1. Yosef’s sudden rehabilitation
In Parshat Meketz, the Torah’s narrative of Yosef’s struggle with his brothers continues. The parasha begins with Yosef’s redemption from prison. Paroh – Egypt’s ruler – is deeply troubled by two dreams whose meaning he cannot discern. He asks his advisors to analyze and interpret these dreams, but he is unsatisfied with their various responses. He is told of a Hebrew prisoner gifted in the interpretation of dreams. He commands for Yosef to be brought to him. Yosef interprets the dreams as a warning to Paroh. Seven years of bounty are to soon begin. These will be followed by seven years of extreme famine. Paroh must prepare, in approaching bountiful years, for the coming famine. He must create great stores of grain that will sustain the nation during the years of famine. Paroh is so impressed by Yosef’s gift and analysis that he appoints him as his visor – elevating Yosef to a position of authority second only to the throne.
Within a matter of hours, Yosef was transformed from an imprisoned slave to virtual ruler of the era’s most powerful country. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno comments that when the proper moment arises, salvation is immediate. Sforno’s intention is to communicate that Yosef’s redemption did not occur in the natural course of events. In other words, every person experiences successes and failures. These are an expression of the natural pattern of life. Yosef’s instantaneous emergence from abject desolation to the heights of political power was not one these natural vicissitudes of life. It was an expression of Hashem’s providence. The presence of providence in the event is revealed in the instantaneous element. Yosef’s unanticipated and instantaneous redemption is characteristic of providential redemption.
Now, Sforno’s meaning is clear. However, a question emerges. Why was this the proper moment for Yosef’s redemption? Sforno does not reveal his opinion on this issue. However, other commentators do address the question.
And the Wine-butler returned to his position as Wine-butler and he placed the cup upon Paroh’s palm. The Baker was hung, as Yosef interpreted for them. And the Wine-butler did not remember Yosef and he forgot him. (Sefer Beresehit 40:21-23)
2. Relying upon Hashem
Yosef had expected to be rescued from his unjust imprisonment earlier. While in prison, he had developed a relationship with two very prestigious prisoners – Paroh’s Wine-butler and his Baker. Both had been imprisoned for some suspected failure in their service to Paroh. One night, both dreamt and awoke troubled by their dreams. Yosef interpreted their dreams. He told the Wine-butler that his dream foretold his release from prison and his restoration to his previous position in the court. Yosef told the Baker that his dream foretold his execution. Yosef was completely confident in his interpretations and he asked the Wine-butler to bring his case before Paroh. Yosef was confident that once Paroh reviewed his case, he would release him from prison.
As predicted by the dreams, the Baker was executed and the Wine-butler was released and restored to his previous post. However, rather that bringing Yosef’s case to Paroh’s attention, the Wine-butler forgot about Yosef and did nothing on his behalf for two years. Only after Paroh awoke one morning disturbed by troubling dreams and his own advisors were helpless to relieve his anxiety, was the Wine-butler prompted to come forward and tell Paroh of Yosef.
Rashi comments that this delay was a consequence of Yosef’s reliance upon the Wine-butler to bring about his salvation. Rashi does not explain why this was inappropriate. Actually, his criticism of Yosef seems undeserved. We are expected to act vigorously on our own behalves and not rely upon Hashem to intervene and solve our problems. After all, we are expected to serve Hashem and not complacently await Him to serve us! Yosef seems to have acted properly. What is the basis of Rashi’s criticism?
It seems that Rashi is suggesting that Yosef’s confidence in his own capacity to engineer his release was excessive. We are expected to act on our own behalf but to recognize that ultimately the success of our endeavors is beyond our control. Even the most carefully laid plans can fail miserably. Sometimes the most desperate and seemingly hopeless efforts are remarkably successful. We are never excused from the responsibility of caring for our own needs, but we should never assume that our successes are a consequence solely of our own endeavors.
In short, according to Rashi, Yosef’s rescue was delayed as a consequence of his own misjudgment. He was overly confident in his own capacities and wisdom. Rashbam seems to suggest a different explanation.
And Yosef was thirty years of age when he stood before Paroh the king of Egypt. And Yosef went forth from before Paroh and he passed throughout the Land of Egypt. (Sefer Beresheit 41:46)
3. Age and respect for a ruler
As the above passage indicates, Yosef was thirty years old when he became Paroh’s visor. Rashbam comments on this passage that Yosef became visor at the age appropriate for a person to assume authority. In other words, a person of thirty is regarded as having achieved a reasonable level of maturity. This helps the aspiring leader to command the respect of others. A younger person will not be as readily respected or followed. His maturity and his judgment will be suspect.
