Vayeshev תשעט

This week’s portion relates the events leading up to Yosef becoming the Viceroy of Egypt.

Hashem told Avraham Avinu in the ברית בין הבתרים – the covenant between the parts–that his children would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years. The kernel of the Jewish nation needed to spend time in a foreign land to become refined and amalgamated into the people that would receive the Torah and be the focal point of the world. The count began with Yitzchak’s birth, and it was now 168 years later. The time had come for this decree’s fulfillment. The place selected for this exile was Egypt, and somehow Yaakov and his family needed to get there to begin the process.

The Midrash tell us:

מדרש תהלים – מזמור קה

אמר רבי יהודה בר נחמן בשם רבי שמעון בן לקיש: ראוי היה יעקב לירד למצרים בשלשלאות של ברזל ובקולרין, ועשה לו הקב”ה כמה עלילות וכמה מנגנאות ונמכר יוסף למצרים כדי לירד. ויקרא רעב על הארץ, וכל כך למה, (שם מו, ו) ויבא יעקב מצרימה. אמר ר’ פנחס הכהן בר חמא, משל לפרה אחת שהיו רוצין למשוך אותה למקולין שלה ולא היתה נמשכת. מה עשו, משכו בנה תחלה והיתה רצה אחריו. כך עשה הקב”ה מנגנאות, שעשו אחי יוסף כל אותן הדברים כדי שירדו למצרים גם כן כדי שירד גם יעקב, שנאמר (הושע יא, ד) בחבלי אדם אמשכם:

Rabbi Yehuda son of Nachman said in the name of Reish Lakish:  Yaakov should have been taken down to Egypt in iron chains, but Hashem made different pretenses so that he would go with dignity. Yosef was sold to Egypt, and then there was a famine in the land. Rabbi Pinchas HaCohen said: It’s like the cow that would not go to slaughter. They led its son in front of it and it came running. Similarly, Hashem made the pretense of having Yosef’s brothers do what they did, so that Yaakov would go down to Egypt.

Many steps were required to set the stage for this to take place. It began with the brothers selling Yosef to a caravan of Yishmaelim who happened to be passing by. The Yishmaelim sold him to the Midyanites, who sold him to Egypt. He was ultimately sold to Potiphar, Chamberlain of the Butchers.

Hashem was with Yosef, and he was extremely successful in everything that he did.  When Potiphar realized that Yosef’s success was because he invoked Hashem’s name in everything that he did, he put Yosef in charge of all of his affairs, trusting Yosef so implicitly that he gave him the keys to his treasure houses. Because of Yosef, Hashem also blessed Potiphar with great wealth.

The next step in the process was a difficult one.

Potiphar’s wife took a fancy to Yosef, and tried to entice him to sin with her. Yosef resisted her temptations for an entire year, and would have continued doing so, but she brought matters to a head by framing Yosef and accusing him of inappropriate behavior. Although the Egyptian clerics acquitted Yosef, Potiphar sent him to prison to save face.

Hashem was with Yosef in prison also, and the prison warden put Yosef in charge of all the prisoners. Reaching the end of Yosef’s 10-year prison term, it was time for the next step in the process.

The king’s cupbearer and baker sinned against the king, who found a fly in his cup of wine and a stone in his bread.  The cupbearer and baker were thrown into prison along with their superiors the Chamberlain of the Cupbearers, and the Chamberlain of the Bakers, into the very prison where Yosef was in charge. After a few days, the chamberlains each had a dream on the same night. According to the Midrash, each one also dreamt the interpretation of the other’s dream.  When Yosef saw their upset in the morning, and inquired why they looked so distressed, they related to him that they were disturbed by the dreams that they had had. Yosef said, “Hashem knows the meaning of all dreams; why don’t you tell them to me?”

After hearing the Chamberlain of the Cupbearer’s dream, Yosef told him that in three days, at Pharaoh’s birthday party, Pharaoh would restore him to his post and that he will once again place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand.

After seeing that Yosef’s interpretation of the cupbearer’s dream corroborated with the interpretation that he saw in his dream, the Chamberlain of the Bakers proceeded to tell Yosef his dream also. He did not fare as well: Yosef told him that in three days Pharaoh will hang him for his crime.

Yosef realized that these two dreams and the cupbearer’s return to his post was an opportunity sent by Hashem for him to escape the unjust prison sentence. After interpreting the cupbearer’s dream, Yosef said to him (Genesis 40:14, 15):


יד) כִּי אִם זְכַרְתַּנִי אִתְּךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר יִיטַב לָךְ וְעָשִׂיתָ נָּא עִמָּדִי חָסֶד וְהִזְכַּרְתַּנִי אֶל פַּרְעֹה וְהוֹצֵאתַנִי מִן הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה

טו) כִּי גֻנֹּב גֻּנַּבְתִּי מֵאֶרֶץ הָעִבְרִים וְגַם פֹּה לֹא עָשִׂיתִי מְאוּמָה כִּי שָׂמוּ אֹתִי בַּבּוֹר.


