Exile and Return (part 1)
This week's Parsha features the famous story of Joseph being sold by his jealous brothers. Joseph is sent down to Egypt, and as a result, the Jewish people wind up spending a few hundred years in brutal slavery.
The circumstances surrounding the sale of Joseph are most puzzling, and in some odd way it seems that the whole tragedy was destined to occur from the start. Consider:
- Jacob clearly provokes his other sons by showing special favoritism toward Joseph, particularly by giving him the coat of many colors (Genesis 37:3). This behavior is especially strange for a wizened patriarch like Jacob!
- Joseph stirs his brothers' animosity by delivering a bad report about them. (37:2)
- When Joseph has a dream indicating his eventual rule over his brothers, he incites them further by telling them the dream (37:5).
- After a second, similar dream, Joseph again angers his brothers by recounting the dream (37:9). Joseph retells the dream again to his father - in front of the brothers (37:10)! Now they're fuming mad!
- Jacob, though he knows that relations are highly strained, nevertheless sends Joseph to check on the brothers' activities and report back. Despite the obvious danger, Joseph agrees - and goes alone (37:13). It is then that the brothers throw Joseph into the pit and sell him as a slave.
As strange as it may sound, this series of provocations seems like an intentional effort by Jacob and Joseph to stir hatred. How can this possibly be?
To answer, let's backtrack about 100 years:
In Genesis 15:7-8, God promises Abraham that he and his descendants will possess the Land of Israel. To which Abraham responds, "How do I know it's true?"
This remark seems out of line! Imagine a father promising his child, "I'll take you to the ball game on Sunday," and the child looks up and says, "Can I really trust you'll do it?"
Although Abraham was on an extremely high spiritual level (after all, he's talking with God), his comment of "How will I know?" showed that he went too far in testing God's promises. A person of Abraham's stature should not have felt the need to seek any reassurance from God.
For that reason, before the birth of the Jewish nation, God decreed an experience which would engrain into Abraham's spiritual genetics a greater trust in God.
So God tells Abraham: "Your descendants will be strangers in a land... where they will be enslaved and oppressed" (Genesis 15:14). The remedy is to be enslaved in Egypt. There the Jews will come to the eventual realization that only God can save them. They will turn to God with a total heart, cry out - and only then redemption will occur.
Generations later, that is precisely what transpired:
"The Jews cried out because of their slavery... God heard their cries and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." (Exodus 2:23-24)
The Jews had built a new level of trust in God. Egyptian slavery had served its purpose.
The Hebron Plan
We can now understand why Jacob and Joseph went out of their way to provoke the brothers. They were simply helping to fulfill God's grand plan. In fact, during those crucial moments before meeting the brothers, God sent the angel Gabriel to encourage Joseph along! The Egypt experience was inevitable, and they were setting the process of exile into motion.
This is alluded to in Genesis 37:14, where Jacob sent Joseph to check on the brothers from the "depths of Hebron." On a simple level, this makes no sense, because as anyone who has visited Israel knows, Hebron is located in the Judean hills - not in a valley! (see Joshua 14:12)
The Talmud (Sotah 11a) asks this question, and answers as follows: When the Torah says the "DEPTHS of Hebron," it means figuratively that Joseph was sent from the "PROFOUND" plan involving Abraham (who is buried in Hebron). The sale of Joseph is an extension of Abraham's questioning God.
In fact, the Zohar reports that on the way to check the brothers' activities (the act that would lead directly to Joseph's going down to Egypt), Jacob actually took him to Abraham's grave in Hebron before sending Joseph on the mission.
The process of exile was destined to happen one way or another. Jacob and Joseph helped orchestrate it thusly. As the Midrash says, if things hadn't worked out this way, Jacob would've eventually been dragged down to Egypt in chains.
And this is the lesson for us today. The process of descent is something we each have to go through. Why do our souls come to earth in the first place? Because we have crucial life lessons to learn. The Kabbalists describe this as "Tikkun" - rectification of one's soul, based on mistakes of past lives - and rooted in the original mistake of Adam and Eve.
Which is not to suggest we should go out of our way to seek difficulties. But if there is a necessary process to undergo, then it is foolish to avoid it. Too often we busy ourselves with petty distractions, in hopes of escaping the painful confrontation with reality. But it always catches up with us eventually. Because that "difficulty" is part and parcel of our reason for being.
Don't be afraid. It's all part of God's grand eternal plan. If you have an issue in life, confront it. Work it through. Build your "trust muscles." Realize that God is in control. He put you in this situation for good reason, and that only He can safely get you out of it. God delivers.
Stay tuned next week for part two of "Exile and Return"