The implication of Rashbam’s comments is that Yosef’s redemption occurred at the ideal moment. He reached the age of thirty. He was old enough to command respect as a leader. When this moment was reached, he was immediately rescued.
Rashbam’s position presents a problem. If Yosef could not have effectively taken upon himself the mantle of leadership before the age of thirty, why were the antecedent events to his liberation set into place two years earlier? The dream of the Wine-butler was interpreted by Yosef two years before the proper time for his liberation has arrived. Did Hashem set into motion the events that would lead to Yosef’s freedom two years in advance for some reason?
Rashbam is somewhat vague in dealing with this question. In commenting on the Wine-butler’s forgetfulness regarding Yosef, he remarks that he forgot Yosef until Hashem performed miracles for Yosef and the Wine-butler was compelled to recall him.
These brief remarks contain two important ideas. First, Rashbam is noting that the Wine-butler only brought Yosef to Paroh’s attention when he was compelled to do so. Yosef had assumed that the Wine-butler would act swiftly as an expression of gratitude to Yosef and because of his recognition of the injustice that had been done to Yosef. This was a flawed calculation. The Wine-butler made no attempt to help Yosef. He was not moved to act on Yosef’s behalf out of gratitude or in order to repair injustice. The Wine-butler only told Paroh of Yosef, when he felt he must act to relieve his master’s anxiety. Alternatively, he may have acted in the hope of enhancing his own position in Paroh’s court.
Second, the events that did compel the Wine-butler to act were providential. In other words, Yosef’s liberation was delayed in order to introduce an overt providential element. If Yosef had been immediately released through the efforts of the Wine-butler, this element would not be as evident. However, over the two years that Yosef continued to languish in prison, it became clear that the Wine-butler had no intention of interceding on Yosef’s behalf. Only through a miracle was he forced to finally step forward and tell Paroh of Yosef.
Rashbam’s position can be summarized. Hashem’s plan for Yosef was to bring about his liberation when he reached the age of thirty years. However, Hashem managed the events leading to this liberation in a manner that would demonstrate that the outcome was providential and not a natural event.
According to Rashbam, why was this demonstration required? Unlike Rashi, Rashbam does not attribute any wrongdoing to Yosef in his urging the Wine-butler to bring his case before Paroh. Rashbam does not criticize Yosef for being overly reliant upon the Wine-butler or over-confident in his own abilities.
And Yosef remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them and he said: You are spies. You have come to discover the secrets of the land. (Sefer Beresheit 42:8)
4. Yosef’s evolving understanding of his dreams
Yosef implements his plan for saving Egypt from the ravages of famine. He stockpiles grain and when the famine arrives, Egypt is the only country that is spared. All of the people of the region rely upon Egypt for grain. Yaakov sends his sons to Egypt to secure provisions to sustain their families. The bothers arrive and Yosef recalls his childhood dreams. In these dreams he envisioned his brothers bowing to him and acknowledging his authority over them. These dreams had led to Yosef’s downfall. He had revealed the dreams to his brothers and they had sold him into slavery. Now, the dreams are to be realized. His brothers are approaching. He has the power and the authority to force his brother’s submittal and to exact any punishment.
Yosef’s response was dictated by his self-image. Had Yosef succeeded in liberating himself, he would have interpreted his dreams as a harbinger of personal accomplishment. He would have looked back upon these dreams and assumed that they foretold the story of his personal battle with adversity and his ascent to power through undaunted effort and wisdom. His brothers would be assessed as one of the obstacles he had overcome. They had not appreciated his abilities and instead, ridiculed him, oppressed him, and ultimately, attempted to destroy him.
However, Yosef understood that he had not attained power and authority through his own efforts. His efforts had been fruitless. Instead, his ascent to power was a providential event. His brothers had not been obstacles. Rather, they had been unwitting tools of providence. They had sold him into slavery in Egypt and initiated this intricate providential process through which he had become Paroh’s visor. He understood that his childhood dreams did not foreshadow accomplishment that he would achieve through his own wisdom and effort. They foretold of a Divine plan for Bnai Yisrael in which Hashem would place and entrust Yosef with the authority of leadership.
Now, Yosef recalled the dreams. Through his experiences and struggles, he understood their true meaning and greeted his brothers – not with hatred and vengeance but prepared to assume the burden of leadership with devotion and love.
1. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 41:14.
2. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 41:23.
3. Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 41:46.
4. Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 40:23.