Torah Reflections: January 1 – 7, 2017

Vayigash

Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

Accountability & Free Will

Chapter 45 is pivotal in the Book of Genesis. Joseph, Jacob’s favored son, who had been second-in-command of Egypt for the past nine years, reveals himself to his brothers after they come to Pharaoh’s court from Canaan to beg for food, as the Mideast’s famine enters its second year. Joseph, in a tearful embrace, forgives his step-brothers for selling him into slavery some twenty-two years earlier, and asks them to bring his father and the entire tribe down to Egypt where he will provide them with the most fertile parcels of land. He says to them:

Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you… God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to keep you alive for a great deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here but God.” [Gen. 45:5-8a]

Though on the surface Joseph’s statement is filled with compassion and understanding, it raises many questions. What about the brothers’ accountability for their earlier misdeeds? And what about free will?

Joseph is clearly saying that God conjured up this “awesome plot,” as the Midrash itself calls it. He and his brothers were simply playing their parts in the great Divine plan. Accordingly, the brothers are not to be held accountable for their actions, “be distressed or reproach [them]selves.” The rabbis, understandably, are troubled by this, and offer many a contortionistic explanation to justify Joseph’s comment. A footnote in the Etz Chayim Chumash (Torah book) betrays their ambivalence: “God could not prevent the brothers from choosing to do something cruel.” Here the rabbis—going against the text—attempt to preserve their belief in free will; but in doing so reduce an all-powerful God to an impotent one. They continue: “God’s role was to sustain Joseph and guide him…” But if God could “sustain” and “guide” Joseph, than why assume He couldn’t do the same with the brothers? And if we grant that God can play a “role” and intervene ever-so-slightly by guiding us in our lives then there is no possibility of free will. How would we know which decisions we make are absolutely our own and which are directed by God’s guidance? The footnote continues: “Abravanel notes that, although God used the sale of Joseph to further the divine plan, the brothers were still accountable for what they did.” But which is it? You can’t have it both ways.

The reason we wrestle with Joseph’s statement has to do with the plane of consciousness from which we approach his words. Our plane of inquiry is the relative plane, the plane of our ego; an inherently dualistic plane. From this perspective we assume free will and accountability because this is a basic belief upon which not just our society, but our very identity is built. But this is not, however, the perspective, the plane of consciousness from which Joseph is speaking. Joseph is not speaking from ego-consciousness; his ego dissolved years before and he was left with knowing himself as a self-less instrument for Divine expression. He is—as we all are—the eyes through which God sees the world, the hands through which God works, the mouth through which God speaks; and he knows full-well that his brothers are too; even though, like us, they haven’t woken up to realizing it yet. He doesn’t deny the need to believe in free will and accountability on the relative dualistic plane of existence. He simply knows that from the (his) absolute non-dual perspective of Reality, no separate individual free-willing self exists; the One is every one, everything, and everywhere. What Joseph proclaims to his brothers is an Absolute Truth that our rational relative perspective cannot grasp. What we are asked to do, however, is resist relegating this Truth to some “antiquated deterministic religious beliefs” because our ego is uncomfortable with it; and through walking the steps of this mystical spiritual path of ours, to awaken ourselves to Joseph’s consciousness and know, from that place, the Truth he is speaking.

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About Rabbi Olivier

Olivier BenHaim is the rabbi for Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue. Olivier is also a husband and Amalya and Lior's papa. He likes sunny days in Seattle, hiking, cuddling with his kids, having friends over for dinner and crunchy chocolate chip cookies.

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