By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
December 8, 2001
Yosef, beloved son of Yaakov, is the victim of his brothers' resentment, and he finds himself sold into slavery:
And Yosef was brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, the officer of Pharaoh, the chief executioner, an Egyptian man, purchased him from the hand of the Yishmaelites who had brought him down there. (VAY'HI) And Hashem was with Yosef, (VAY'HI) and he was a successful man, (VAY'HI) and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian (Bereishit 39:1-2).
Verse 2 poses a number of questions: What does it mean that Hashem "was with Yosef"? How is that distinct from being "a successful man"? Since it was established in verse 1 that Yosef was purchased by Potiphar, why repeat that he was "in the house of his master the Egyptian"? And why is VAY'HI - and he was - repeated three times?
Da'at Zekeinim Miba'alei HaTosafot, a collection of Torah commentaries taken from the Tosafists (12th-14th centuries) who were disciples of Rashi, proposes an analysis of this verse: And Hashem was with Yosef - Hashem's relationship to Yosef was far better than the manner of mortal men. In the ways of the world, it is not uncommon for a person's friends to remain loyal to him as long as he is successful, but as soon as he falls on hard times they forsake him. Hashem does not behave this way. He remained with Yosef when he was enslaved, just as He had been with him in the house of Yaakov, and as He would be with him later when he would be imprisoned:
And Hashem was with Yosef , and He extended kindness to him, and He gave him favor in the eyes of the officer of the prison (39:21).
And still later, Hashem would be with him when he would be appointed vizier. Verse 2 establishes the leitmotif of Hashem's steadfastness: He remains with Yosef, protecting him from harm, under all conditions.
This raises the question: Why was Hashem "with Yosef" more than the other brothers? Daat Zekeinim explains, using an allegory found in the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 86:5):
A wine merchant sees one of his ten donkeys laden with wine enter the home of a heathen, so he follows it in order to remove it. When asked why he ignored the other nine, he explained that the wine loaded on the tenth donkey was in danger of becoming forbidden through contact with the heathen (yayin nesech, wine poured as an idolatrous libation), so he had to save it.
Similarly, Hashem remains with Yosef in Egypt for his protection, to keep him from being too fully absorbed into the Egyptian environment and world-view.
But there is an additional implication to "And Hashem was with Yosef", referring to the reciprocal nature of the Hashem-Yosef relationship. Yosef, too, acts towards Hashem better than most people do. Usually, people turn to Hashem in difficult times, but forget Him when things go well for them. Yosef, however, is as aware of Hashem when he is successful as he had been when he was in trouble. When he was a slave, he said,
"How can I do this great evil, and sin against G-d?" (39:9)
And when he is vizier, he will say:
"I fear G-d" (42:18).
And Yosef maintains his awareness of Hashem, which he doubtless absorbed in his father's house, even after his father's death, when he was in a position to wreak his final vengeance on his brothers:
And Yosef said to them, "Do not fear, for am I in G-d's stead? You intended evil for me, but G-d intended it for good, in order to do this day, to keep alive a numerous nation" (50:19-20).
Yosef is also thinking of Hashem at the very end of his life:
And Yosef said to his brothers," I am dying, and G-d will surely remember you and he will bring you up from this land to the land which He swore to Avraham to Yitzchak and to Yaakov" (50:24).
In this vein, we might add that Rashi sees Yosef's constant awareness of Hashem reflected in the way Yosef speaks. On the verse
And his master saw that Hashem was with him (39:3),
Rashi comments: "The name of Heaven was fluent in his mouth."
Throughout his life, and in all circumstances, Yosef speaks of Hashem.
The bond between Yosef and Hashem, therefore, was reciprocal, as Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) says: "If 'G-d was with Joseph,' that could only have been because Joseph was with G-d."
We have yet to explain the flow of the entire verse, as well as the triple mention of VAY'HI - and he was:
Abravanel (Don Yitzchak Abravanel, 1437-1508) sees three separate levels of Divine kindness:
1. Hashem was with him, despite his unfortunate circumstances, and thus he was open to the Divine influence in receiving and interpreting prophetic dreams.
2. Yosef was materially successful in all that he did.
3. Yosef was fortunate to be given work in his master's house, rather than the more strenuous work in the fields.
Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c.1550) also sees three stages of Hashem's kindness to Yosef, but he regards them as linked to each other. He also argues that the third VAY'HI means "and he remained" (as in Devarim 10:5 and 31:26). As a result, Sforno's translation might read as follows:
(VAY'HI) And Hashem was with Yosef, (VAY'HI) so that he was a successful man: (VAY'HI) and he remained in the house of his master the Egyptian [rather than work in the fields].
Because Yosef keeps Hashem actively involved in his life, Hashem protects Yosef from both physical and spiritual harm. This puts him in the position later to save his family during the time of famine. Yosef's unwavering attachment to Hashem is the key to his salvation, and to the salvation of the Children of Israel.
True connection to Hashem is not a consequence, but an axiom, a given, our basis of being, and the only key to our salvation.