Yosef, Divine Intervention and Gaza Rockets by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Introduction – Yosef Claims to Know God’s Will

Yosef makes the astounding claim that Hashem sent him to Mitzrayim to provide food for his family. Yosef makes this assertion twice – once when he reveals his identity to his brothers (BeReishit 45:8) and yet again when consoling his brothers after Ya’akov Avinu's death (50:20). A major question, though, is what convinced Yosef that this indeed was Hashem's will. After all, unlike the Avot, Yosef never received a direct prophecy from Hashem. How was Yosef privy to God's intentions?

This poignant question has extraordinary ramifications for us. For if Yosef can discern God's will without the benefit of a direct communication, then we too might be able to discover Hashem's Will even in an age when we do not enjoy the benefit of Nevu’ah or even a Bat Kol (heavenly voice; as was common during the times of the Gemara).

Yosef's Sweet Smelling Caravan

An answer to our query emerges from an analysis of an intriguing comment made by Rashi. The Pasuk (37:25) records the contents of the cargo carried by the caravan that transported Yosef to slavery in Mitzrayim. The load consisted of fragrant smelling spices such as balsam and lotus. Chazal and Rashi wonder why the Torah records what seems to be a trivial detail that appears to be entirely irrelevant to the story. Why does Hashem feel that it is important for us to know the cargo contents of the caravan?

Rashi (ad. loc s.v. UGemaleihem Nos’im; citing BeReishit Rabbah 84:17), following Chazal, offers an intriguing answer. He explains that normally Arab caravans carried foul smelling items such as resin and tar. Hashem arranged that the caravan transporting Yosef would carry spices so that Yosef need not suffer from the malodorous wares.

Rashi’s comment is quite puzzling. Yosef is transported to Mitzrayim to live a miserable life as a slave. Yosef’s privileged life as the favored son of Ya’akov Avinu was transformed instantly to a wretched existence. Why is Hashem’s arrangement for the caravan to carry sweet smelling spices to help Yosef a significant manner? Poor smelling cargo would have been the least of Yosef’s newly encountered problems.

The situation would seem analogous to someone who, God forbid, was kidnapped by ISIS and Hashem arranged for the vehicle transporting the victim to ISIS held territory to be pleasant smelling. What benefit does the victim in such horrific circumstances have from the pleasant smell?

Discerning Divine Involvement

An answer to our question is that Yosef was a highly intelligent person, described by Onkelos and Rashi (commenting on BeReishit 37:3[1]) as such. Accordingly, Yosef realized that it was entirely out of character that a Yishma’eili caravan was carrying sweet smelling spices. Yosef pondered the matter and realized that it was Hashem sending him a subtle message that He is with Yosef and He had orchestrated his sale to Egypt.

Thus, Yosef in his wisdom discerned the subtle message sent to him by Hashem and told his brothers with confidence, despite the absence of divine revelation, that it was Hashem who devised his sale to Egypt.

We find a similar pattern regarding Eli’ezer’s encounter with Rivkah. The stunning and extraordinarily improbable fact pattern led even the impious Lavan and Betu’eil to conclude that “MeiHashem Yatza HaDavar,” “the matter stemmed from Hashem” (24:50)[2].

Similarly, the Gemara (Moed Katan 17a) relates the following:

“There was a young Torah scholar who acquired a bad reputation (rumors were circulating that he was misbehaving in his personal life). Rabi Yehudah said: ‘What shall we do regarding this case? Shall we excommunicate him? The rabbis need him (Rashi: he was their teacher). Shall we not excommunicate him? A Chillul Hashem will ensue.’ He asked Rabbah bar bar Chanah: ‘Did you hear anything about such a case?’ He answered him: ‘Rabi Yochanan taught: Malachi  (2:7) states: ‘The Kohen's lips safeguards knowledge and people seek Torah from his mouth, for he is like an angel of Hashem.’ That means: If the teacher resembles an angel, Torah may be sought from his mouth, but not otherwise.’ Thereupon Rabi Yehudah excommunicated him. Subsequently, Rabi Yehudah became deathly ill and the rabbis made him a sick-call, among whom was also that young scholar. When Rabi Yehudah saw him, he laughed. He said to Rabi Yehudah: ‘Is it not enough that you excommunicated me, you also laugh at me?’ Rabi Yehudah answered him: ‘I do not laugh at you, but in the World to Come I will be proud to say that I was not biased even towards so great a man as you.’

