Parshat Mikeitz: The Delay of Yosef’s Liberation

The Delay of Yosef’s Liberation

At the end of two years Paroh had a dream: He was standing by the river. (Beresheit 41:1)

This pasuk introduces Paroh’s fateful dream, which was to serve as the vehicle for Yosef’s rescue from prison and his subsequent rise to power in Egypt. It occurred exactly two years after Yosef’s inspired interpretation of the dreams of Paroh’s butler and chief baker.

Rashi tells us that Hashem had provided Yosef with an opportunity to be redeemed through the dreams of these two servants of Paroh. However, Yosef acted improperly in his reaction to this opportunity, and Hashem delayed his rescue for an additional two years. What exactly was Yosef’s impropriety? Rashi explains that by pleading with the butler to mention his plight to Paroh, Yosef was essentially entrusting him with his fate, and he was punished for this misplaced trust.

On the surface, Rashi’s comments are difficult to understand. Yosef was provided with an opportunity to save himself through the assistance of Paroh’s butler. Through providing the butler with a proper interpretation of his dream, Yosef hoped to win the friendship of Paroh’s servant, and he expected this grateful butler to plead his case before the king. This seems like a completely rational plan. Certainly, Hashem expects each of us to strive to secure our own well being. We are not permitted to simply rely upon Hashem for miraculous salvation. Where is Yosef’s iniquity in attempting to help himself?

While we are required to do everything in our power to help ourselves, we must concurrently recognize that our efforts alone are not sufficient to secure happiness and success. Only if our actions are accompanied by the favor and grace of Hashem, will we secure positive results. Apparently, Yosef believed that through his wisdom alone he would be redeemed. He felt he had devised a brilliant plan through which his individual efforts would secure his freedom. He envisioned the grateful butler returning to Paroh and pleading his case. Paroh would investigate the charges against Yosef and recognize his innocence. He would then intervene to correct the injustice that Yosef had experienced. The process would take time, but it would inevitably culminate in Yosef’s freedom.

His error was in failing to recognize that, despite the brilliance of his plan, success could not be achieved without the assistance and benevolence of Hashem. No individual controls his environment. We are affected by a multitude of factors, few of which are under our control.

Hashem taught Yosef that he had erred. He showed Yosef that despite the brilliance of his elaborate plan, salvation was not inevitable. Years passed. During this time, Yosef painfully learned that he could not alone control his fate. Only after Yosef banished this false confidence from his outlook could salvation be attained.

After Yosef repented, his salvation occurred immediately. Paroh became aware of Yosef’s talents. There was no gradual process of redemption. Yosef was immediately brought from jail, presented to Paroh, and achieved a position of prominence in Egypt. Our Sages teach that this near-instantaneous transformation, from abject privation to freedom and power, is a hallmark of Divine intervention.

Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam offers a different explanation for the two-year hiatus between Yosef’s interpretation of the butler’s dream and his liberation. He argues that Yosef’s redemption and appointment to a high position was made possible as a result of this delay. If the butler had immediately approached Paroh and pleaded Yosef’s innocence, what would have been the outcome? At best, the butler would have convinced Paroh that Yosef had been unjustly imprisoned. This may have resulted in the restoration of Yosef’s freedom. However, Yosef would have lost the opportunity to meet Paroh and make a personal impression. Instead, the butler completely forgot Yosef. On the occasion of Paroh’s dream, the butler suddenly remembered Yosef and his unpaid debt to this Hebrew. He encouraged Paroh to seek Yosef’s help. Yosef met with Paroh personally and impressed the ruler. As a result, Yosef became the virtual king of Egypt. From this perspective the two-year delay was not a punishment. It was a blessing.

The Selection of Asenat as Yosef’s Wife

And Paroh named Yosef Tzapenat Pa’neach, and he gave him Asenat, the daughter of Poti-Phera, the governor of On, for a wife, and Yosef went forth over the land of Egypt. (Beresheit 41:45)

Yosef interprets Paroh’s dreams. The dreams foretell that Egypt will experience seven years of bountiful harvests. These will be followed by seven years of scarcity. The dreams imply a response to the approaching challenge. Paroh should collect the excess harvest from the first seven years and create a ready store for use during the years of scarcity. Paroh is impressed with Yosef’s interpretation of his dreams. He appoints Yosef as his minister. He places him in charge of the preparations suggested by the dreams. He changes Yosef’s name and he gives Yosef a wife.

