Change of Fortune

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Mikeitz, depicts the great miracle, which transformed Yosef’s life and that of the Jewish People. Yosef, had been cast in prison over the false accusation of rape, which was hurled at him by Potiphar’s wife. His great success in his master’s service, led his wife to become fatally attracted to him.

For all his wisdom and ability to handle situations, Yosef lacked a solution to this problem. He responded to her advances with a seemingly firm refusal:

“…see my master concerns himself about nothing in the house, and whatever he has he has placed in my control. There is no one greater in this house than I, and he has denied me nothing but you, since you are his wife; how then can I perpetrate thus great evil and have sinned against G-d!” (Bereishis 39:8-9)

This very reasoned argument, did not have the desired effect; for she continued her attempts at seduction, until the day came when he found himself alone with her–and had to suddenly flee–while she held on to his garment, that she had seized. His explanation made a lot of moral sense, but sophisticated reason, is no match for primal lust. His rejection, proved too much for her to handle, and she saw to it that he was cast into jail.

It had to have been very painful for Yosef to suffer this setback, after all the progress he had made in the employ of Potiphar. And it is sheer agony for a righteous individual, to be suspected of a terrible transgression. But Yosef, must be viewed as the man who would not be broken. He accepted the decree of Heaven, and refrained from depression and self-pity. His Bitachon (trust) in Hashem, remained unblemished.

And, as the Ramban points out, he also retained his trust, in his own wisdom and understanding. He therefore, offered to interpret the dream of the Chief Butler; and confidently predicted that in just three days, he would be restored to his coveted position, in the service of Pharoh.

Upon hearing the positive interpretation of his colleague’s dream, the Chief Baker conveyed his dream to Yosef. Unfortunately, the prognosis was not a fortuitous one. Yosef, communicated the unhappy news, that in three days the Baker would be removed from prison and hung. And so the matter went. On the third day–Pharoh’s Yom Huledet (birthday)–the Chief Baker was executed, and the Butler was reinstated to his previous occupation.

Yosef, had clearly achieved a great advancement, in his struggle to rehabilitate his image and get himself out of incarceration. He now, reached out to the Butler–who would soon be free–and asked him, to intercede for him in the royal court:

For if you would only think of me with you when he benefits you, and you would do me a kindness, if you please and mention me to Pharoh, and remove me from this prison. For I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and also here I have done nothing for them to have put me in the dungeon.” (Bereishis 40:14-15)

But this request, did not achieve its desired outcome. That is, because: “The Chief Butler did not remember Yosef and he forgot him.” The Rabbis, inexplicably criticize Yosef for making this request; and assert that he should not have placed his trust in “proud ones” i.e. Egyptians.

Thus, as punishment, he had to languish in prison for another two years; until Pharoh was in desperate need of someone–who could accurately interpret his mysterious dreams–that had stumped, all his magician and soothsayers. Now, that it was in his personal interests to introduce Yosef to Pharoh, the Butler’s memory was suddenly jolted.

However, the implication that Yosef was remiss, for soliciting a favor from the Butler, needs to be dealt with. For it goes against the fundamental Jewish principle of Hishtadlut (not relying on Divine Intervention). As the commentators explain, we may not “rely on miracles”, but must do all in our power–to effectuate results–in a “natural” way. If Yosef saw an opportunity, to find his own way out of prison, he was obliged to take it; and that in no way signifies a lack of trust in Hashem. What then, is the problem, with what Yosef did?

Let us understand; what was the basis of Yosef’s appeal to the Butler? Yosef, had offered to listen to and interpret his dream, with no expectation of reward. He did not say, “I’ll interpret your dream, on the condition that you will repay me by soliciting my release from this dungeon”.

Such behavior, would not have sanctified G-d’s Name. It didn’t cost Yosef anything, to listen to the dream and discover its meaning. So, on what basis should he have withheld his knowledge of the pleasant outcome, that awaited the Butler? Rather, Yosef went ahead and showed Chesed to the Butler, by relieving his anxiety, about the meaning of his dream.

However, after the fact, he also requested that the Butler display gratitude to Yosef, by “remembering him to Pharoh”. Why should the Butler do this favor, which had nothing in it for him? According to Yosef, it was because of the great principle of Hakarat HaTov (appreciation of a favor). In the Butler’s moment of agony–when he was under an investigation for disloyalty to Pharoh, which could have led to his execution–Yosef came through for him, and relieved him from great anxiety. Now, it was his turn to repay the favor, by using his offices to put in a proper word for Yosef.

