Y osef Hatzaddik went to look for his brothers and wound up being sold as a slave in Egypt. So if you think you’re heading in one direction and find yourself derailed, comfort yourself in knowing it’s all part of the Divine plan

In this week’s parshah, a young man sets out to go somewhere and soon finds himself someplace else altogether, someplace he never dreamed of going.

When Yosef left his father’s house in Chevron, his plan was to make a short visit in Shechem. But the events that overtook him carried him to a pitiless place far from the safety of home.

The story is well known to us all. Yosef set out at his father’s bidding: “Yisrael said to Yosef, ‘Are your brothers not pasturing in Shechem? …Go now and see to your brothers’ welfare’ ” (Bereishis 37:13–14).

That was the intended purpose of the trip. But Yosef’s brothers changed his itinerary. They harbored resentment and fear about his dreams of rulership, fears that were fed by jealousy of their father’s preference for Yosef. They decided they must take action to save their own places as fathers of the Jewish nation, and they disposed of Yosef by selling him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites, who brought him to Egypt and sold him there as a slave.

And so began one of the grandest and most poignant dramas in history — a story so fraught with human emotion, human bias, human strength and weakness, and yet so Divine, woven from beginning to end with profound threads of Divine hashgachah.

That last detail is the most important. We mortals are well aware of our limited control over the outcome of our striving. Time after time, we see our plans and projects — even the most brilliant ones — come to naught, due to all sorts of circumstances we can’t control. Sometimes they even bring about results quite the opposite of what we intended. It happens to the plans of nations as well as to the plans of individuals.

This is the reality we all know, but humanity is divided on the question of how to explain it. The existentialist view, promoted by such philosophers as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, is fatalistic, infused with despair. In this view, the human condition is essentially absurd; life is effectively meaningless; all striving is basically futile. Man is eternally shackled to blind fate, which laughs at him from the depths of his experience.

The faith-based view, on the other hand, is optimistic. It discerns the Hand of Divine Providence behind the screen of earthly events. Humans may do as they like, but Hashgachah continually weaves their deeds into the tapestry of the bigger story, the story of human history. Whether by using the momentum of human initiative or by foiling human plans, the Ribbono shel Olam makes sure that in the end, everything turns out for the best, both for the individual and for the world as a whole.

The sale of Yosef to the Ishmaelites is an apt illustration, leading to a series of events that changed world history: Bnei Yisrael went to Egypt and settled there in what was meant to be a temporary sojourn but turned into a nightmare of exile from which they were eventually redeemed; they became G-d’s treasured nation and received the Torah; they inherited Eretz Yisrael, but were later exiled from it and became as they are today, for better or worse.

All of this occurred despite the fact that each of the protagonists in the parshah acted in what appeared to be his own personal interest in the narrow perspective of the moment. Yaakov, concerned for his sons and wishing to hear some word of them, sent Yosef on that simple errand. The brothers, however, saw their opportunity to put an end to the threat they perceived in Yosef’s dreams of kingship, and they removed him from the scene. But G-d, Who oversees all events, put all of these human initiatives together to create the result He intended.

Between the pesukim that tell of Yosef’s departure from his father’s house and those describing his fateful encounter with his brothers in the field of Dosan, the Torah interposes the following mysterious narrative:

“Then a man found him, and behold, he was straying in the field, and the man asked him, saying, ‘What do you seek?’ and he said, ‘I seek my brothers; tell me please, where are they pasturing?’ And the man said, ‘They have moved on from here, for I heard them saying, let us go to Dosan.’ ”

The Torah, as we know, speaks with extreme brevity, and often one superfluous letter encapsulates many meanings. Here, we find 30 words devoted to an incident of seemingly minor importance to the unfolding plot, and knowing that the Torah wastes no words, we are prompted to ask, what does it matter to us if Yosef strayed a bit on his way to visit his brothers? What is this meant to teach us? And who is the mysterious “man” who gives him directions?

Midrash Tanchuma (cited by Rashi on the pasuk) tells us that this “man” was the angel Gavriel.

And the Ramban explains why the Torah takes the trouble to tell us about this interval of wandering in the field before Yosef found his brothers:

“Scripture elaborated on this… to make known to us that [Hashem’s] decree is truth and [human] striving is false. For HaKadosh Baruch Hu caused him to encounter this guide, which was not what he expected, to bring him into [his brothers’] hands. This is what our Rabbis meant when they said that these ‘men’ are angels, that this narrative is not inserted without reason, but to teach us that ‘the plan of Hashem is what shall take place (Mishlei 19:21).’ ”

Without Yosef’s knowledge or intent, an angel led him to Egypt, in order to bring about the events intended by Divine Hashgachah. But even if the “man” Yosef met had been an ordinary human, he would still have been a malach, a word that literally means messenger or emissary — a messenger sent to answer Yosef’s questions and to direct him, without his knowledge, to the destiny prepared for him by G-d.

In a modern historical parallel, the illness of French army major Ferdinand Esterhazy’s wife actually set off a series of events that led up to the founding of the State of Israel. The medical expenses incurred by her illness had left the self-styled “Count” Esterhazy in financial straits that drove him to steal secret documents from the French military command and sell them to the Germans. The Jewish army captain Albert Dreyfus was famously framed and unjustly convicted for that act of treason, which in turn motivated Theodor Herzl to write Altneuland and to convene the first Zionist Congress, which brought repercussions that we are still feeling today.

Have you ever thought about how history would have been different if Mrs. Esterhazy hadn’t gotten sick? (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 688)