Divine Actions Viewed as the Sum of Human Actions
Thoughts on Parashat Vayigash
In this week’s Parashat we find the continuation of the famous story of Joseph and his life in Egypt. Joseph puts his brothers who came to Egypt to one final test. He orders his brothers to bring him the youngest one, Benjamin, who stayed with their father, Jacob. Juda begs Joseph not to force them to do that for the sake of their elderly father. Instead, he offers that he can become Joseph’s slave. Not able to hide his emotions any longer, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. Seeing their shame and guilty conscience, he consoles them with the following words:
God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. “Now, hurry back to my father and say to him: Thus says your son Joseph, ‘God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me without delay.
How is this story different from other Biblical stories? In Joseph’s story there are no miracles, no direct Divine intervention. Moreover, no one in this story interacts directly with God; there are no prayers, no petitions, pleading etc., all of which are quite a common theme in the Book of Genesis/Bereshit. In this story, just like in the Book of Esther, Divine actions do not go beyond the realm of human actions (other parallels between these two stories could also be pointed out, such as the idea that the acts and activity of a single person are able to deliver the entire nation from a dramatic turn of events; as well as linguistic and narrative-related similarities etc.). However, what distinguishes Divine actions from human actions (which are part of them) is their depth, long-term perspective and the far-sightedness of the goal they are meant to achieve.
This week’s story is a perfect example of how “short-term” human actions can be part of a more comprehensive Divine plan. Moreover, it shows us that we are often able to discover the true meaning of events only in hindsight, oftentimes only after many years, and then we recognize that they were part of a more comprehensive Divine plan. Also, all such events and Divine actions can undoubtedly be described as miraculous and many times when we experience similar events in our own lives that is exactly how we describe them. Their miraculousness is reflected in the improbable, or very unlikely series of events and actions, which nonetheless form a certain logical and meaningful whole.
The so called “traditional” definition of a miracle – as an occurrence transcending or contradicting the laws of nature – by no means reflects a traditional Jewish approach. It is essentially a Greek concept, which to a certain extent has been adopted by our tradition.However, in reality in the Hebrew Bible the concept of nature does not appear at all, and therefore viewing a miracle as something “contrary to nature” is a non-Biblical approach. The Bible does not employ the concept of nature, but rather the concept of creation – a process which takes continuously place in the world, which happens every single minute. In this sense every occurrence or action can be viewed as miraculous, and whether they comply with the laws of nature or not isn’t actually of any great significance.
What does all of these mean for us, for our spirituality and our every-day life? For instance, that we do not have to, and in fact we shouldn’t view Divine actions manifesting in our world as inherently supernatural. Something resembling a justification for this view can be found in the Talmud:
A person should never stand in a place of danger saying that they on High will perform a miracle for him, lest in the end they do not perform a miracle for him. And, moreover, even if they do perform a miracle for him, they will deduct it from his merits.
(Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 32a.)
So, for example, if we are praying for someone’s health, we are not asking for a Divine, supernatural intervention, but rather for example for God to inspire the ill person and everyone around them so that they will undertake actions leading to their successful recovery, and also for God to grant all of them strength and perseverance as they engage in those actions. If we are praying for peace in the world, we are in fact praying for people to stop hurting one another, to stop committing evil acts, different sorts of cruelties and so on – which is so little, and yet so much to ask. Observing the laws of the Torah and following the guidelines reflecting the wisdom of our tradition ensures that if we meticulously follow these rules, then we won’t hurt other people nor commit any evil acts. So little, and yet so much to ask.However, this cannot guarantee that we won’t experience any such wrong doings from other people; as long as there is even one person committing evil acts in this world, there will be at least one other person who experiences wrongdoing.However, both God and the Torah are aware of this and they always take this fact into account. Thanks to this we can (and we do) participate in the process of repairing the world, and we do this every day by performing good deeds, by acting justly and with love towards all those around us.
Translated from Polish by: MarzenaSzymańska-Błotnicka