14) If only you would remember me with yourself when [Pharaoh] benefits you, and you will do me a kindness, if you please, and remember me to Pharaoh, then you would take me out of this building. 15) For indeed I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing for them to have put me in the pit.

          Did you notice anything extra in Yosef’s request of the cupbearer? Neither did I. But the Sages found fault with Yosef’s request to be remembered twice. The Midrash says (Midrash Rabbah 99:3):

ג) (תהלים מ) אשרי הגבר אשר שם ה’ מבטחו. זה יוסף. ולא פנה אל רהבים –ע”י שאמר לשר המשקים זכרתני והזכרתני ניתוסף לו שתי שנים.

The verse in Psalms (40:5) says: Praiseworthy is the man who has made Hashem his trust, and turned not to the arrogant and to strayers after falsehood.

Praiseworthy is the man who has made Hashem his trust – this refers to Yosef- and turned not to the arrogant – Because Yosef told the cupbearer remember me twice, two years were added to his prison time.

This Midrash seems to contradict itself. On the one hand it says that Yosef is the paragon of trust in Hashem, and then it accuses him of putting his trust in the arrogant by twice asking the cupbearer to remember him. What is the meaning of this?

The Bais Halevi (Rabbi Yoseph Dov Baer haLevi Soloveitchik – 1820-1892) explains how these two concepts are really complementary. On the one hand, a person must know and appreciate that his entire success in life comes from Hashem’s blessing. A person can accomplish nothing on his own. On the other hand, we must put forth effort to achieve the goals that we have set for ourselves. If we do not put forth effort, Hashem will not send us anything. We must provide Him with a natural pathway through which He can send us the blessing that we seek. How much effort must one put forth? The more deeply one understands that everything comes from Hashem, the less effort he must put forth because he realizes that it his efforts do not cause the results. It is Hashem’s goodness, and his efforts, although still necessary, are superfluous. On the other hand, if a person has a very shallow appreciation of how much Hashem does, he must make up the slack with his redoubled efforts.

What the Midrash is teaching us is that because Yosef had such a high level of trust in Hashem, he needed the least amount of effort possible, viz, asking the cupbearer just once thereby creating the natural pathway to his prison release. But, for Yosef, asking twice was too much, seeming like he actually put his trust in the cupbearer instead of in Hashem. This is why he was punished with two extra years in prison.

The Torah says (Deuteronomy 14:29):

לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדְךָ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה

29) So that Hashem may bless you in all that you do

The Midrash comments on this verse.

מדרש תהלים (שוחר טוב; בובר) מזמור כג

ר’ יעקב אומר: יכול אפילו יושב ובטל, תלמוד לומר “בכל מעשה ידך,” אם עשה אדם הרי הוא מתברך, ואם לאו, אינו מתברך.

Rabbi Yaakov says: I may think that the blessing will come even if a person stays home and does nothing. Therefore, the verse is careful to say “in all that you do.” If a person does something to bring forth the desired outcome, then he will be blessed, but if he doesn’t, he will not be blessed.

          Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lozzatto in his seminal work Path of the Just (Chapter 21) explains the relationship between the work that one must do and Hashem’s blessing:


וּכְבָר הָיָה הָאָדָם יָכוֹל לִהְיוֹת יוֹשֵׁב וּבָטֵל וְהַגְּזֵרָה הָיְתָה מִתְקַיֶּמֶת, אִם לֹא שֶׁקָּדַם הַקְּנָס לְכָל בְּנֵי הָאָדָם, וְאָמַר (בראשית ג), “בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם”, אֲשֶׁר עַל כֵּן חַיָּב אָדָם לְהִשְׁתַּדֵּל אֵיזֶה הִשְׁתַּדְּלוּת לְצֹרֶךְ פַּרְנָסָתוֹ, שֶׁכֵּן גָּזַר הַמֶּלֶךְ הָעֶלְיוֹן, וַהֲרֵי זֶה כְּמַס שֶׁפּוֹרֵעַ כָּל הַמִּין הָאֱנוֹשִׁי אֲשֶׁר אֵין לְהִמָּלֵט מִמֶּנּוּ. עַל כֵּן אָמְרוּ (ספרי), “יָכוֹל, אֲפִלּוּ יוֹשֵׁב וּבָטֵל? תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר (דברים כח), ‘בְּכָל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶֹה'”. אַךְ לֹא שֶׁהַהִשְׁתַּדְּלוּת הוּא הַמּוֹעִיל, אֶלָּא שֶׁהַהִשְׁתַּדְּלוּת מֻכְרָח, וְכֵיוָן שֶׁהִשְׁתַּדֵּל הֲרֵי יָצָא יְדֵי חוֹבָתוֹ, וּכְבָר יֵשׁ מָקוֹם לְבִרְכַּת שָׁמַיִם שֶׁתִּשְׁרֶה עָלָיו, וְאֵינוֹ צָרִיךְ לְבַלּוֹת יָמָיו בְּחָרִיצוּת וְהִשְׁתַּדְּלוּת