When Rabi Yehudah died, the young scholar came to the Beit Midrash and asked to be released from the ban[3], and the Chachamim answered him: ‘There is not here a man equal in esteem to Rabi Yehudah to excuse you. Go to Rabi Yehudah Nesi’ah, and he may discharge you.’ He went to him. Rabi Yehudah Nesi’ah said to Rabi Ami: ‘Go and examine his case, and if found favorable, absolve him.’ Rabbi Ami did so, and was about to excuse him when Rabi Shmuel bar Nachmeini arose and said: ‘Even when the maidservant of the house of Rebbi excommunicated someone, the sages respected it for three years, how much more so should we respect Yehudah our colleague.’ Rabi Zeira said: ‘How did it happen that this elder came today to the Beit Midrash (study hall) after an absence of several years? It is evident that the young scholar should not to be released from the ban.’”

Accordingly, one may discern Hashem’s subtle involvement even when it comes without prophetic revelation. Just as Yosef, Lavan and Rabi Zeira realized the involvement of the divine hand, we too are called upon to discover Hashem’s involvement today, despite the passing of more than two thousand years since the termination of the prophetic age.

The Miraculous Survival of the Jewish People

The Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chaim 219:2) beautifully applies this idea to the experience of the Jewish People during the past two thousand years of exile:

“Our very existence and survival stems from miracles and not the natural order of events as we thank Hashem [in the Modim prayer] ‘Al Nisecha SheBeChol Yom Imanu,’ for His daily miracles. A discerning individual who ponders the history of the Jews through our long exile and dispersion will realize that Hashem resides amongst us [to ensure our survival] in accordance with the promises He set forth in the Torah. Prime example of these promises are the Pasuk ‘VeAf Gam Zot BiHeyotam BeEretz Oyveihem Lo Me’astim VeLo Ge’altim Lehafeir Beriti Itam’, ‘but despite all these [sins] while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not despise them nor reject them to destroy them and cancel the covenant I made with them’ (VaYikra 26:44[4]) and the Gemara (Megillah 29a) which states that ‘Galu LeBavel Shechinah Imahem,’ ‘they were exiled to Babylon the divine presence remains with them.’ It is evident to all[5] that the survival of the Jewish People is not natural by any stretch of the imagination. Even during generations that do not excel in fulfilling the Torah’s commands, the divine presence has not abandoned us, in keeping with what is written ‘HaShochein Itam Betoch Tum’otam,’ ‘who resides amongst them in their impurity’ (VaYikra 16:16). Nonetheless He does [sometimes] punish us as stated ‘Yasor Yisrani Kah VeLaMavet Lo Netanani,’ ‘He has made us suffer but has not allowed our demise’ (Tehillim 118:18). This describes our situation both as a nation and as individuals.”

Three Categories of Miracles

Aruch Hashulchan continues and distinguishes between three types of divine intervention and our three expressions of gratitude to Hashem for each. Miracles that contravene the laws of nature such as those involved with our Exodus from Egypt demand the recitation of the Berachah of “SheAsah Nissim,” “who made a miracle [either for our people or an individual]”[6]. In the prayer of Modim, we thank Hashem for the “routine” miracles such as our earning a livelihood[7] and everyday survival. Birkat HaGomeil is reserved for those occurrences which are somewhat in between these two extremes. It is recited when one is saved without a violation of the laws of nature but rather is saved by a miracle which “somewhat deviates from the boundaries of naturally occurring events into the realm of a miraculous nature.”

