Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Yosef to His Brothers - How Can I Pay You Back?
After Yaakov's death it seems that the brothers feared there may be
some unfinished business between Yosef and themselves. Perhaps Yosef
had restrained himself from taking revenge over their selling him into
slavery out of respect for their father, and had patiently waited until he
died before settling their outstanding debt. With this in mind, they
approached him and begged his forgiveness. Yosef assured them he had
no such plans:
But Yosef said to them, "Fear not, for am I in place of G-d? Although you
intended me harm, G-d made things work out well - in order to
accomplish that a vast nation be kept alive! So now, fear not... Thus he
comforted them, and spoke to their heart." [50:19-21]
What did Yosef mean with the enigmatic words, "For am I in place of G-
d?" It seems as if he is saying to his brothers, "Listen, as far as I'm
concerned, everything's worked out fine. But don't forget you still have
the Almighty to deal with!" If so, his words hardly seem like "words of
comfort that speak to the heart."
Napoleon and his powerful French Army were in the midst of a raging
campaign against Russia. To this point, his army had experienced
tremendous success, yet it seemed now that their backs were up against
a wall. The bitter-cold Russian winter had taken its toll; his soldiers were
tired and frustrated. They had spent the past few weeks besieging a
powerful Russian stronghold, yet there were no signs that the Russians
were nearing surrender. How much longer could the Russians bear the
siege, cut off as they were from almost any contact with the outside
world? Yet Napoleon's soldiers too had just about had enough. Some of
his senior officers approached him. "The time has come for decisive
action," they said. "Either we mount an assault, or we give up and
retreat. Our soldiers are not used to the frigid conditions, and it's only
a matter of time before they will become an easy target for counter-
Napoleon tried desperately to alleviate his soldiers' fears. "It can't be -
they must be at wit's end! It's a matter of days."
They weren't convinced. "Who's to know? Perhaps they anticipated our
attack, and have supplies for weeks or even months. By then we will
have died from the cold."
Napoleon came up with a plan. He, along with one army officer, would
enter the Russian city disguised as Russian peasants. They would spy out
the city, ascertaining both the perspective of its dwellers, as well as the
possibility of a surprise attack.
The next evening, they entered the city under the cover of darkness, and
found their way to a pub. To their luck, the pub was frequented by
Russian soldiers who were by that stage none too sober. They sat down
at a small table and pretend to chat while in fact they carefully listened
to the soldiers' lively banter. It seemed the Russians were just about
ready to surrender. In the city, mass hunger prevailed, and only the
sparsest of supplies was making its way through. The townsfolk were
sick of being puppets to the military, and most of the soldiers were also
tired of the siege, from which they felt there was no realistic resolution,
especially since their arms were at a minimum. Napoleon was greatly
relieved to hear their words. He and his officer had heard what they
came to hear, and there was certainly no point in overstaying their
welcome. They began to prepare to leave.
Suddenly, one of the Russian soldiers, who had once visited France,
thought he noticed something familiar. That peasant over there - he
looked strangely familiar. Why, he looked like Bonaparte himself. The
more he looked, the more sure he became. Even in his drunkenness,
there was no mistaking it - that was Napoleon! He turned to his friends
and apprised them of his discovery. "Do you see that peasant over there,
the short one - it's Napoleon - I'm sure of it! Trust me, I've seen him once
before." His friends were none too impressed with his discovery. "I'm
telling you, as sure as vodka is good, that's him. Quick, let's grab him!
We will bring him to the general."
Luckily for Napoleon, his friends were not easily convinced. "How could
it be Napoleon?" they said. "How could he not fear to enter the city of
his enemies like this? And anyways, he would never dress like that - in
Their gestures and gesticulations had not escaped Napoleon's eagle-eyes.
He had a very good idea of what was going on, and he was terrified. He
felt his very life flash before his eyes. He motioned to his officer, who
immediately understood his concerns. The officer turned and said loudly
to Napoleon, "Ivan, go get me another beer - I'm still thirsty."
Understanding the officer's intentions, Napoleon got up, and went
demurely to the bar to get his "superior" another drink. As he returned
to their table, he made as if he slipped, spilling the beer onto the table
and into the lap of the officer. "You buffoon!" the officer cried. "Look
what you've done!" He stood up, and gave Napoleon a sudden slap
across the face that sent him reeling to the floor. There he kicked him
and punched him. After taking a good beating, Napoleon got up and ran
from his assailant, with his officer in tow as if to continue his assault
outside. As he left, he could hear the soldier's friends laughing at his
absurd contention - to think that the beaten peasant was none other than
When they were safely outside the city, the officer turned to Napoleon,
falling to his feet. "How can I ever ask my Kaiser's forgiveness for what
I've done?! Surely the Kaiser knows I meant no harm. Please, have mercy
and do not punish me!"
"Stand up," Napoleon said. He raised his hand to slap the officer, and
then returned it to its side. "Were it that I could beat you," he said, "and
by beating you save your life, and give you kingship and monarchy, then
I surely would do so - for it's the least I could do to pay you back. Since
I can't do that, however, I'll just do the best that I can." Napoleon
elevated the officer to an extremely high position of authority, and gave
him money and properties, all in payment for the thrashing he had given
"So you see," said Yosef to his brothers, "were it that I could punish you,
and sell you into slavery, and by doing so elevate you to positions of
extreme power, and save an entire family, and fulfil the destiny of a
nation, then I would surely do so. After all, it's the least I could do to
pay you back for what you've done to me. But am I in place of G-d - that
I could pull the strings of destiny, creating good from bad and kindness
from cruelty? That much I can not do. I can only guarantee you that
ultimately I have only gratitude for the wheels that you helped set in
motion, even if you did so unknowingly." [Va-yomer Avraham]
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication was sponsored by Mr. Mel
Text Copyright © 2002 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.