Our pasuk describes this wife as Asenat, the daughter of Poti-Phera. Our Sages comment that Poti-Phera was, in fact, Potiphar.[1] Potiphar was Yosef’s former master. He purchased Yosef from the traders who brought him to Egypt.

It seems strange that Paroh suggested Yosef marry the daughter of Potiphar. In order to understand the odd nature of this choice, we must review a previous incident. Yosef was Potiphar’s servant. Potiphar placed Yosef in charge of his entire estate. Yosef served Potiphar loyally. Potiphar’s wife was infatuated with Yosef and repeatedly attempted to seduce him. Yosef resisted these advances. Eventually, Potiphar’s wife entrapped Yosef in a compromising situation. She maneuvered Yosef into a situation in which they were alone. Again, she attempted to seduce Yosef. He rebuffed her advances. However, she grabbed Yosef’s cloak. Yosef freed himself and fled. He left his garment in the hands of Potiphar’s wife. She used this cloak to support her claim that Yosef had attempted to seduce her. Potiphar reacted by removing Yosef from his household and placing him in prison.[2]

It is odd that Paroh would chose, as Yosef’s wife, Potiphar’s daughter. This was the one family in Egypt that most resented Yosef.

In order to understand Paroh’s decision, we must answer another question. Yosef was accused of attempting to seduce or rape Potiphar’s wife. It is odd that Potiphar placed Yosef in prison. Yosef was a servant. His master had treated him benevolently. An attempt by Yosef to seduce or rape Potiphar’s wife represented an unimaginable sin against his master. We would expect Potiphar to demand Yosef’s execution. Why did he merely remand Yosef to prison?

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that Potiphar trusted Yosef. He did not believe that Yosef had attempted to seduce or rape his wife. Instead, Potiphar suspected his wife of fabricating Yosef’s crime. However, he was confronted with a dilemma. He could not disregard his wife’s public accusations. This would discredit her and shame her and his family. He could not execute Yosef. This would be an inexcusable injustice. Therefore, he spared Yosef’s life and instead placed him in prison.[3]

Now, we can understand Paroh’s decision. Paroh wished to appoint Yosef as his minister. However, he faced a problem. How could he appoint a convicted criminal to a high ministerial position? He needed to clear Yosef’s name. Paroh knew that Potiphar himself doubted Yosef’s guilt. This provided Paroh with the opportunity to clear Yosef’s name. He arranged for the marriage of Potiphar’s daughter to Yosef. This marriage communicated the message that even Potiphar himself acknowledged Yosef’s innocence. The proof was his willingness to allow his daughter to marry Yosef. With this marriage, Yosef was vindicated and fit to serve as Paroh’s minister.

Yaakov’s Reason for Directing His Sons to Travel to Egypt

Yaakov saw that there were provisions in Egypt, and Yaakov said to his sons: why do you show yourselves? (Beresheit 42:1)

A famine developed, spreading throughout Egypt and the neighboring lands. In Canaan, food was in short supply. Yaakov realized that provisions could be secured in Egypt. He chided his children with the words, “Why do you show yourselves?” According to Rashi, Yaakov chastised his children for disguising their plight. The pride of the brothers prevented them from admitting their desperation. Instead, when in the presence of others, they behaved as if they were exempt from the scourges of the famine.

Gershonides explains Yaakov’s rebuke differently. Yaakov’s sons were traveling through Canaan and negotiating for provisions with the local traders. He warned his sons that their behavior was dangerous. They would be better advised to travel to Egypt in order to secure provisions. What was this danger that Yaakov feared?

In Parshat VaYishlach, the Torah tells us how Prince Shechem abducted Dinah. Against Yaakov’s wishes, Shimon and his brother, Leyve, murdered the citizens of Shechem’s city and rescued their sister. At that time, Yaakov rebuked his sons for their violent behavior. He protested that their actions alienated them from the inhabitants of Canaan. Yaakov and his children would be regarded as criminals. They would have few allies; their neighbors would try to destroy them.

Yaakov now saw that his fears had been realized. As the famine progressed, Yaakov and his family became ever more dependent on the goodwill of the traders and inhabitants of Canaan. The purchase of provisions from these traders required them to travel throughout the land. But Yaakov’s sons could not expect this cooperation or to safely travel through the land. Instead, vengeance was likely. He told his sons that the risks inherent in searching for traders in Canaan were not justified. Instead, the sons should travel to Egypt and purchase provisions directly.

