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Torah Portion: Vayigash

Book of Genesis

Chaps. 44:18-47:27

January 6, 2017

         Is there any time when evil can be excused for the sake of good?

At the age of 17, Joseph’s jealous brothers toss him into a pit to die, only later to be sold to slave traders on their way to Egypt. Years pass. Joseph’s talent for interpreting dreams lifts him from the dungeons of Egypt to the position of Vizier, 2nd only to Pharaoh. In a time of famine, Joseph becomes responsible for supplying the population with grain and food necessities. Among those seeking help are his brothers. They travel from Canaan to Egypt not knowing that Joseph is not only alive but the one they will have to negotiate with for food. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. In the end, Joseph feels compelled to drop his charade and reconcile with his brothers-the very ones who sought to kill him.

How surprised Joseph’s brothers must have been to find him not only alive but also prospering. How much more difficult it must have been for Joseph to reconcile with those who found satisfaction in his presumed death and destruction. How did he do it?   Joseph says to his brothers, “Now, do not be distressed or blame yourselves because you sold me [down to Egypt]; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. . .God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” Gen. 45:5 & 7

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh comments: “Joseph repeatedly points out to his brothers how this whole chain of events stand out as Divine management. . .Without knowing it and without wishing it, folly and sin also are used to serve God’s ends.” In other words, a little bit (or even a lot!) of evil is not only not so bad, but even excusable, if it produces good in the end.

The scholar Don Isaac Abravanel, who lived 300 years earlier than Hirsh disagrees. He writes: “The fact that by fluke the sale turned out well did not lessen their offense. A person is not judged by the accidental results of his deeds but by his intent. The accidental results are irrelevant to the moral dimension.”

The fact that Joseph was in the right place at the right time has no bearing on the actions of his brothers. Acts of evil are immoral regardless of future outcomes. Torturing a human being is immoral regardless of information that may be extracted as a result. Claiming there would not be a State of Israel without there having been a Holocaust is an insulting attempt to legitimize the ultimate evil that stirs in the hearts of humankind.

During the past two months, Barack Obama became the first President of the United States to formally visit Nagasaki and Hiroshima-the Japanese cities obliterated by the Atomic bomb ending WWII in the Pacific. Then, Shinzo Abe became the first Japanese Prime Minister to visit the war memorial at Pearl Harbor where Japan started its war with the United States in a surprise attack killing thousands of servicemen. Both events, regardless of the war’s outcome, did not need to happen. Both events were immoral and evil. The real tragedy is it took 75 years to formally recognize this!

Rabbi Howard Siegel


© 2017 Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Richmond, BC, Canada
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