After the Golden Calf, Moshe prays to God, begging forgiveness. In the course of his prophetic dialogue with the Creator, Moshe asks to see God’s glory. God responds that no person can see His face and live. However, He will allow Moshe to see His back (Exodus 33:17-23). Rashi, citing the Talmud, understands God’s offer literally. As we sing in the An’im Z’mirot hymn toward the end of Shabbat morning services: “He showed [Moshe] the humble one the [rear] knot of His [head] tefillin.”
I always have read that exchange differently. When I see someone’s face, he is nearby and approaching. By contrast, when I see only the back of his head, he is departing. Thus, God does not allow us to see His face, to comprehend Him when He is close in time. Rather, we begin to grasp His contours and the features of His Purpose only as time passes and the moment departs further and further, only as we see His back.
In this week’s parasha, Vayigash, Yosef finally reveals himself completely to his brothers. He is not an Egyptian-born and capricious viceroy, but their junior sibling whom they had cast into a pit and who ultimately was sold into slavery. Now, facing the most devastating famine of their time, the brothers learn that Yosef has made his peace with them. He realizes there was a greater good embedded within the treacherous, almost murderous way they treated him. “And now, don’t be aggravated and don’t get angry at yourselves for having sold me here, because God sent me [here] ahead of you” to assure food provisions for the family during this horrific famine and “to set for you [a way to] survive in this land and to [protect] your lives for a great deliverance.” That is, “it wasn’t you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:5-8).
Yosef the Dream Reader suddenly had an epiphany: his suffering was part of a deeper Master Plan. Looking back 22 years after his abduction and subsequent enslavement, he now could see what had been unfathomable earlier. Although he then could not answer “Why is this happening to me now?” he now could answer “Why did this happen to me then?”
Yet even he did not see that there was an even broader Master Plan. It was not only about saving the brothers and the 50-plus additional members of our patriarch Yaakov’s extended family. Rather, his abuse and enslavement laid the foundation for establishing a Jewish people worthy of receiving God’s Torah at Mount Sinai.
Consider: the Land of Canaan was barbaric with warlords dominating every mini-canton. Genesis 14, for example, recounts a war of nine such Lilliputian “kings,” including a “king” of Sodom and a “king” of Gomorrah. Moreover, the assimilation pressures were enormous. Lot, Abraham’s nephew, had opted to live in Sodom and ended up with a wife who could not shed its culture and two daughters who married Sodomite husbands and chose to remain behind when Lot fled pending doom with his two remaining single daughters (Genesis 19:7,14).
Had Yaakov’s progeny remained in Canaan, as they demographically began surging from fewer than 70 souls to a nation numbering in the millions, the nation would have faced the specter of “Canaanization”: cultural assimilation, eradication of values, with different family members being pulled into competing and warring tribes. Abraham had feared this prospect terribly (Genesis 24:3) as did Yitzchak after him (Genesis 28:6).
But there was a Master Plan. Yaakov’s progeny would be relocated to Egypt instead (Genesis 46:6-7). Because Yosef had been sold into Egyptian slavery, then had arisen to viceroy status before the famine and ahead of the family’s need, he was positioned uniquely by God to lay a foundation to feed his family and to have them all transferred from Canaan to an utterly isolated suburb, Goshen, where the family would live apart from the world (Genesis 46:34). Isolated from all external cultural influences, the families would grow and develop “Jewishly.” Through the next 71 years of Yosef’s life and beyond, they would become numerically significant, a unique and distinct people, the “nation of the children of Israel.” They — we — would become a force to shape all of history as the nation God would choose to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Yosef saw God’s back, and so can we. Each of us matters in His world. Things happen to us in our private lives. Sometimes we do not understand why, as they challenge us to the very core of our faith and our hopes. But often, with time’s passage, we look again and begin to see the contours of God’s “back.” We begin to understand. There was a purpose. There is a purpose. And we are better for it. l
by Rabbi Dov Fischer
Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, a Modern Orthodox shul in Irvine. He blogs at rabbidov.com.