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Weekly Chizuk

Parshas Vayeishev

Two Years for Two Words

Yet the wine steward did not remember Yosef, and forgot him. (Bereishis 40:23) Because Yosef trusted him [the steward] to remember him, he had to remain in prison for two years, as it says [Tehillim 40:5]: "Fortunate is the man who makes Hashem his trust and turns not to the arrogant" - and does not place his trust in the Egyptians, who are called arrogant. (Rashi)

Based on a talk by Ha-Gaon Ha-Rav Shlomo Brevda shlita, 5758 (sheyizke l'refuah sheleima besoch shear cholei yisrael).

Incarcerated in an underground dungeon, Yosef was suddenly presented with an opportunity to acquire his freedom. Taking advantage of the situation, he asked the wine steward to remember him. Rashi, basing himself on Chazal, comments that, as a result of his efforts, Yosef had two years added to his term. Thus we see that Yosef was criticized for the action he took. However, Rashi's phraseology is very enigmatic. Yosef is being taken to task for lacking bitachon. That being the case, we would expect that the verse cited as proof of this would be full of condemnation. But instead, it is full of encouragement: "Fortunate is the man who makes Hashem his trust"! This, of course, refers to Yosef: "Yes, you are in jail - but hold out and have bitachon. Trust in Hashem, and He will get you out!" This is a criticism? Is this the way to censure someone? The actual Midrash that Rashi bases his comment on is even more perplexing: "Fortunate is the man who has made God his trust": this refers to Yosef. "...and does not turn to arrogant ones": Because he asked the wine steward , "remember me, remember me", two years were added to his stay in the dungeon. (Bereishis Rabbah 89:2)

Yosef is referred to as a fortunate person who has bitachon. Yet when he is criticized for placing his trust in the wine steward, he is regarded as having turned "to the arrogant"!

It is clear that Chazal, in their cryptic manner, are hinting at a very important concept here. Throughout the ages, many commentators have grappled with this problematic Rashi and Midrash, and many answers have been put forward. Let us also plumb the depths of Chazal's understanding and derive the important lessons therein.

Consider: Yosef had been imprisoned for nine long years. In order to properly appreciate his plight, we have to understand exactly what it means to be in jail. Today, of course, a prison is a place one is sent to for a specific amount of time. One has to complete a known term of imprisonment, after which he is unequivocally released. Moreover, if he conducts himself in an exemplary fashion, there is an excellent chance that he will be released earlier. However, these arrangements are fairly recent innovations and they are basically limited to Western countries with a democratic orientation. Even in the West it wasn't always this way, and in many parts of the world it still isn't the norm. Before this enlightened system evolved, penal conditions were markedly different. When the ruling authority decided that someone deserved to be imprisoned, the sentence was unlimited. If one went to jail, it meant that he would remain there until he died. There was no concept of parole for good behavior.

However, there was one exception to this rule. On a day of celebration, the king often wanted to demonstrate his benevolence to his subjects. Therefore, as a gesture of his magnanimity, he would release a certain number of prisoners from jail. A list of these prisoners was drawn up, and they would receive a royal pardon.

The question is, how did one's name get on this list? In modern Israel they have a very descriptive word for it: protektziah. If the prisoner had a cousin, whose wife was the sister-in-law of someone married to the aunt of the king's son-in-law, etc., then he got on the list. As the clich? goes, it wasn't what you knew, it was whom you knew.

Let us turn back now to Yosef. Yosef was alone in Egypt. He certainly had no family there - not even the most distant of relatives. He was absolutely and unequivocally alone. Moreover, he was a lowly slave, with no illustrious family reputation to aid him. There was no way for Yosef to get on that list. He had been in prison for nine years, and according to all logic, would end his days there. Escape was not an option: no one had ever successfully escaped from an Egyptian prison, and there was no reason to believe that anyone would now.

Compounding these difficulties, there was yet another problem. Yosef had been thrown into prison because he allegedly had tried to commit an indecent act with the wife of a high-ranking government official. Poor Yosef! He had no family, he was an ignoble slave, and in addition he had a debased reputation. It was ridiculous to even think about getting on that list. "'Fortunate is the man who makes Hashem his trust,' this refers to Yosef." The Midrash is telling us something here. This was Yosef Ha-Tzaddik, not us. If we were in his situation, we would undoubtedly sit listlessly in our cells, depressed and devastated over the terrible calamity that had befallen us. Our lives would hardly seem worth living, with nothing to look forward to but endless days of suffering in prison. But Yosef? Never! His disposition remained unaffected, and he viewed his situation as just another form of avodas Hashem. He worked harder than ever, and eventually he was appointed the chief warden of the prison!

