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The Bigger Picture

12/17/2020 12:04:34 PM

Dec17

One of the features of human intelligence is our ability to imagine the future and build on our own past experiences and the experiences of others. Our culture continues to evolve and each generation hopes to build upon the wisdom of their ancestors. We better understand the world in which we live and see further down the road that we call the future. On our best days, our models and predictions are accurate. But the further we stretch into the temporal horizon, the murkier and less sure we become. At the end of the day, we make the best decisions we can and hope that they were the right ones. This belief that our decisions matter and that we are at the helm of our destinies is the epitome of the philosophical concept of Free Will. This concept that we can choose right and wrong is clearly evident in many of the moral decisions presented to us in our Torah. But not in the Joseph story. Not in Parshat Miketz.

If anything, the Joseph story teaches us the opposite. It might seem to us humans that we are making decisions, but this is just an illusion. At the start of the Joseph story in last week’s portion, we see a Joseph who is tossed around, first into a pit, and then to slavers, and then into prison, all because of the malicious actions of his brothers and Potiphar’s wife. One might think that this is an unfortunate sequence of events that highlights the evil capacity for humans; and I imagine Joseph feels exactly that as he ponders his life’s trajectory as he sits imprisoned. Yet, by the beginning our Parsha, it seems that Joseph solidifies a different opinion that had already been brewing in his mind.  When the cupbearer remembers Joseph and advises Pharaoh that the Hebrew can interpret his dreams, Joseph responds, “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare” and provides an interpretation for his dream (Genesis 41:15). Joseph reiterates, “God has told Pharaoh what he is about to do!” (Genesis 41:25). Instead of allowing others to see him as the dream interpreter (which got him in trouble with his brothers), Joseph now seems to understand that it is God who is implanting the dreams, and providing the interpretations, and the events that will unfold in the near future. The Joseph at the beginning of this portion seems to have turned a corner and is beginning to understand that he is just a puppet in a much larger Divine plan.

The irony of the Joseph story is that even at the end of the narrative, Joseph still didn’t grasp the immensity of the Divine plan. He will say to his brothers that even though they thought their act of throwing him into a pit and then selling him to slavery was bad, they thought wrong. It turns out that these very actions were needed so that Joseph could save lives by being where he needed to be to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and become second in command of Egypt. But unlike Joseph, we know that the story continues in the Book of Exodus and that the famine is the precursor to Jacob and his family coming to Egypt, their eventual enslavement and exodus, the giving of the Torah, the settling of the land of Israel, the monarchies, the prophets, the exile and return, the Maccabees, etc. Joseph might have glimpsed a piece of the larger picture, but his perception of everything is understandably limited.  Similarly, in our own lives, we might only perceive a sliver of the effect we have on others, and how our actions interconnect as parts of the larger momentous sum. As we continue on the roller coaster of life, with all the ups and downs, it is my prayer that we might seek solace in the message of the Joseph story, and appreciate that not everything is within our power to control. Moreover, it is my hope that we can acknowledge that both the good and the bad of our lives could be full of inherent meaning, even if that meaning is opaque to us from our particular vantagepoint. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Mon, September 20 2021 14 Tishrei 5782