“Can I Take the Place of God?” Parashat Vayehi

Dvar Torah presented at ALEPH’s ordination weekend Shabbaton on January 7, 2023

“Can I take the place of God?” Joseph surveyed his pleading brothers. His brothers, who threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery all those years ago. Their father, Jacob, was dead now, and his brothers were worried he would pay them back for what they had done. 

Joseph said to them, “Al-tirah, ki hatachat Elohim ani?” “Don’t be afraid, for can I take the place of God? Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people.” As a leader in Egypt, Joseph saved his people from terrible famine, and he saw God redirect the evil his brothers intended toward this positive outcome. Joseph refused to respond to his brothers’ hateful acts with his own.“And so, don’t fear,” he repeated. “I will sustain you and your children.” The text says he comforted them, and spoke to their hearts. 

A flashback: Joseph’s parents, Jacob and Rachel were facing infertility, long before Joseph was born. Rachel, envious of her sister, Leah, who had children, said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.” Jacob became angry. Vayomer, “Hatachat Elohim anochi asher-mana mimech peri-baten?” He said, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied the fruit of your belly?”

“Can I take the place of God?” The same phrase – hatachat Elohim – in the voices of father and son. While Jacob lashed out, using this phrase in anger, Joseph softened it. 

When Jacob said “Can I take the place of God,” he didn’t speak to Rachel. The text de-emphasizes their relationship, saying “Jacob said,” not “Jacob said to Rachel.” We can imagine Jacob throwing up his hands in rage, spitting out the phrase “Can I take the place of God?!” He couldn’t be present in relationship with Rachel. He couldn’t respond to her pain because he was exploding with his own, blaming God for denying fruit in baten, her belly. Notice that he does not use the word rechem, womb, which shares a root with rachamim, compassion, because there was no compassion in his reaction. After this, Rachel gave him her handmaid, Bilhah, who bore two children on Rachel’s behalf. The first child, Dan, means judgment. The second, named Naftali, means struggle. Anger and jealousy begat judgment and struggle. When Rachel finally gave birth, she named her son Yosef, Joseph, meaning “increased.”

After Jacob’s death, Joseph said the same words to his brothers.“Can I take the place of God?” But the text says Vayomer Yosef aleihem  Joseph spoke to them. Unlike Jacob and Rachel, the text emphasizes the relationship. Further, Joseph addressed their feelings first: “Do not be afraid. After all, can I take the place of God?” He comforted them, and spoke to their hearts. He brought in the compassion that was missing from his father’s exclamation. 

Like his father, Joseph believed this was all part of God’s plan. In Jacob’s situation, “Can I take the place of God” meant “I’m not God. I don’t decide who can give birth.” In Joseph’s situation, “Can I take the place of God” meant “God sent me here, not you.” Both Joseph and Jacob believed God was responsible for their experience, but Joseph had the advantage of hindsight, and understood the reason.

It is so much easier to make meaning out of trauma once the reason has been revealed and you’ve moved beyond it! Jacob and Rachel were facing infertility when Jacob lashed out in anger – yes, at Rachel, but perhaps also at God and himself. Not knowing how things would turn out, Jacob only knew he could do nothing about his wife’s suffering. I get it. Sometimes I’m angry I can’t change my situation, and sometimes I’m too upset to be compassionate toward myself or others. I’m sure you can think of moments like that too. Maybe you blamed a loved one, God, or yourself. We’ve all been there. 

Joseph was in a significant leadership role, like many of us. He rose from the pit to the palace, and made meaning from his pain by acknowledging the blessings that came from it. He was in a position not only to support his family financially, but to see and speak to them with compassion. I’ve found that sometimes, after growing through trauma, we are better able to make space for others in their suffering, and to appreciate the blessings that appeared along the way.

This brings me to one difference in the words Joseph and Jacob used to say the same thing: “Can I take the place of God?” Joseph said “Hatachat Elohim Ani?” Jacob said “Hatachat Elohim Anochi?” Both “Ani” and “Anochi” mean “I.” The Zohar teaches that Anochi is associated with Binah, one of God’s upper sefirot, a part of God that is transcendent and hidden from the world. Ani is associated with Shekhina, the Divine Presence, the aspect of God that is most accessible to us on earth. Jacob used the word Anochi. For him, God was responsible for the infertility – but God and the reason were hidden. Jacob was unable to find meaning in his wife’s pain or his own. For Joseph, who used the world Ani, the Divine and the plan were revealed; Joseph was able to make meaning from it, and could respond to his brothers with kindness. 

We can’t expect ourselves – or anyone else – to find meaning, or to find God, in the midst of trauma. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pray or seek the Divine at those times. Some of our favorite Hasidic masters taught us how! 

None of us are in the place of God. We have limited control over our outcomes. Sometimes that’s frustrating and sometimes it’s a relief – who wants that responsibility? Either way, when it feels like God or meaning are distant or hidden, we can learn from Jacob’s outrage, and we can remember to treat ourselves and others with compassion instead. And when we have come through our trauma, when we’ve emerged from the pit to find ourselves in the palace, like Joseph, we can remember to appreciate the Divine blessings in our lives. We can speak to the hearts of those who fear, and act in the world from a place of love and compassion.

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