Nine years after Yosef was imprisoned, two new hapless inmates joined him. Not just ordinary men, they were the chief baker and the wine steward - two of the highest-ranking officials in the government. They had been sentenced for a capital crime: threatening the life of Pharaoh! A fly had been found in the king's cup, and a stone in his bread. Imagine the uproar. There was a new story, a scandal that rocked the nation. After all those years, the Egyptian populace had something other than the "Yosef incident" to gossip about. And now the protagonists of this story found themselves in the same prison with Yosef. One day, after these two men had been imprisoned for a year (Rashi, quoting Pesikta Zutarta), Yosef noticed that they were both very depressed. Seeing their fallen faces, he inquired after their well-being. Can you imagine?! If we had been in jail as long as Yosef, with no prospects of getting out, would we care about anyone's plight other than ours? We'd be so depressed that we wouldn't even think about anyone else. If we had any reaction at all, it would probably be something like: "So what if they're depressed, so am I!" But Yosef was of a different caliber altogether. His trust in the Almighty was complete and he was full of joy. If he was able to do a favor for a fellow inmate or help cheer him up, it was the least he could do. So he went over to ask why they looked so miserable, and they proceeded to relate their dreams to him. Yosef, being an interpreter of dreams, told them the meaning of what had transpired in their dreams. The chief baker, we might say, had better do teshuvah and say vidui, because in three days he would be hanged. But the wine steward had reason to celebrate: in three days time he would be reinstated to his post.

Where did all this leave Yosef? Here he is, having spent endless years in prison with no hope of a royal pardon. He had no relatives, no friends, and a bad reputation to boot. But suddenly, things seem to have taken a turn for the better. His reputation has been forgotten, and one of Pharaoh's closest associates is standing before him - and he owes Yosef a favor, no less! Yosef had just interpreted his dream and told him he was going to be released, and the Gemara says that a dream will follow its interpretation. This means that Yosef was responsible for the steward's freedom. The inconsequential slave had suddenly acquired a very influential friend. What would you do if you were in Yosef's position? The obvious step would be to have the official put in a good word with Pharaoh. Ask him to get your name on that list! Heaven placed a golden opportunity right at your doorstep. Could it be anything other than pure hashgachah pratis? Hashem is running the show, and He made sure you got the protektziah you needed! So Yosef took advantage of the opportunity he'd been presented with. And what do Chazal have to say about this? "'Fortunate is the man who makes Hashem his trust and turns not to the arrogant': He did not trust in the Egyptians, who are called arrogant." The Egyptians are arrogant, self-centered people who are only interested in themselves. And if we need proof of this assertion, we needn't look further than the wine steward, who dismissed all thoughts of Yosef as soon as he gained his freedom.

It seems clear that Chazal are not criticizing Yosef for unduly trusting his Egyptian acquaintance. Nothing could be further from the truth! Yosef had absolutely no trust in this fellow. He understood implicitly that only Hashem could get him out of jail. But if this is true, why did he bother to say anything to this ingrate?

Yosef was the epitome of a true ba'al bitachon. However, he had a question: what was his obligation in hishtadlus at this moment? On the one hand, he felt he should do nothing, since the Almighty is in charge of everything. On the other hand, perhaps Hashem was signaling him to take advantage of the situation - and a miracle would then be performed, causing the arrogant steward to remember him. Yosef was not deficient in bitachon. As we might say in the yeshivah world, he had a she'eilah in bitachon - and he poskened the wrong way. For this minuscule mistake in an assessment of hilchos bitachon, the Heavenly court sentenced him to two more years in prison. Imagine you are Yosef on the morning after the wine steward's release. All you can think about is the seed you planted yesterday. "That steward owes me so much, and all I asked of him was to put in a good word for me. He just has to loosen up Pharaoh with a little wine and mention that wonderful prisoner who took such good care of him. 'My lord, that young man surely doesn't deserve to be imprisoned. Perhaps his name could be placed on the list?' I'm sure he took care of it right away.