The comments of Gershonides suggest that the abduction of Dinah and the response of Shimon and Leyve had a deep significance. The all-knowing Creator designed the famine as a means by which the brothers would be placed into the hands of Yosef. This plan required forcing the brothers to travel to Egypt. Dinah’s abduction served as a potential device which would force the brothers out of Canaan and into Egypt. The decisions and actions that they took of their own volition determined their fate. Their violence created the animosity that forced them to place their lives in Yosef’s control.

Tragedies in Yosef’s Life Lead to His Redemption

“You shall be [appointed] over my household, and through your command all my people shall be nourished. Only [with] the throne will I be greater than you.” And Paroh said to Yosef, “Look, I have appointed you over the entire land of Egypt.” And Paroh removed his ring from his hand and placed it on Yosef’s hand, and he attired him [with] raiment of fine linen, and he placed the golden chain around his neck. And he had him ride in his chariot of second rank, and they called out before him, “[This is] the king’s patron,” appointing him over the entire land of Egypt. And Paroh said to Yosef, “I am Paroh, and besides you, no one may lift his hand or his foot in the entire land of Egypt.” And Paroh named Yosef Tzapenat Pa’neach, and he gave him Asenat the daughter of Poti-Phera, the governor of On, for a wife, and Yosef went forth over the land of Egypt. (Beresheit 41:40-45)

These passages describe the final step in Yosef’s ascension to power in Egypt. The Torah’s narrative of Yosef’s story begins in Parshat VaYeshev. The Torah tells us that Yosef was favored by his father but hated by his brothers. He dreamed that some day he would be the leader of his brothers and that even his father would acknowledge his position within the family. His brothers plotted to put an end to Yosef’s visions of glory and sold him into slavery in Egypt. The Torah describes in some detail the vicissitudes of Yosef’s fate in Egypt. He rises from a lowly slave to become the household manager of a powerful and influential officer. He was then thrown into jail. But even in jail he prospers and is appointed to a position of responsibility. But the parasha ends with Yosef’s hopes of redemption dashed. Now suddenly, Yosef again experiences a complete reversal of fate and is appointed to a position of power second only to Paroh.

Our parasha opens with this final chapter of Yosef’s ascension. Paroh has two disturbing dreams. His advisors cannot provide him with an acceptable interpretation. Paroh’s butler had been imprisoned with Yosef. In prison, Yosef provided the butler with an accurate interpretation of a dream. Yosef told the butler that his dream foretold his release from prison and his reappointment to Paroh’s court. This interpretation was correct in every detail. The butler relates the incident to Paroh who, in turn, summons Yosef to interpret his dreams.

Yosef tells Paroh that his dreams foretell seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of incomparable famine. The dreams are intended as a forewarning. Paroh is to use the years of plenty to plan and prepare for the years of famine. Through these preparations Paroh can save his land from destruction. Paroh is impressed with Yosef’ ability and wisdom. He appoints Yosef as his prime minister and places the future of Egypt in his hands. Yosef is to supervise the preparation for the famine. During the famine he is responsible for the distribution of food.

Surely, the story of Yosef is a wonderful and exciting adventure. But we must wonder why the Torah provides so much detail. Would it not have been sufficient for the Torah to tell us that Yosef was sold into slavery and to continue with a description of the circumstances of his rescue and appointment as steward of Egypt? Instead, the Torah provides a remarkably detailed account of the vicissitudes of his fate. These details seem superfluous.

In order to understand the purpose and message of this detailed account, some of the elements must be explored and analyzed. As mentioned earlier, Yosef was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. However, he did not long toil as a lowly slave. He was purchased by Potifar – an influential member of Paroh’s household or government. Potifar’s exact position is the subject of debate. According to Rashi, Potifar was in charge of butchering and providing meat to Paroh’s household.[4] Unkelus disagrees. He suggests that he was Paroh’s executioner. Nachmanides prefers Unkelus’ position.[5] However, he does not provide an explanation for this preference.

Yosef rose to a position of prominence in the household of Potifar. Potifar placed Yosef in charge of the affairs of the household and gave him complete responsibility and authority over these affairs. Potifar’s wife was attracted to Yosef. She attempted to seduce him. Yosef rejected her advances. Eventually, she attempted to force herself upon him. Yosef fled from her. She accused Yosef of attempting to seduce her. Her husband placed Yosef in jail.

