Parashat Vayehi: The Wheel of Fortune
Toward the end of Parashat Vayehi, we read of Yosef’s brothers’ fears that Yosef would avenge the pain which they inflicted upon him. They suspected that now that their father, Yaakob, had passed away, Yosef would kill them in revenge for their crimes against him. Yosef was the viceroy of Egypt, and he wielded great power and authority. Nobody would have stopped Yosef if he sought to kill his brothers, and nobody would have been bothered by such a measure. And so the brothers were afraid. They therefore sent a message to Yosef telling him that their father had issued a command before his death instructing Yosef to forgive his brothers. Yaakob had never actually issued such a command, but, as our Sages explain, the brothers fabricated this story in the interest of maintaining peaceful relations with Yosef.
The Torah relates that Yosef wept upon hearing his brothers’ plea, and he then responded, "Do not fear, for am I in G-d’s place?"
Several different interpretations have been offered for this verse – "Ha’tahat Elokim Anochi" ("Am I in G-d’s place?"). One particularly powerful explanation was offered by the Hid"a (Rav Haim Yosef David Azulai, 1724-1807). The Hid"a explains the words "Ha’tahat Elokim Anochi" as a statement, rather than a rhetorical question. He was telling the brothers, "I am under G-d," meaning, he lived with a constant awareness of "Elokim," of divine authority. He understood that G-d controls all people’s fate at all times, and, as such, any situation could be reversed in an instant. People can go to bed wealthy and wake up as paupers, just as an impoverished beggar can wake up to a sudden fortune. Nothing in life is guaranteed – neither the bad nor the good. Yosef thus reassured his brothers that he had no thoughts of using his authority to avenge the wrongs they committed. He did not allow his position of power and prestige to give him the confidence to do whatever he wished. He knew full well that the authority he enjoyed then would not necessarily last, and thus he ensured not to abuse it.
There was once a king who wore a ring that bore an inscription with the letters "Gimmal," "Zayin," "Yod." When asked about this ring, he explained that the letters stood for the words, "Gam Zeh Ya’abor" – "This, too, shall pass." Whenever he went to battle and lost, and he began feeling anxious and despondent, he would look at the ring and remind himself that the defeat is not permanent, and that the situation could change drastically the next time around. And, when he enjoyed moments of success and triumph, he would look at the ring to remind himself that he should not feel overly confident in his achievements, because this current situation could quickly pass.
Yosef was telling his brothers – and teaching us – that the proverbial "wheel of fortune" is constantly turning, a message that should serve as both a source of comfort and a stern warning. It comforts us by assuring us that our problems and hardships are not permanent; they could all vanish in a moment. No matter what kind of difficult problem we are currently facing, we must retain hope and optimism, realizing that no situation is ever permanent. On the other hand, this message warns us not to feel too comfortable and secure with our blessings in life, and never to take anything for granted. Everything we have is a gift from Hashem, who has the power to give and take as He sees fit. We must therefore constantly feel grateful for what we have and ensure to continuously be worthy of Hashem’s ongoing blessings.