When Yoseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers in an emotional climax of this foreboding episode he responds to their utter shock by telling them that despite what they might think this was the Divine will.
ועתה על תעצבו ואל יחר בעיניכם כי מכרתם אותי הנה כי למחיה שלחני אלקים לפניכם
And now do not be grieved nor angry with yourselves for having sold me here for it was Hashem who sent me before you to preserve your life. (Breishit 45:5)
Yoseph goes on to explain that there are two years remaining of the seven years of famine and that Hashem sent him before them to ensure the survival of the Jacobian family and ensure their metamorphosis into a great nation. (Verse 7)
In other words, do not blame yourselves for mistreating me for it was heavenly ordained and in the end it was for the best!
I find this approach difficult to say the least for the following reason:
The brothers intended harm upon their brother and sold him into slavery never expecting to see him again. Can we just wave their crime aside by arguing it was divinely ordained? Indeed, could we say that regarding any crime at all?
Ramban at the end of the portion of Bo (Shemot 13:16) posits that nothing happens in this world without it being decreed by Hashem. In other words that the system we call nature does not cause events by itself but is guided by an array of variables that will lead to an individual’s success, failures, health and wealth. That our actions are in reality dictated by Heaven.
In other words, seemingly, Ramban opines that we have no control over what we do. So that it would follow that if a person causes harm to another person we were meant to do so from Heaven and therefore poses the question of how could we be held responsible for our actions?
Ramban does explain further elsewhere (Lech Lecha Breishit 15:14) that a person is liable for their intention even if not for the outcome. Yet be that as it may the theme of this explanation seems to be in contradiction to what Yoseph tells his brothers. For even if we accept this position they certainly intended to harm their brother and so would be accountable for having evil intent.
Abarbanel dealing with this issue at length explains that although usually there is always freedom of choice and that in the normal progression of world events decisions and actions are decided upon by the individual or group of people involved. In this case however due to the outcome of this episode being so crucial to the future of Am Yisrael and world history, freedom of choice was removed and despite there being an illusion of choice on behalf of the brothers in effect they were compelled to take the actions they followed by heavenly decree. (Abarbanel Bresihit: 45:1-8)
Maharal in Gur Aryeh uses this understanding to explain the content of the message contained in the gifts sent by Yoseph with his brothers to his father at the near conclusion of the saga.
…Ten Donkeys laden with the finest of Egypt and Ten female donkeys carrying food and beverages for his Father … ( Breishit 45:23)
Contained within the items sent lay a hidden message teaches Maharal, namely that the Ten donkeys represent the Ten brothers. Donkeys carry the load its master places on their backs. Yoseph was indicating to Yaakov that the brothers had acted like donkeys merely carrying the load that their master had placed on their backs. They were not acting of their own free will they were compelled to do what they did.
Maharal explains that there were two stages represented by the two types of donkeys. The first was a short-term reason for making the brothers act as they did to alleviate the famine and save Egypt and the house of Yaakov. The second, represented by the female donkeys, was to ensure the exile of Mitzrayim and the fulfilment of the covenant between the parts that Avraham’s descendants shall leave Eygpt with great property.
According to this school of thought then, whether or not the episode was a momentary change in the world order of how Hashem runs the world or if it is to be understood as a more frequent occurrence for our purpose matters not. For according to both views the brothers were compelled to act as they did even if they may not have known it at the time.
Rabbi Yehudah Halevi in the fifth essay of the Kuzari addresses this underlying conflict and sets out two principles in the understanding of Hashem compelling behavior or one’s ability to choose behavior and action. (See Maamar 5:19-22)
Here he argues that there are two different modes through which Hashem can work. The first is that there are events which are outside of the system that Hashem created. This would be an action that is independent of nature such as the splitting of the sea or creation itself. The second are events within nature like the chemical reaction of a tree alight. The fire consumes the tree as a part of nature but the cause is decreed by Heaven.
The choice a person makes within the natural process is his own but the outcome is not.
Although the discussion of freedom of choice is not within the scope of this Dvar Torah suffice to say this is a complex foundational issue grappled with throughout our Rabbinical sources. Yet the episode of Yoseph his brothers the sale and its outcome brings the following crucial principle to the forefront.
Responsibility and consequences for our actions and their outcome lies when all is said and done with us and only us.
Rav Chaim Kanterovitz