Can Bad Things Be Good?

Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)

After several months of playing cat and mouse with his brothers, the moment of truth arrived for Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s plan of ensnaring Benjamin worked to put his brothers in a vulnerable position where he was able to put them to the test. Joseph had laid the bait, set the trap, and it had sprung upon his brothers. Would they abandon their father’s favored son as they had done to him, or had these twenty-two years given them time to think over their actions and have a change of heart?

When his brothers had plotted against him some twenty years ago, Judah had spoke up and told his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh” (Genesis 37:26–27). Although he, along with Reuben, had kept his brothers from killing Joseph, he had not gone far enough to stop the actions of his brothers altogether. This time, however, Judah redeems himself and takes personal responsibility for the life of Benjamin. This act of self-sacrifice and responsibility was what Joseph was looking for in his brothers, and he could not hold himself together any longer. He breaks down in front of his brothers and sobs uncontrollably.

In that emotional and dramatic moment, Joseph reveals himself as their long lost brother. He tells them, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” (Genesis 45:3). His brothers are completely bewildered and terror gripped their hearts. They cannot even muster a response to their brother’s confession. And before they can gather their senses, Joseph tells them not to blame themselves for what they did to him:

And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:5–8)

We may often find ourselves the victims of unfortunate circumstances, whether through the hands of other people, tragedy, natural disaster, difficult situations, or even our poor choices. Nothing may be going our way, and we may feel that all of the cards are stacked against us. We may even feel like we are being attacked by the Devil or are spiritually oppressed. We have an option, however, of whether or not to remain the victim. We can overcome this victim mentality by understanding that, although we may have our own plans for our lives, our lives are not our own and they ultimately belong in the hands of Heaven. Proverbs reminds us of this, saying, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).

Joseph understood this principle well, and gave credit to God—even for the circumstances in his life that most people would consider horrifying. He realized that the Creator of the Universe was the one who was in control of his circumstances as well. He let his brothers know that despite their plans to get rid of him, Hashem had used it for His own purpose, saying, “It was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:7). Later, he reminded his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).

This is not an easy task. We all struggle in some way and kick against the Divine Will. We have two choices. We can either blame others and be victims, or we can trust that our Creator has our best interest at heart. We may not be able to change our circumstances, but we can change our attitude. And changing our attitude can often change our circumstances, because it gives our Creator an opportunity to show himself faithful. What does it take for God to turn bad circumstances into good ones? Maybe he just is waiting on us to let him.