Parashat Vayehi: “Am I in G-d’s Place?”
The Torah tells in Parashat Vayehi that after Yaakob Abinu died, Yosef’s brothers were afraid that Yosef, who still ruled over Egypt, would now seek to take revenge for what they did to him many years earlier, selling him as a slave. They sent a message to Yosef begging him for forgiveness, and even offering to be his slaves. Yosef assured his brothers that he would not seek to harm them, explaining, “Ha’tahat Elokim Ani” – “Am I in G-d’s place?” (50:19).
Hacham Ovadia Yosef explained Yosef’s response to his brothers by way of an analogy to a story told of Napoleon.
After conquering much of Europe, Napoleon’s army reached the Russian city of St. Petersburg, which was surrounded by an impenetrable wall. The army besieged the city, figuring that the Russian forces in the city would eventually run out of supplies and surrender. However, when winter arrived, Napoleon’s troops found the weather unbearable. They were outside the city, exposed to the brutal elements of the fierce Russian winter, and could not last much longer. Napoleon decided that he had no choice but to determine how much longer it would be until the Russians surrendered. He took one of his generals and they climbed together over the wall one night, disguised as Russian peasants. They went into a bar where Russian soldiers were congregating, in order to listen to what the soldiers were saying about the situation. To their delight, they heard the Russians talking about how their supplies were depleted, and they were just days away from surrender.
Then, they saw two Russian soldiers whispering to one another, one of whom pointed to them. They overheard one of them say, “You see this fellow over there? He looks just like Napoleon. I was in France once, and I saw him. I know what he looks like, and I’m telling you, this fellow really looks like him.”
“What are you talking about?” the other soldier replied. “What would Napoleon be doing dressed as a peasant sitting in a bar in St. Petersburg?”
“I don’t know,” the first soldier said, “but I’m telling you, he looks like Napoleon.”
Thinking quickly, the general who was with Napoleon asked Napoleon to bring him a drink. As Napoleon brought it to him, he spilled it.
The general jumped up and pushed Napoleon down on the floor, shouting at him furiously. “You good-for-nothing!” he exclaimed. “You can’t do anything right! What is wrong with you?” He then gave him a kick.
“You see?” the second Russian solder said to his friend. “I told you this guy couldn’t be Napoleon.”
Sure enough, the Russians soon surrendered, and Napoleon held a celebration. At the feast, this general bowed to him and begged to be forgiven for what he did in the bar, pushing, kicking and shouting at the emperor.
“Forgive you?!” Napoleon asked, incredulously. “There’s no way I could do to you what you did to me. Is there any way I could save your life by shoving you to the floor and shouting at you?”
Hacham Ovadia explained that this was Yosef’s response to his brothers when they asked for his forgiveness. He said to them, “Forgive you? Can I do to you what you did to me? You sold me as a slave, as a result of which I ended up becoming ruler over Egypt. Is there any way I could do something like that to you? Of course not. Only G-d is capable of orchestrating events this way. I am not in His place, so I cannot punish you.” Yosef recognized that the pain and suffering his brothers caused him ultimately proved to be to his benefit – just like the general’s violence to Napoleon was to his benefit – and so he felt no need to punish his brothers for what they did.
G-d orchestrates all events with only our best interests in mind, and this knowledge allows us to be forgiving and to let go of whatever hard feelings we may have towards people who have wronged us. As Yosef told his brothers, any harm caused to us by other people in the end works out for our benefit, because everything G-d does is for the best. The greater our faith in G-d’s providence and boundless grace, the better able we will be to forgive and live in love, peace and harmony with other people.