But here, Yosef was mistaken. The Butler, was a selfish individual, who operated on the principle of “taking care of number one”. When he left prison, he had no further need for Yosef, and very conveniently “forgot” his request. Sometimes, righteous people make the mistake of naively assuming that all people are “like them”; and they get hurt, when they discover that it’s just not true.

Yosef, very much wanted to believe that the Butler was a Tzadik, but he momentarily forgot the principle of “respect him and suspect him”. Perhaps–had he assessed the character of the Butler more accurately–he would have gone about the matter differently, and gotten a more helpful response.

Yosef, was clearly overestimating the moral level of the Egyptians. He needed to experience their shortcomings, and gain a renewed appreciation for his brothers and the Jewish people. It is important to remember, that this event took place, at a crucial moment in Yosef’s life. In two years, everything would change, and he would wield supreme power over Egypt and hold the fate of nations in his hands.

And, he would be brought together–once again, with his brothers–who would be totally dependent on his dictates. But, he had a choice to make about them. What kind of people were they? Were they true descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov? Did their treatment of Yosef, reflect their real character? And, should he reunite with them or cast them away?

It was essential for Yosef to carefully review matters, and recognize the deeper qualities of his brothers. In placing his trust in the Butler, he made the mistake of assuming, that the Egyptians were righteous people; who could be counted on to act in accordance with high moral principles. Yosef, had forgotten the special character of his family–which was based on the principles of behavior–which had been developed by the Avot.

It is worth quoting from Rav Soloveitchik on this matter. In the book, “Vision And Leadership” (p.17-18) he says:

Why did G-d decree that the house of Jacob should be exiled to Egypt for so many years, be oppressed and tortured, enslaved and humiliated, and only “afterward shall they come out with great wealth (Gen.15:14)?

In my opinion, G-d wanted the children of Israel, and particularly their representative, Joseph, to appreciate the code of Abraham. Do not forget that they were born onto the house of Jacob where Abraham’s mores and moral laws prevailed. They were guided by Abraham’s principle of morality and Abraham’s ethics, whose basic cornerstones were mercy, charity, benevolence, kindness, appreciation, and human dignity. They had never seen evil or cruelty. They had never experienced a life governed by other principles.

There is an old idea that one begins to appreciate one’s most precious treasures—freedom, health, parents, friendship—only after one loses it. The household of Jacob did not appreciate Abraham. I know it from my own childhood. Many times I could not understand what was so great about our household. I was brought up in a house of rabbis, in a scholarly home, but I used to find fault with my father, with my grandfather, and so forth. No one could convince me until I spent a number of years among gentiles, among Germans. I spent time among the best of society in the academic community, and I saw many people who were supposed to be very ethical and moral. But I began to compare them with my grandfather or father and I realized the difference. My confrontation with a non-Jewish society opened up a new world for me. It was as if a shining star had appeared on the horizon, as if a comet had suddenly exploded. I realized that my grandfather, Reb Hayyim would have acted differently, that my father would have helped this person. In order to appreciate the good, you need to be confronted with evil. In order to appreciate traditional Jewish charity, you need to be confronted with cruelty.”

By assuming he could trust an ordinary Egyptian, Yosef was forgetting the unique morality, that governed the descendants of Avraham. He needed to experience disappointment, at the hands of the Butler, and two more years of incarceration; to recognize the special character of his own family, and the great spiritual potential of his brothers. True, they had committed an egregious wrong, but that was because of a serious misunderstanding of Yosef’s intentions; to which he had himself contributed, with his reckless tail-bearing and publicizing of his dreams of grandeur.

Yosef, then recognized, that his brothers were not entirely at fault, and at bottom, were disciples of Avraham; who still retained their identity as Shivtei Kah (Tribes of G-d). His goal upon meeting them, was to facilitate their Teshuva and complete reunification. When Yosef finally did see his brothers at the gates of Egypt, the verse attests, “Yosef recognized his brothers, but they didn’t recognize him.” He now appreciated the unique qualities of the Jewish people, and acted in a manner that would assure their survival and well-being.

This story has great relevance for us. Today, there are many diverse factions in the Jewish People, and much dispute and contentiousness. Sometimes we despair and feel like giving up on our fellow Jews but that would be a great mistake.

The story of Chanukah recounts, that at a time of great calamity, the Jews rose to the occasion and put their very existence on the line, in order to save the Torah way of life. We must always retain a sense of appreciation for Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel)–which was chosen by Hashem–to fill the world with knowledge of G-d and His Glory.

Shabbat Shalom—Chag Urim Sameach.