Parashat Vayeshev begins the Joseph cycle, the longest narrative in the book of Genesis. A series of “unfortunate” events befall Joseph that lead to his being sold into slavery and then imprisoned. One of the more enigmatic moments in the parsha is Joseph encountering a “man” near Shechem while looking for his brothers, who are not where they said they would be. It turns out they have moved on to Dothan and the man directs him there.
Had Joseph not met the man, he might not have found his brothers or been sold into slavery. Our story would have been very different! This man just shows up in our story, plays his part, and then disappears. Maimonides consequently claims that he was an angel sent by God to make sure that Joseph found his way to his brothers.
Wait. God wants all these unfortunate things to happen to Joseph? Apparently so. The issue is that our perspective is limited, so we can’t always be sure what is good for us and what is not.
There is a Chinese proverb that ties into our story:
A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and the neighbors exclaimed, “What terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe”
A few days later, the horse returned, leading wild mares back to the farm. The neighbors exclaimed, “What luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe.”
Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The neighbors cried, “What bad luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe.”
Soon thereafter soldiers came to town and took all the able-bodied men to join the army, but they left the son with his broken leg. The neighbors all shouted, “What luck that your son was spared.” The farmer replied, “Maybe.”
The point is that we can’t always tell what’s good for us and what is not.
However, the Jewish version of story is not neutral, but rather a story of faith.
In the Talmud we find: Once upon a time, the famed Tannaic sage Rabbi Akiva was travelling alone. He came to a certain town and sought lodging there, but they refused to host him. Instead of growing frustrated or upset, Rabbi Akiva simply said: “Everything that the Merciful One does is for the best.”
Lacking other options, he went and slept in a field. He had with him a rooster, a donkey, and a candle.
While he was there, a strong gust of wind extinguished the lamp, then a wild cat came and devoured the rooster. And finally, a lion attacked and consumed the donkey.
Once again, Rabbi Akiva simply exclaimed: “Everything that the Merciful One does is for the best!” That night, a legion of soldiers marched on the town and took it into captivity (and Rabbi Akiva no longer had a candle, rooster or donkey to give away his location, so evaded capture). Rabbi Akiva said to them: “Is it not as I have always told you — everything that the Holy One, Blessed be He, does is ultimately for the best!” (Berachot 60b)
Faith is challenging to us as moderns and yet is a powerful part of our history. It is not easy for us to experience setbacks and to suspend judgement or have faith that it was for the best. But from this week’s parsha we are reminded that we are not all knowing and often in the midst of things we can not tell if ultimately what transpires will be good for us or not. Patience and faith is what we need to cultivate.