Shabbat Parashat Vayechi| 5767
No Substitute for Hashem
After Yaakov’s death, Yosef’s brothers understandably feared for their lives, lest Yosef take revenge against those who sold him into slavery. They offered themselves as slaves to him. Yosef rejected the offer, saying: “Do not fear, for am I a substitute of Hashem? You thought bad upon me, yet Hashem thought it for good, in order to do like this day to sustain a plentiful nation” (Bereishit 50:19-20- excuse the purposely literal translation). It is unclear to what extent Yosef’s words were conciliatory. What, particularly did Yosef mean by, “Am I a substitute of Hashem”?
The Meshech Chuchma (on Bererishit 30:15) explains that Yosef was telling them why he could not take them as slaves. The halacha that a Jew may not sell himself as a slave to his fellow Jew is based on the pasuk: “They are My slaves.” We infer from here that as we are servants to Hashem, we cannot sell ourselves as servants to anyone else (Bava Metzia 10a). Thus, Yosef was saying that since he was not Hashem’s substitute, he had no right to take Hashem’s servants as slaves. According to this explanation, though, it sounds that if not for the halachic problem, Yosef might have taken his brothers as slaves, as his childhood dreams hinted.
Other sources see these words as means of rebuke. Rachel had pleaded with Yaakov to ensure that she bear a child. Yaakov responded with the same phrase: “Am I substitute of Hashem, who withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” The midrash (Bereishit Rabba 71:7) states that Hashem remarked at that time that as a result of Yaakov’s insensitive words, his ten sons would hear the same words from Rachel’s son (Yosef). Clearly then, the midrash saw Yosef’s words as harsh ones, perhaps to a similar degree as follows from the Meshech Chuchma.
We can suggest another explanation of Yosef’s words based on another analysis of Yaakov’s use of the same phrase. Yaakov told Rachel that he could not control if and when she would have a child, as it was part of a Divine plan, which only Hashem knows. As it turns out, the Divine plan had Rachel being a matriarch, just that her children would be born sometime later.
What resulted from Yosef’s “delayed” birth? The Torah tells us that Yosef was a ben zekunim (a child raised in Yaakov’s old age) and gave this as the reason that Yaakov preferred him to his brothers (Bereishit 37:3). This favoritism was the first reason for their jealousy (ibid.:4) which ultimately led to Yosef’s being sold as a slave. Thus, Yosef could have used the same words to hint the following. Yaakov had said that there was a Divine reason that he was born late. It may have been to cause discord, which would cause Yosef to precede his brother’s down to Egypt. Thus the sale itself was part of the Divine plan, and Yosef did not hold his brothers fully responsible for it. As the pasuk continues, while the brothers thought that they were doing something harsh to Yosef, Hashem saw it as a way to save the family from famine.
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