It is notable that Potifar placed Yosef in jail. This was a rather tempered response. Yosef was accused of seducing Potifar’s wife. Yosef was Potifar’s servant. It seems that he was remarkably lenient in his response. Nachmanides offers a number of possible explanations for this response. He suggests that Potifar’s great love and admiration for Yosef may have influenced his decision to spare him. He also suggests that Potifar may have suspected that his wife was not completely truthful in her characterization of her encounter with Yosef. As result of either or both of these considerations, he decided to spare Yosef and imprison him rather than seek his death.[6]

The Torah tells us that he placed Yosef in the “beit ha’sohar – the place in which the prisoners of the king were imprisoned.” Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra is concerned with the term beit ha’sohar. The term is unusual and does not have an obvious meaning. He explains that the term is actually derived from the Egyptian language. Therefore, the Torah explains the meaning of the term. The Torah tells us that it is the prison in which the prisoners of the king are placed.[7]

Nachmanides disagrees. He explains that beit ha’sohar is a Hebrew term and he explains its origins. It means prison. However, the Torah adds that Potifar did not place Yosef in the prison provided for typical crimes. Instead, he was placed in a special prison reserved for prisoners of the king.[8] According to this interpretation of the passage, the Torah is telling us that although Yosef was placed in prison, he was not treated as a common criminal; he was not placed among the general body of prisoners. Instead, he was placed in a special institution reserved for the prisoners of the king. As we shall see, this apparent nuance of fate had important ramifications.

We can now understand Nachmanides’ preference for Unkelus’ interpretation of Potifar’s position. According to this interpretation, Potifar was Paroh’s executioner. In this position, he was in charge of Paroh’s personal prison. When faced with the decision of how to punish Yosef, he used his authority to place Yosef in the special prison under his command. In other words, were Potifar not Paroh’s executioner, he would have handed Yosef over to the civil authorities who would have placed Yosef in a common prison. But because of his position, Potifar had the option of placing Yosef in this special prison reserved for the prisoners of the king. Potifar took advantage of this option and placed Yosef in the prison under his control.

There is a deeper message in Nachmanides’ position. He seems to maintain that every trial and travail Yosef experienced was actually the seed, or antecedent, to his eventual ascension and redemption. Yosef was sold into slavery in Egypt. He was ripped away from is home and his father. But this tragedy was also the precursor to his eventual emergence as one of the most powerful political leaders of his era

Yosef was condemned to prison for an alleged crime he had not committed. This was another tragedy. But again, this tragedy was an antecedent to his eventual rise to power. Potifar respected Yosef. He had the authority to place Yosef in the king’s prison. He exercised this authority. As a result, Yosef came into contact with the individual who would eventually recommend him to Paroh and propel him into prominence.

Nachmanides provides another example of an apparent tragedy serving as an antecedent to Yosef’s ascension. In prison, Yosef came into contact with Paroh’s butler. He interpreted the butler’s dream and foretold his release and reappointment to Paroh’s household. He asked the butler to remember him and, upon his release, to use his influence to rescue him. What measures did Yosef hope would be taken by the butler? Nachmanides offers a number of possibilities. Perhaps Yosef hoped the butler would recommend him to Paroh as a servant. Perhaps, the butler would ask Paroh to allow him to take Yosef as his own servant.[9] Yosef did not have lofty aspirations. He only hoped to be freed from prison and restored to servitude. But the butler forgot about Yosef and did not make any effort to free him. Again, Yosef experienced a tragedy.

But this tragedy led directly to Yosef’s ascension. Our parasha opens with Paroh dreaming two disturbing dreams. He does not receive an acceptable interpretation of these dreams. Now, the butler remembers Yosef and his uncanny skill in interpreting dreams. He recommends him to Paroh at this crucial moment. Yosef’s interpretation of these dreams leads to his appointment as Paroh’s minister.

In summary, according to Nachmanides, each tragedy experienced by Yosef set the stage for his eventual redemption. These tragedies did not represent Hashem’s abandonment of Yosef. Instead, each was a step in a complicated series of events that would lead to Yosef’s ascension. The apparent significance of each of these tragedies is misleading. Superficially, they were expressions of Hashem’s abandonment. But within the overall design of Hashem’s providence, each served a role in bringing about Yosef’s emergence as a powerful leader and savior of Bnai Yisrael.

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[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 41:45.

[2] Sefer Beresheit 39:1-20.

[3] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 39:19.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:36.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:36.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 39:19.

[7] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 39:20.

[8] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 39:20.

[9] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 40:14.