"What's that! Someone opening the prison door! Maybe it's him... No, just the guard bringing lunch. Maybe he didn't have time to speak to Pharaoh yet. I'm sure he'll do it by tomorrow."

However, tomorrow comes and nothing seems to have changed. "Wait! The door's opening again. It must be him! No... just some new inmates." And so it goes for days, weeks, months. Two anguished years, spent waiting in vain. How much can a man take? But Yosef was of a different cut! "'Fortunate is the man who makes Hashem his trust and turns not to the arrogant': He did not trust in the Egyptians, who are called arrogant." When he saw nothing had happened by the next day, Yosef realized he had made a mistake. As a consummate ba'al bitachon, he had no obligation to do any hishtadlus whatsoever, and he was punished for having done so. He stood up and started saying vidui. "Hashem, I have erred. I should have trusted only in You. Please forgive me for my sins. I promise not to do this again. I turn to You, and You alone." And with that, he immediately forgot the issue.

No doubt, his fellow inmates started ridiculing him. "Hey Yossi! What happened to that guy you spoke to yesterday? You know, your good buddy. Thought you were supposed to go free all of a sudden! Do you think he forgot about you? Naaaah, couldn't be! Maybe his chariot got caught in a traffic jam!" And so the days stretched on, with nothing but a bunch of smart-alecky lowlifes for company.

Finally, two years go by. The sentence was up, and Yosef's case came before the Heavenly court. It was decided that he should be released. Now, there is a famous maxim of Chazal: "Hashem's salvation comes in the blink of an eye" - and for a true ba'al bitachon like Yosef, it had to come only from Hashem.

Pharaoh has a dream. Not one, but two. He woke up in the morning disturbed and uneasy. "Quickly! Send someone in here to interpret these strange dreams!" Pharaoh was a man of means. He had access to the very best. And Egypt was a very advanced country with the most sophisticated and educated people. They knew everything, including knowledge of the arcane and the occult. Even the children were steeped in witchcraft.

Pharaoh called in all the great professors and wise men, along with his sorcerers, wizards, warlocks, and astrologers. Logically, at least one of them should have come up with an answer that pleased him. But when deliverance comes directly from Hashem, things aren't logical. Pharaoh didn't accept any of their answers.

The Egyptian monarch was apoplectic, and anyone in range was a prime target for his rage. He was shivering and his knees were buckling underneath him, and he needed a drink to steady himself. The wine steward was summoned. But he had to be very careful - one wrong move and his head might roll! He had to think of something fast to calm Pharaoh down. "Yeah! I've got it!" "My lord, Pharaoh. I see that his Highness is upset about his dreams. With his Majesty's permission, I would like to mention something. But I beg of his Royal Highness, please do not be angry with me. Today I must recall my transgressions. Three years ago, his Majesty became incensed at the chief baker and myself and had us imprisoned. In the dungeon, there was a boy - a slave. Forgive me, your Grace, I know I shouldn't mention slaves in your exalted presence - but please permit me to continue, and all will become clear. This boy was a Hebrew. Oh, I know it was terrible of me to mention that. Those Hebrews are so abhorrent we can't even eat at the same table with them! Perhaps his Highness recalls a certain unseemly incident that took place several years ago when a Hebrew slave accosted Potiphar's wife? Truly contemptuous! Well, that was none other than the young man of whom I speak. Normally, the baker and I would not even have acknowledged his presence, but the two of us had troubling dreams, and this youth interpreted them for us. And everything he said came true: his Royal Highness hung the baker and he pardoned me..."

"What? Someone who interprets dreams? I want him here immediately! Or off with your head!"

With that, Yosef was rushed out of jail, bathed, and given a haircut. His clothes were changed, and he was brought before Pharaoh, King of Egypt! Within ten minutes he would be ruler of the mightiest empire in the world, second only to Pharaoh himself.

"'Fortunate is the man who makes Hashem his trust': this refers to Yosef." Yosef was released from jail solely because of his trust in Hashem. It was an absolute, revealed miracle. The wine steward tried his best to belittle him in front of Pharaoh, but the Almighty's plan prevailed. And following the pattern of all Divine redemption, everything took place within the blink of an eye!

Wishing everyone a Gut Shabbos!

Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
4 Panim Meirot, Jerusalem 94423 Israel
Tel: 732-858-1257
Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop Lakewood).
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