Parashat VaYeishev opens with the verse, “VaYeishev Ya’akov BeEretz Megurei Aviv BeEretz Kena’an,” “Ya’akov dwelled in the land of his fathers' sojourning, in the land of Kena’an” (BeReishit 37:1). The Midrash comments that the sale of Yosef comes about because Ya’akov wanted to dwell in tranquility (BeReishit Rabbah 84:3). At first, this seems puzzling: what is so bad about Ya’akov’s desire to live in peace and quiet? After all the trials and tribulations which he has endured, he finally comes back to his land and is looking forward to the possibility of living out his life in peace. Why is this problematic?
Throughout the past few Parashiyot, we have seen that Ya’akov's life is complicated by his theft of Eisav's blessing. Ya’akov Avinu thinks that he is taking Eisav’s blessing for the noble purpose of receiving “the blessing of Avraham” which he deserves. However, that is not the blessing that he receives at this time. Instead, he hears from his father, “Hevei Gevir LeAchecha,” “You shall be a lord to your brothers” (BeReishit 27:29). Ya’akov does not want this blessing. Why would he want to be a lord over Eisav? Ultimately, Ya’akov discovers that he would have received the blessing that he truly desired, the blessing of Avraham, had he not performed deception (28:4), so the deception was unnecessary. Thereafter, Ya’akov is accompanied by a constant sense of obligation to compensate Eisav for the injustice that Ya’akov caused him.
During Ya’akov Avinu’s stay with Lavan, when he discovers that he has married Leah instead of Rachel (29:25), Lavan tells him “Lo Yei’aseh Chein BiMekomeinu Lateit HaTze’irah Lifnei HaBechirah,” “It is not done in our place, to give the younger [in marriage] before the elder” (29:26). Ya’akov understands the hint in Lavan’s words regarding the deception that he employed by taking the birthright from his older brother Eisav and stealing his blessing. Afterwards, when Lavan cheats Ya’akov out of his rightful payment (31:41), Ya’akov regards this as punishment for his deception of Eisav.
When he eventually meets Eisav face to face, Ya’akov Avinu humbles himself before Eisav and calls him “my master” (33:8). Some explain that through this act, Ya’akov returns the stolen blessing to Eisav and tries to compensate him for the injustice that Eisav has suffered. By humbling himself, Ya’akov says that he made a mistake in stealing the blessing and he has no need for the status of being a “lord” over Eisav; on the contrary, Eisav is a lord over Ya’akov.
Ya’akov views even Reuven’s violation of his marital relationship (35:22) as punishment for having stolen Eisav’s blessing. After all, Reuven is not the only one who intervened by force with his father’s plans – Ya’akov did so too when he compelled Yitzchak to give the blessing to him instead of to Eisav.
Because Ya’akov has tried to repay Eisav for stealing the blessing many times and has endured many punishments for stealing the blessing, when he arrives in Eretz Yisrael, he believes that he has finally atoned for his sin. Ya’akov believes that he is now pure and can live out his life in peace. But God shows him that he is not forgiven yet. Ya’akov is punished for his sin one more time; he is subjected to the agony of losing his son Yosef. As the Midrash teaches, the years that Ya’akov lives without Yosef equal the years that Yitzchak did not see Ya’akov after Ya’akov was forced to flee following his theft of Eisav’s blessing. Ya’akov understands all of this and perceives correctly that all that happens to him is punishment and accepts his punishment.
Ya’akov’s sons, however, have an altogether different perception of events. All of Ya’akov’s children think that they know what is “supposed” to happen in the future. Each son performs what he believes to be God’s will, and terrible things happen as a result. The brothers believe that Hashem will require Yosef to be banished; therefore, they sell him into slavery “for the sake of heaven,” in order to cause the “divine plan” to be realized. Yosef acts with similar motivation. Because he believes that God wants his dreams of his brothers bowing to him to be fulfilled, he fails to send Ya’akov Avinu a message throughout all the years of their separation to let him know that he is alive and well in Egypt. He even has Binyamin brought down to Egypt at the expense of the anguish which this brings to Ya’akov in order that his dreams will be fulfilled. But none of Ya’akov’s children understand the Divine plan correctly. None of them understand, as Ya’akov understood, that God takes care of His own accounts and His own plans. No one should act with force for the sake of bringing about God’s plans as he sees them.
There is a famous teaching, “Ma’aseh Avot Siman LeBanim,” “The actions of the forefathers are a sign for their descendants.” This means that the events in the Torah are the beginning of a pattern in history that continues to affect us today. We must act in light of the values which we learn from the story of Yosef. The story of Yosef and his brothers teaches us that an understanding of God’s plan should cause us to engage in Teshuvah, repentance, as it did to Ya’akov when he understood that all that was happening to him was a punishment. However, we should not try to hasten God’s plan or presume that we have a complete understanding of the events that need to take place in order for His plan to be fulfilled. And Yosef and his brothers teach us that we should certainly not try to influence His plan ourselves.