In this week’s Parsha, Yaakov delivers his final message to his children before he dies. In this message he blesses each son and also rebukes them when necessary. As such, it seems surprising that throughout the speech he never once rebukes the brothers about Mechirat Yosef! Although Rashi says that Yaakov hints to the sale when rebuking Shimon and Levi, most “Pshat” Mefarshim do not agree. One way of resolving this difficulty is the Ramban’s approach, that namely Yaakov did not know about the sale. Yaakov thought that Yosef was wandering in the fields near Shechem when someone found him and sold him as a slave to Egypt. In fact, the brothers never revealed their sin to Yaakov, and Yosef, compassionate toward his brothers, did not want to tell his father.
The Abarbanel, however, says that Yaakov did indeed know about the sale. However, he did not rebuke them because Yaakov understood that the brothers’ Bechirah Chafshit, free choice, was revoked when they sold Yosef, as Hashem forced them to do it. In order to bring Bnei Yisrael to Egypt and initiate the Brit Ben Habetarim, Hashem “decreed” upon the brothers to sell Yosef. Yosef acknowledges this when he says, “Veata Lo Atem Shalachtem Oti Heyna Ki Haelokim...” “And now it was not you who sent me here, but Hashem…” Because of this, Yaakov felt that they did not deserve punishment or rebuke.
It is important to note that the Abarbanel does not mean to cast doubt upon the principle of Bechirah Chafshit. Certainly he would agree that Bechirah Chafshit is a major principle; a person can do whatever he wants, as the Rambam writes in Hilchot Teshuvah. However, though the Rambam is talking about the general principle, there are exceptions, as the Rambam himself writes that sometimes a person’s Bechirah Chafshit is revoked as a punishment. Along the same lines, the Abarbanel understands that sometimes, for the purpose of guiding the course of history, Hashem revokes the Bechirah Chafshit of man. The basis in Tanach for this special exception is the Pasuk in Mishlei, “Palgei Mayim Lev Melech Biyad Hashem Al Kol Asher Yachpotz Yatenu” “Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the land of Hashem, wherever He wishes, so He directs it.” The Yalkut Shimoni comments on this Pasuk, that just like water when put into a vessel can be moved about and tilted any way a person wants, so too, when a person rises to greatness, his heart is given in the hand of Hashem. If the world merits it, Hashem tilts the “king’s heart” to good and if the world does not merit He tilts it to harsh decrees.
In contrast to the Abarbanel, Rav Saadya Gaon emphasizes that the Pasuk in Mishlei should not be understood to mean that sometimes king’s Bechirah Chafshit is revoked, but rather the Pasuk should be interpreted otherwise. Similarly, the Abarbanel quotes that the Rambam understood that Mechirat Yosef was done out of Bechirah Chafshit. Rabbeinu Yonah says on the Pasuk in Mishlei that the goal of the people’s hearts should be to fear Hashem and not to fear the anger of a king. A person should ask mercy of Hashem and raise his eyes towards Him, for He tilts the heart to wherever he wants. In the end, that which determines the course of history is neither the political platform of this party or another, nor the members of the government themselves, but rather, “The heart of a king is in the hand of Hashem.”