One of our most important responsibilities as intelligent human beings is to identify the cause and effect of the decisions we take. Sometimes it takes a David Attenborough to draw to our attention how our disposal of plastic is having a deleterious effect on our environment.

Yet matters are not always as they seem and there can be other factors at play. Take a look at the biblical world.

A classic case in point is the promotion of Joseph to the position of Viceroy of Egypt. Joseph has been languishing in prison. Pharaoh has a dream. No one can come up with a satisfactory explanation. The Royal Butler remembers how Joseph interpreted his dream in prison and Pharaoh, in desperation, accepts this suggestion. Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph’s insights that he appoints him to implement his economic plan. Joseph becomes Egypt’s Viceroy to guide its agricultural sector through the seven good years and seven famine years that lie ahead. Thus, Joseph’s rise to power would seem to be caused by Pharaoh’s dream.

However, the Midrash on this week’s sidra quotes a verse from the book of Job: “He put an end to darkness” (28:3). G-d had determined that Joseph should remain for two further years in prison. Now that the time (the ‘darkness’) had come to an end, Pharaoh dreamed his dream.

Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik (1820-1892), author of the Beit Halevi and great grandfather of his famous namesake, the great American rabbi (1903-1993) points out that we often confuse cause and effect. Read the story of Pharaoh and Joseph and you would assume that the change in Joseph’s circumstances was caused by Pharaoh’s dreams. The effect was his release. The Midrash turns this upside down and teaches us that there is a bigger picture here.  G-d had decided that Joseph had suffered enough and needed to be released. It was time for him to take a position that would make it possible for his family to come down to Egypt. This was the cause. The effect was that G-d gave Pharaoh troubling dreams that he and his wise men could not comprehend. So, Pharaoh’s dreams were caused by Joseph’s need to be released rather than Joseph’s release was caused by Pharaoh’s dreams!

As we draw close to the end of 2020, we see a world that few could have predicted a year ago. A normal reaction is to say: there has been a pandemic so we now have to do many things differently. How about: we needed to start to do things differently, so there was a pandemic? Food for thought?