A person should be able to sit at home and do nothing and he would receive his allocation for the year, if not for the “tax” on all mankind, when Hashem said (Genesis 3:19), “by the sweat of your brow will you eat bread.” Therefore, a person must do something tangible to receive the money earmarked for him, for this is the decree of the Exalted King. It is like a tax that all mankind must pay, without exception. That is why the Sages have said, “I may think the blessing will come even if a person stays home and does nothing. Therefore, the verse was careful to say ‘in all that you do.’” However, the tangible efforts don’t actually accomplish anything; they are just a required step in the process. Once a person has done what he needs to do, there exists an avenue through which Hashem can give him the blessing promised to him.

          Many Sages took the attitude that since putting forth effort to earn money is like a tax, they would pay the smallest tax possible. To this end, their method of earning a livelihood would be to buy a lottery ticket. Since a lottery is a viable avenue through witch Hashem can give them their livelihood if He chooses, they have done enough, and Hashem will figure out the rest. This doesn’t mean to say they won the lottery. They didn’t. Hashem used many different methods to get them their money. But, since they had paid the “tax,” they were now entitled to their allocation.

This is a very important lesson for us. Since the amount of effort we must exert to earn our livelihood is commensurate to our level of trust in Hashem, we are always walking a tightrope between how much effort is too much and how much is too little. We must figure out just how much is appropriate. If we do too much, we are guilty of putting our trust in the hands of mortals or in the specific strategy we have employed. But if we do too little, we are guilty of not doing what we are able to do.

Adopting this approach also gives a person peace of mind. Since he realizes that the result is not up to him and his ingenious strategies, but, rather, these are just the tax he must pay to receive what Hashem already has in store for him, he can rest assured that he will receive what is coming to him after he has done what he needed to do.

For all the years Yosef was in Egypt, his modus operandi was a complete and unwavering connection to Hashem. He realized that the entire episode with the two chamberlains was staged to get him out of prison. He didn’t need to overdo it by asking twice. Because Hashem is exacting with the righteous, it was considered too much effort, and it cost Yosef two more years in prison.

With the Chamberlain of the Cupbearers back in the king’s palace, the stage was set for Yosef’s release, since the messenger to Pharaoh was in place. All that was needed now was the right time to come, and Yosef would be sprung from prison somehow. This brings us to the next week’s portion, מקץ – Miketz, which starts as follows:

א) וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ שְׁנָתַיִם יָמִים וּפַרְעֹה חֹלֵם וְהִנֵּה עֹמֵד עַל הַיְאֹר

1) It happened at the end of exactly two years, Pharaoh was dreaming that– behold! -he was standing over the river.

Isn’t the verse written in reverse order? Shouldn’t it have said “And Pharaoh had a dream two years later?” Our Sages explain that the Torah is telling us that because the two – year decree was over, it was finally time to activate the final step in Yosef becoming the Egyptian Viceroy. Pharaoh would have a dream that would not be interpreted to his satisfaction. This would trigger the Chamberlain of the Cupbearers memory to remember Yosef who had accurately interpreted his dream. When he then related to Pharaoh his story, Yosef was immediately summoned to interpret the king’s dream. Yosef interpreted the dream to the king’s greatest satisfaction, and, after seeing Yosef’s great wisdom, made Yosef his second in command. In a matter of minutes, Yosef went from being a prisoner to the Viceroy of Egypt.

In looking back, we see that each step was carefully choreographed to bring forth the predetermined conclusion – Yosef becoming the Viceroy of Egypt, which itself was necessary to bring the Jewish people into the exile told to Avraham many years earlier to prepare them for their destiny of being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation and a light unto the nations.

In all, we have seen 16 different steps in this story alone, but there are many more nuances that I did not point out. If you would stop the “film,” so to speak, at any of the steps, you would be left with the question “What is going on here? Why is this happening?” It is only after following the entire process to its finish that we may appreciate how each step was necessary and executed with the end goal in mind.

The story is not yet over, and there are many more steps necessary to complete the process of getting Yaakov and his family down to Egypt. The first step, however, was putting Yosef into position.

Our Sages offer this story as a model of how Hashem operates. He accomplishes His goals in many, many steps strung together, that may take years, decades, centuries, or even millennia to complete. Seeing only one small snippet of the “film” leaves us with many unanswered questions. It is only in retrospect that we can see how each of the events played its critical role in the fulfillment of Hashem’s master plan.

Hashem’s current mission is to bring the Mashiach and redeem the Jewish people from exile. Many steps are involved, and we are currently well into the process. We hope shortly to be able to look back and understand how each of the difficulties and events that have befallen our people played their essential roles in the achievement of this goal. May we see this occur speedily in our time.

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