Basically, there are two ways to move something from here to there. You can either take the direct route, as in moving object C in a straight line from point A to point B. Or you can take the roundabout route, as in flying from New York to Seattle via Houston, or zagging an e-mail fourteen times around the globe to get it to the guy in the next cubicle.

Now let's look at the story of Joseph and his brothers. The purpose of the exercise, most everyone agrees, was to move Jacob and the seventy members of his household from Hebron, Canaan to the land of Egypt (about 200 miles as the crow flies across the Sinai Peninsula). There, in Egypt, the first family of Jews would experience the state of galut (exile, displacement, submission to alien rule) foretold to their grandfather Abraham at the "Covenant Between the Pieces." The experience would prepare them for the next few thousand years of Jewish history, most of which would similarly transpire amidst the unique challenges and opportunities of galut.

And this is how G‑d (who certainly has the direct route option available to Him) made it happen:

He made Jacob fall in love with Rachel. He then arranged it that Jacob be tricked into marrying Leah instead (in the end, Jacob gets to marry Rachel too). An abiding jealousy lingers between Joseph (Rachel's son and his father's most beloved) and the sons of Leah (older, numerous, and quite upset about the situation). Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers and languishes in a dungeon for a dozen years, before becoming viceroy of Egypt — the effective ruler of the most powerful nation on earth. A hunger in the Land of Canaan compels the brothers to seek food in Egypt and be subjected to the cruel machinations of the Egyptian ruler. Only it's not really an Egyptian (it's Joseph) and he's not really being cruel (he's teaching them a lesson in brotherly love). Joseph pushes them to the limit, to the point when they must choose between giving up Benjamin (Rachel's other son) and standing up to the man who has the entire might of Egypt behind him. The brothers, led by Judah, refuse to be intimidated and confront the "Egyptian." At this point, Joseph reveals his identity and invites them all to settle in Egypt.

Of course, your e-mail got to you colleague's desk at the end. To some, that would be the only thing that matters. But the more inquisitive among us will ask: why did it have to travel via Tallahassee, Bangkok, Kiev and Pretoria to get there?

But first we should ask: What is galut? If we understood what galut is, perhaps we'll also understand why we got there the way that we did.

True achievement is possible only under conditions of absolute freedom. A person must be in full control of his or her life, free of any and all constraints and hindrances. But being "in control" breeds complacency and spiritual laziness; only when challenged and oppressed, only when compelled to resist and battle "overpowering" circumstances, does the human being rise to and actualize his or her true potential.

This is the paradox of galut. For galut to work it must be real — we must experience external forces, alien to our nature and mission in life, constricting us, challenging us, forcing us to draw on our deepest reserves of fortitude and commitment. But for galut to work it must be fake. We must be free in essence, however enslaving the "experience" of galut may be.

And so it was when galut began, with the "oppression" of Israel's children by Egypt's ruler. As the brothers stood before Joseph, they experienced the walls of Egyptian power closing in on them, depriving them of their freedom, making them dependent upon it for their very sustenance, challenging their most basic loyalties to each other. At the same time, a truth hovered just beyond the surface reality — the truth that it's all a sham, a sham of their own making, in which at any moment the mask will fall and the "ruler of Egypt" be revealed as their own flesh and blood.

And so it is with the daily challenges we face as a people and as individuals. These are very real — real in that they exact from us the very best that's in us. At the same time they are utterly fake — contrivances of our own making, projections of our own illusions, shadows of our own light. We need only stand up to them with the confidence of our inherent power and freedom, and the mask will invariably fall away.