Contemporary Application – Rockets from Gaza

The official website of the Israel Defense Forces (accessed on July 7, 2015) stated that “since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, terrorists have fired more than 11,000 rockets into Israel. Over 5 million Israelis are currently living under threat of rocket attacks.”

Let us ponder this phenomenon for a moment. Eleven thousand rockets landed in the ten years from 2005 to 2015 – what would one expect the casualty rate from such unrelenting fire to be? In the normal course of events there would be thousands killed and severely injured and billions of dollars of financial loss sustained. While there is, tragically, some loss of life, limb and property, these numbers are dramatically lower than one would expect. As I see it, divine intervention to preserve His people as set forth in the Torah is the only reasonable explanation for this phenomenon. Coincidence, Israel’s security skill, or poor abilities of Arab terrorists can explain one or a few incidents. These are all inadequate and unreasonable explanations for ten years of unremitting yet, for the most part, unsuccessful attacks.

Rav Binyamin Yudin of Fair Lawn, New Jersey noted in July 2014 that we find many times in the Torah that we gain insight from evildoers such as Bil’am. Similarly, Rav Yudin cited Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan who in defending Hamas firing weapons at Israel explained that Hamas does not intend to kill Israelis: “They say ‘Hamas bombs as well.’ Yes it bombed, but how many people were killed? There are no casualties. How can this be?”

Rational individuals recognize the foolish nature of Erdogan’s comments. Nonetheless, Erdogan does correctly identify a most unusual phenomenon that, in the words of the Aruch HaShulchan, “deviate from the boundaries of naturally occurring events.” The rational explanation of ten years of rocket fire and an extraordinarily low casualty rate is divine intervention.

Conclusion - Identifying Hashem’s Intervention

Even in a time when Hashem does not perform open miracles and prophetic communication is absent, a thinking individual can and should discern divine providence. When the inexplicable occurs, whether it is a Yishma’eili caravan transporting sweet smelling spices or Yishma’eilim firing countless rockets at the children of Ya’akov and doing relatively little damage, it is incumbent upon us to recognize the hand of God. Yosef, whose sophistication, insight and discerning eye in economic matters brought him worldwide recognition and acclaim, unabashedly and frequently spoke to all he encountered of Hashem, whose involvement Yosef discerned using the same sophistication and discernment he brought to economics. We Jews today are called upon to do no less.

[1] Which describes Yosef as the Ben Zekunim and favored child of Ya’akov. Onkelos and Rashi interpret Ben Zekunim as “Bar Chakim,” wise.

[2] Moed Katan 18b endorses Lavan and Betueil’s reaction as legitimate.

[3] Presumably due to the lack of solid evidence of his guilt.

[4] The centrality of this Pasuk is underscored by the fact that it is incorporated into the daily Tefillah in the Sephardic Siddur.

[5] Even the skeptical (though Philo-Semitic) author Paul Johnson at the conclusion of a nearly six hundred page work A History of the Jews marvels at the survival and continued thriving of the Jewish People, especially “when all those other ancient people were transmuted or vanished into the oubliettes of history.” Johnson even considers the possibility of divine providence being the explanation of this incredible phenomenon. He concludes, though, that the fulfillment of the Biblical promises may have emerged from the powerful dynamic of human confidence produced by the Biblical predictions. I find this an entirely unconvincing explanation. If the Biblical prophecies are a product of human authors seeking to inspire human confidence, then why does the Torah include predictions of some of the most awful punishments (as presented in the Tochachot of VaYikra Perek 26 and Devarim Perek 28) and why have they most definitely been fulfilled during many tragic episodes culminating in the Holocaust?

[6] Rav Hershel Schachter ruled that a congregant of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, who inexplicably survived a very severe automobile accident should recite this Berachah when passing the accident site.

[7] Many friends with whom I have confided share my experience of discerning Hashem’s involvement with our efforts to sustain our families. This idea is expressed by Chazal (Pesachim 118a) “Kashin Mezonotav Shel Adam KeKeri’at Yam Suf,” “man’s sustenance is as difficult as the splitting of the Red Sea."

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