Where we left off, Jacob and Esau have a partial reconciliation. They cannot live together — they can leave each other in peace. The Midrash notes disapprovingly that Jacob cannot fully love his brother.
Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father sojourned, the land of Canaan.
[Jacob] recognized [the ornamented tunic], and said, “My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast!”
[the chapter] begins with va-yeshev [settling] and ends with tarof torof [tearing to pieces]. … From a human perspective, there seems to be an irreducible disorder in things. [which is] felt most acutely by the righteous, by those whose sense of beauty, whose desire for harmony, exposes them to the shock of reality.
In the family narrative, what sets the wheels turning is the fact that Joseph was seventeen, a na’ar, a youth, immature in his management of relationships. (The Baa Ha-Turim notes that na’ar and shoteh [fool] have the same numerical value!) The word implies much more than biological age (that, as Mizrahi points out, is already give): Joseph behaves with the narcissism of youth, with a dangerous unawareness of the inner worlds of others. … [the] na’ar quality that accompanies [Joseph] … explosively combines with his cleverness and closeness to his father.
In what way do the unsolved problems of the previous generation emerge in the next generation? Why is Jacob closer to Joseph than his older brothers? How is Joseph similar to and different from Jacob?
But is that all that is going on? Is this a story only of human fraility?
Yalkut Talmud Torah, trans. Avivah Zornberg. Yalkut is a collection of midrash arranged by parsha.
And Jacob was settled: Jacob speculated, “God said to Abraham that his children would be ‘sojourners’–I have been a ‘sojourner’ for twenty years in the house of Laban, ‘enslaved’ to the care of his sheep.” And when he saw that Esau had gone to live in another city, he said, “With this, the 400 years’ slavery is fulfilled,” and his mind was settled. But God said, “My thoughts are deeper than yours, as it is said, ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts'” [Isaiah 55:8], and immediately brought upon him the plot [alilah] of Joseph’s story. When did He bring this plot upon him? When he thought there would be no slavery in Egypt and his mind became settled — “Now Jacob was settled.”
Perhaps human frailty is only the vehicle of God’s will, a pretext rather than the primary cause.
Midrash Tanhuma, 4, Avivah Zornberg trans.
“And Joseph was brought down to Egypt” [39:1]: This is an example of “Come and see the works of God, who is held in awe by men for His acts” [Psalms 66:5]. Even the awesome [lit., terrible] things that You bring upon us, You bring through a plot [aliah, translated here as “acts”]. Come and see: when God created the world, from the first day, He created the Angel of Death–“with darkness over the surface of the deep” [1:2]–that is the Angel of Death, who darkens the faces of human beings. And Adam was created on the sixth day and a pretext [alilah-lit., plot] was found to blame him for bringing death to the world, as it is said, “As soon as you eat it, you shall die” [2:17]. This is like a man who wants to divorce his wife, and, before going home, writes a bill of divorce. He enters his house with the divorce in his hand, and seeks a pretext [alilah] to give it to her. He asks her for a cup of beverage, and she pours it for him. As he takes the cup from her, he says, “Here is your divorce.” She says, “What have I done wrong?” He says, “Leave my house, for you have poured me a lukewarm drink!” She says, “But you knew that I would pour you a lukewarm drink, for you had already written the divorce bill and brought it in your hand!”
In the same way, Adam said to God, “Master of the Universe, before You created Your world, two thousand years ago, the Torah was as a confidant with You … and in the Torah, it is written, “This is the ritual: When a person dies in a tent …’ [Numbers 19:1]. If You had not already planned death for Your creatures, would You have written this in the Torah? But You came to me with a pretext to make me responsible for death — ‘terrible to man are Your plots.'”…
God wanted to fulfill the decree of “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs” (15:13), so He brought about the plot of all this narrative, so that Jacob should love Joseph, and his brothers should hate him, and sell him to the Ishmaelites, who would bring him down to Egypt. Do not read, “Joseph was brought down to Egypt,” but “Joseph brought his father and brothers down to Egypt.” … This is like a cow whose owners want to place a yoke on her neck. She refuses the yoke, so what do they do? They take her calf away from her, and pull him to the field they want ploughed. The calf bellows for his mother, who hears and involuntarily follows her son. In the same way, God sought to fulfill the decree of the Covenant, so He engineered the plot of this whole narrative, and the family went down to Egypt and paid off the writ — “Terrible to man are Your plots.”
The midrash presents human beings as participants in a drama of God’s devising. Though ultimately not malicious, God’s intents are inexorable, and human beings are for the most part unconscious actors in His plot. … “It is possible to be in a plot and not understand it,” writes Thomas Mann … it is of the very nature of life inside an alilah, inside a plot, that one does not understand its whole structure. … [The homely parable of the divorce pretext] sets up the basic tension of the midrash: the husband has not in any way deceived or compelled his wife into failure. He simply set the scene for her to do what she presumably tends to do — he knows that she usually prepares lukewarm drinks! His knowledge of the her habitual responses opens up a plot-possibility …
To seek to “settle in peace” is, on one level, to seek an ordering of experience, a personal construction of one’s own reality … God thwarts [this] desire. For God has His counternarrative; and it is in the space between the two narratives that Jacob stands, a Job-like figure, suffering losses on many levels.