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Table Talk: Vayeishev

Free Choice vs. God’s Providence

Does God determine our choices?

(37:24) “And they took him and they threw him into the pit. The pit was empty. There was no water in it.” (Shabbat 22b) “There was no water in the pit, but there were snakes and scorpions.” Why did the brothers throw Joseph into a pit filled with dangerous animals if they had decided not to kill him? The Or Hachaim HaKadosh explains that the brothers were convinced that Joseph deserved to die. However, they were fully aware that they were human beings with free choice, and that even if God had not determined that Joseph should die at that point, they could still successfully kill their brother. They decided to determine what God wanted by throwing Joseph into this dangerous pit; snakes and scorpions do not have free choice and would only kill Joseph if that was God’s will. The Or Hachaim is teaching us that the gift of free choice can even be used against God’s will. King David made an important decision based on this principle: In the Second Book of Samuel, chapter 24, David sinned by ordering a direct census of his kingdom. (The opening verse of this chapter touches on another aspect of Divine Providence: “The anger of Hashem again flared against Israel, and He enticed David…” This is only one of a number of examples of God leading someone to sin. See Kings I 12:15) God offered David a choice of one of three punishments: “Would you rather have seven years of famine come to your land, or three months of fleeing from your enemy while he pursues you, or three days’ pestilence in your land? David said to Gad, the prophet, “Let us fall into the hand of God, for His mercies are abundant; but let me not fall into human hands.” David’s choice only makes sense if the Or Hachaim is correct and human choice can contradict the will of God. Otherwise, why would David fear falling into human hands? However, King David chose to allow Shimi ben Geira to live despite having cursed the king, because “He is cursing because God said to him, ‘Curse David” Did Shimi not have free choice? Could he not have chosen to curse David even if God had not willed it?

Forms of Comfort

(37:34-35) “Then Jacob rent his garments and placed sackcloth on his loins; he mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused to comfort himself, and said, “For I will go down to the grave mourning for my son.” Please note that the verse describes two distinct stages: 1) Arose to comfort him, and 2) refused to comfort himself. The Torah seems to be telling us that we can comfort a mourner only up to the point at which he can comfort himself. How does this play out in the laws of comforting mourners? For example, we do not open a conversation with the mourners during the first three of the seven days of mourning. The mourners are too overwhelmed to comfort themselves. Our job is to help them comfort themselves, not to comfort them. Why does the verse describe Jacob’s children as “rising” to comfort him? Compare this comfort to Chronicles 1 7:22: “Ephraim their father mourned them for many days, though his brothers came to comfort him.” Samuel II 10:2: “So David sent a message to Hanun, the king of Ammon, by the hands of his servants to console him over his father.” Is there a difference between rising to comfort, coming to comfort and sending to comfort?


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