Part of the Plan

Sermon Saturday Morning

Parshat Vayeshev

2009

Shabbat Shalom

Man Plans and God Laughs – It is a proverb that we think about almost every day. We plan our day, our time, so carefully and then God comes along and upsets all of our plans.

There is a famous story of the Baron Rothschild, before he became a Baron, when he was friends with the Archduke, the ruler of Austria. Rothschild was walking down the street when the carriage of the Archduke pulled up right next to him. The Archduke was thrilled to see his friend and asked him, “Rothschild, where are you going?” Rothschild thought for a moment and answered, “I don’t know”. The Archduke suddenly grew very angry, “I was going to offer you a ride in my carriage but for being so insolent, I am going to have my officers arrest you and throw you in jail!”

The next day, the Archduke cooled down and brought his friend up from the prison. “Rothschild” he said, “You really can’t talk to me like that. I know you are my friend, but if I ask you where you are going, you have to give me an answer.” Rothschild replied, “But, Your Highness, I gave you the most honest answer I could give. It is true that when I set out from my home I was planning on going to the market, but the moment your carriage pulled up beside me, I had no idea where I was going to end up. In fact, instead of the market, I ended up in jail! I gave you the only answer I could honestly give!”

In our Parsha, It seems that Joseph cannot open his mouth without saying something that will infuriate his brothers. From just a simple reading of the text we get a picture of a young boy who is acting like a spoiled brat. Tattling on his brothers, parading around in the coat their father gave him, and spouting off dreams of his family bowing before him. This is not a child looking for approval from his family. He is a spoiled brat, and because his father will not punish him, the brothers hate him even more.

Jacob had to know that Joseph was despised by his brothers. Joseph certainly knew that they hated him. That is why it is so surprising that Jacob sends Joseph off to check up on the brothers who are out tending to the sheep. We know right away that no good is going to come from this mission. In fact, we need only look back on what happened when two other brothers, one who hated the other, went out into the fields. It was there, far from home, that Cain killed his brother Abel. This is going to be a doomed mission.

There is a moment of relief, when Joseph goes to the appointed meeting place and his brothers are not there. Joseph spends some time searching the surrounding area but cannot find any trace of his brothers. A stranger finds Joseph wandering in the fields and asks him, “What are you looking for?” Joseph replies, “I am looking for my brothers.” The unnamed stranger then tells Joseph that he overheard the brothers discussing taking the flocks to Dotan. Joseph goes off to Dotan, to find his brothers and, we know, to meet his destiny.

Who is this stranger who meets Joseph in the field and sends him off to his brothers, to be sold into slavery and, eventually to be appointed to the second most powerful position in Egypt? Without this stranger, Joseph would go home, and say to his father, “Sorry dad, I looked for them but they were nowhere to be found.” And then Joseph would go and play with his baby brother. There would be no pit, no coat stained with blood, no slavery, no dreams and no Passover.

Later Rabbis, would look at this story and the stranger in the field, and realize, that this man must have been an angel, sent by God to nudge Joseph in the right direction so that the great plan of God would be fulfilled. After all, the Angels who visit Abraham were called “men” in the Torah. This “man” too must be on a divine mission to make sure that all of God’s plans were fulfilled.

Joseph himself says as much when he confronts his brothers in Egypt saying, “Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” It was not you, my brothers who sent me to Egypt, it was God who sent me here to save Egypt and my family from the ravages of the famine. We plan, God laughs, and in the end, one way or another, we fulfill our part of God’s plan.

There is only one problem. If all of life is shaped by destiny, where does the element of Free Will come from? If my whole life is planed out by God, why then am I responsible for my actions? God determines if I will end up a leader or if I will end up in jail and nothing I can do will stop it. It is my destiny to be all that I am today.

Judaism, if anything, insists that we are all responsible for our actions. Our life is not predetermined. We get to choose what kind of a person we will be. If we are good, then we get the rewards that come from righteous living. If we are bad, we must suffer the consequences of our actions. But here too, it seems there is a bit of destiny. If we do evil deeds, we will eventually have to pay the price of those deeds. Even if I want to change, the consequences of my previous actions have already been set into motion.

It always amazes me that politicians and athletes seem to think that they can do whatever they want and the consequences of their actions will never catch up with them. They can take bribes, gamble on their own games, cheat on their spouse, spread rumors and lies about their opponents and they believe that nobody will ever catch on to what they are doing. In fact, all those around them are well aware of these illicit actions and it is only a matter of time until the entire web of lies comes crashing down. Nobody is really “too big to fail” and we are all just a decision away from the terrible consequences that come from this kind of foolish pride.

Is it really destiny that gets Joseph sold into slavery? Or is it his own prideful and boastful actions that insure his future will be as a slave in Egypt? Isaac was more loved than Ishmael and Ishmael got to the point where his playing with his younger brother became a problem, and Ishmael and his mother had to be sent away. Jacob and Esau have such a rivalry with their parents that it finally erupted into an almost murderous rage that forced Jacob to leave home to avoid the wrath of his brother. Joseph is only the latest in a long line of brothers who could not get along with his siblings to the point where his life was in danger. Given the way Joseph addressed his brothers, one can only imagine how long the brothers must have suffered until they decided that fateful day to attack Joseph.

And yet, it seems that Joseph has already grown up some and is seeing his brothers in a different way. If he had no need for them, why did he spend so much time searching for them? Why does he respond to the question of the stranger “I am looking for my brothers.”?

Perhaps this signals a change in his attitude towards his brothers. Perhaps, had he been given the chance to speak with them, he would have reconciled with them. But it is too late. The anger explodes before he can even get a word out. He is thrown into the pit and sold into slavery. The rest of the story is history. Maybe, if things were different, the story would have ended up the same. Perhaps the stranger in the field was a slave trader, who was ready to kidnap Joseph until he mentioned his brothers, and the stranger realized that there could be a lot of trouble if he kidnapped this boy. Maybe, if the stranger had not appeared and Joseph started off for home, the Midianite caravan would have found the young boy far from home and captured him and sold him to the Ishmaelites and Joseph would have ended up in Egypt anyway. Maybe he didn’t have to be a slave in Potifer’s household, perhaps Mrs. Potifer would have seen him in the market and made a pass at him, incurring the wrath of this officer in Egypt and he would have ended up in jail anyway. It is hard to know if there is only one path to a destiny.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter. The story of Joseph has the same ending; the saving of life, the migration of Jacob and family to Egypt, the slavery, Moses and the great redemption. Jacob and Joseph die at peace with the world, never knowing the even larger destiny that they were fulfilling.

We too cannot comprehend the mysterious circles that life has us travel. Each life is like a jigsaw puzzle that has to be assembled to see the full picture. Each day we have to give our best to this life. We need to make good choices, make good friends and extend our hand to those in need. Where it will all lead is a great mystery and we only know that by living a good life, we can, at least, enjoy the rewards of righteous living. The late songwriter Dan Fogelberg wrote these lyric in his song, “Part of the Plan”:

Love when you can

Cry when you have to…

Be who you must

That’s a part of the plan

Await your arrival

With simple survival

And one day we’ll all understand…(2X)

Today, we can only give the best that is in our hearts and souls. Who knows where tomorrow will take us. So we plan for our future and try hard to avoid the pitfalls of life. And yet, we face our future with confidence that everything, in the end will work out. That is our hope and that is our prayer, that is the foundation of our faith. But in the background of our mind, we remember, Man Plans and God Laughs.

We pray that our plans and God’s plans should always be as one and that we be blessed with faith, enough to help us get by when our plans diverge. As we say…

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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