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Subordinate to G-d: A Torah Thought for Parshat Vayechi by Rabbi Mordechai Rabinovitch

The book of Genesis closes with a rather sad exchange between Joseph and his brothers. Following the decease of Jacob, the brothers are afraid that with their father now out of the way, Joseph will take vengeance on them for all that they did to him. They therefore tell Joseph that before his death, Jacob instructed them to tell Joseph to forgive them.

On hearing of the brothers’ suspicions, Joseph weeps; and the brothers in turn, prostrate themselves before him and declare themselves his servants. At that point, Joseph tries to reassure the brothers that he has no evil intentions towards them, and will see to it that their families are supported. According to the conventional interpretation, he says to them: אל תיראו כי התחת א-להים אני “Do not be afraid; because, am I in place of G-d?”. Rashi (following the midrash) explains that Joseph is saying that even were he to want to harm them, he would not be able to do so. The brothers wanted to harm him, yet G-d directed things such that good came of it and the whole family survived the great famine. So how can I harm you, says Joseph, unless G-d wants to do so? Am I, Yosef, in place of G-d?

Onkelos, however, reads Yosef’s statement as an assertion, not as a question: Do not be afraid (of me) because I am subordinate to G-d. Joseph is asserting that he is under the dominion of G-d, and is not asking the rhetorical question whether he is in place of G-d. In other words, Yosef argues to the brothers that their fear that Yosef will take vengeance upon them is unfounded, since he is a G-d-fearing person, he is subordinate to G-d. And a G-d-fearing person, even if he is in a position of great power, does not seek to exact vengeance from brothers who have done him a wrong.

Whether Yosef is asking a rhetorical question, or whether he is making an assertion, there is an important lesson here for kings, prime ministers, and leaders. Do you understand that you are subordinate to G-d? With elections in Israel just around the corner, and all kinds of pretenders to the throne marketing themselves as would-be Prime Ministers, we wonder whether any of these candidates understand that they are not “deities” – they are not in place of G-d, but instead are subordinate to him; they are subordinate to G-d.

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