One of the questions debated by historians is how much impact a single individual can have on the course of history. There are certainly some individuals who have made a great difference to the world. But it can be argued that they would not have had such an impact if the technological, social and cultural context in which they were working was not ready for that change. It could even be argued that if that individual had not made their contribution, it would only be a matter of time until someone else came along and introduced that change. Smartphones would have been invented with or without Steve Jobs.
If you believe that an individual can make a difference, you are likely to try to influence the flow of events. If you think that what happens is going to happen anyway, you are much more likely to remain passive. We all know people who fall into both of these categories.
What does the Torah think? One of the questions that arises in this week’s reading is why Joseph is so passive in light of the dramatic events unfolding around him. From his brothers ganging up on him and throwing him into a pit to the eventual accusation of attacking Potiphar’s wife and his subsequent imprisonment, we hear not a single word from Joseph. Why doesn’t he plead his innocence? Why doesn’t he try to contact his father in the land of Canaan and return home? Does Joseph simply believe that nothing he says or does will make a difference?
The only point in the story where Joseph actively tries to help himself comes at the very end of this week’s reading. Joseph is in prison with the baker and butler, and each of them has a dream. They come to Joseph to have their dreams interpreted. After explaining what the dreams mean, Joseph adds a plea for help: But think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place (Genesis 40:14). Bible commentators see this as an opportunity to debate whether one should try to change the course of history or not.
Commenting on Joseph’s plea to the butler, the Midrash Rabbah (Gen 89) proposes that since Joseph asked the butler to remember him twice (“But think of me” and “mention me”), two additional years were added to his prison sentence. Joseph lacked faith in God and tried to intervene in the course of events – so God punished him by lengthening his suffering. History cannot be changed.
Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon, the son of Maimonides, takes the opposite view. He argues forcibly that the heroes of the Bible never relied solely on God’s compassion. They always tried to take care of themselves. Abraham told Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister, and Jacob prepared himself for war against his brother Esau. History doesn’t just happen. We must take responsibility and try to influence events so they turn out for the best.
These two ways of viewing history continue to compete in our age. Are you an ardent Zionist who believes that Jews have to take responsibility for their own destiny? Are you an anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jew who believes that any premature attempt to return to the Promised Land will delay the coming of the Messiah? These are fundamental questions that modern Jews struggle with. But their roots lie in how we understand the actions of a young man in Egypt many centuries ago.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner is Av Bet Din of the European Masorti Bet Din and Director of Masorti Europe.