question arises then, why did Joseph change his behavior towards them? Why didn't he invite them to his table as he did in his father's lifetime?
One answer is that Joseph as a king could not routinely dine with people who were not of royal stock. Not only was this the way of ancient monarchs, but even Jewish law, which the Patriarchs and even Joseph anticipated and followed wherever possible, mandates that a monarch not behave in a manner that decreases his honor.
Hence, to invite his brothers to every meal would not have been consistent with the rules of etiquette that a king is obligated to follow. However, when Jacob was alive, Joseph had an obligation to honor his father by inviting him and his other children to his table. Since he was honoring his father it was not an affront to his role as a king, since a king is also obliged to honor his parents.  
The medieval commentary Ba'al Haturim cites a Midrashic explanation as to why the brothers thought that Joseph would try to exact revenge from them. On the way back from the burial of Jacob in the Land of Israel , they passed the pit that Joseph was thrown into before they sold him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph stopped there and recited the blessing thanking G‑d for the miracle He wrought for him in this place. When the brothers realized he still had a vivid recollection of the events of the past, they were concerned that Joseph still harbored a grudge against them as well.
This explanation begs for further clarification. Why would Joseph expressing gratitude to G‑d for having spared him from the danger he faced when he was thrown into a pit infested with snakes and scorpions mean that he hated his brothers? It is entirely conceivable that he forgave his brothers wholeheartedly – and still recognized the miracle G‑d has wrought for him when he was not harmed in the pit?
One answer to this question lies in a better understanding of Rueben's motive when he tried to save Joseph by suggesting that he be thrown into a pit that just happened to be infested with deadly snakes and scorpions. If Reuben really intended to save Joseph from the hands of his brothers who were plotting to kill him, commentators ask, how did he intend to save Joseph's life by throwing him into a pit infested with deadly creatures?
One of the answers is that Rueben was convinced that Joseph was a righteous person who would never be harmed by an animal. Consistent with G‑d's statement to Noah after the flood, "Your fear shall be upon all the beasts of the field," a human being who acts as he or she should would be impervious to attack from G‑d's creatures. This explains how Daniel was not harmed by the hungry lions when he was thrown into their den. It is not a   miracle that he was not harmed by the lions; it was a natural consequence of Daniel, being completely righteous, appeared to them as a creature upon whom the "image of G‑d" was imprinted.
Thus, Rueben reasoned, the righteous Joseph would have been secure in the company of the snakes and scorpions. Only humans who are endowed with free choice can harm another person even if he or she is pure and righteous. Hence Rueben felt that Joseph was safer in the pit with snakes and scorpions than in the hands of his brothers. Joseph's survival in the pit was thus not a miracle at all, but a natural result of his righteousness and G‑dly bearing.
When the brothers saw that Joseph recited a blessing thanking G‑d for the miracle He wrought for him, they realized that Joseph may have been saved miraculously and not because of his righteousness. When this realization dawned upon them they began to fear that Joseph still harbored a grudge against them; that he was not as pure and innocent as it appeared when their father was still alive.
Until that point, Joseph's brothers thought that he was so righteous that he had totally expunged every and any trace of enmity from his heart. However, now that they saw how he acknowledged that it was only a miracle that saved him from the pit, not his inherent righteousness and pure soul; they began to think that Joseph may still want to harm them. And the fact that he had acted so warmly to them previously was his attempt at suppressing his deep rooted animosity toward them out of respect for his father.
Joseph, of course, did not harbor any grudge against them. His heart was pure and had not even a trace of hostility towards them. The fact that he attributed his salvation from the pit as a miracle was due to his humility; he did not want to attribute his salvation to his own righteousness. In truth, it was his righteousness and noble character that saved him from the snakes and scorpions.
The desert the Jewish people traversed when they left Egypt on their way to the Promised Land is described in the Torah as a desert infested with snakes and scorpions. This desert is often seen as a metaphor for the journey the Jewish people had to make through the difficult exile, which was/is fraught with all sorts of threats to our physical and spiritual lives. We are the "Josephs" of history that are hated by others and are "thrown to the wolves."
The fact that we survived can be attributed to two causes; the first miraculous and the second natural. It was a miracle that "one lamb surrounded by seventy wolves" survived, as the Midrash puts it. Yet, there is also a "natural" explanation for this phenomenon. The dedication of the Jewish people to the study of Torah and the observance of the Mitzvot despite all of the challenges that confronted us actually served to fortify us in many ways so that the "snakes and the scorpions" were "naturally" repelled by us. The Jew who behaves as a Jew ultimately commands the respect of his or her otherwise hostile environment.
The same can be said of the coming of Moshiach. When we ask ourselves what is the basis for our belief that it will happen, the answer is twofold:
Yes, it will be a miracle that the entire world will be transformed into a world of peace and goodness. However, it is also the most natural consequence of centuries and millennia of millions of people performing Mitzvot under the most trying of circumstances. The cumulative effect of all of this goodness and G‑dly energy will take its "toll" and leave its mark on the world. The world is now more than ready to change despite all of the evil that surrounds us. And the only question we must ask ourselves and G‑d is why did it not happen sooner.  

Moshiach Matters      

The opening verses of Parshas Vayechi tell how Yaakov Avinu asked his son Yosef, "Please do not bury me in Egypt.... Carry me out of Egypt..., and swear unto me."
This teaches us that a Jew should unceasingly cry out to G‑d with the request, "Carry me out of Egypt!" It may indeed be said of him, Vayechi (lit., "He lived"), inasmuch as he studies Torah and observes the mitzvos — but exile is not his proper environment. For this reason he begs of G‑d, and even (so to speak) administers an oath to Him, "Carry me out of Egypt!" For he desires to leave this exile. 
Likkutei Sichos, Parshas Vayechi, 5747 [1987] 

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