By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
December 26, 2003
After interpreting the dream of Pharaoh’s cup-bearer
accurately, Yosef had hoped to also be freed from prison. And yet, despite the
Divine assistance he has been granted until now, Yosef is forced to spend an
additional two years in Pharaoh’s prison:
And it was at the end of two years that Pharaoh was dreaming . . .
Why must Yosef suffer so?
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 89:2) says that the saintly Yosef is being
punished for lack of faith:
(Tehillim 40:5): “Fortunate is the man who has made Hashem his trust”— this is
Yosef; “and turned not to the arrogant, and to those who stray after
falsehood” — since he said to the cup-bearer “remember me . . . and mention
me” (Bereishit 40:14), two years were added for him.
However, this is difficult to understand, for it describes Yosef
simultaneously as both “the man who has made Hashem his trust” and yet, by
seeking help from the cup-bearer, as one who “turned . . . to the arrogant,
and to those who stray after falsehood”. How are we to interpret this Midrash?
R. Ben-Tzion of Shkud (quoted in Kehillat Yitzchak, by R. Yitzchak ben-Nissan)
begins by examining Yosef’s words to the cup-bearer in prison:
In three more days Pharaoh will raise your head and restore you to your
position, and you will place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand as was the first manner
when you were his butler. If only you will remember me with yourself when it
shall be well with you, and please show kindness to me, and mention me to
Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house. Because I was surely stolen out of
the land of the Hebrews, and here too I have done nothing that they should
have put me in the pit (40:13-15).
Since Yosef was offering to interpret the cup-bearer’s dream, he
should have said nothing more than the first sentence. Asking to be “remembered”
and “mentioned” to Pharaoh is extraneous to his purpose. In addition, Yosef
undoubtedly must have protested his innocence from the moment he arrived in the
prison, and he was ignored. Why should anyone believe him now after he has
interpreted the cup-bearer’s dream?
All this is superfluous. That is, unless they are meant as part of the
When Yosef, the slave in the house of Poti-fera, was arrested, the expected
place to jail him was with other slaves. And yet, he was put in
the place where the king’s prisoners were imprisoned (39:20).
This, explains Malbim, was where offending officers and advisers to the king,
like the cup-bearer and royal baker, were incarcerated. Yosef reasoned that he
was placed in this particular prison — this house — through Divine Providence,
so that he could encounter someone close to the king, and thereby gain his
The cup-bearer, for his part, never expected to return to his former position
after being stripped of it by Pharaoh. The king would either have him executed,
tortured or exiled, if found guilty, or simply set free, if found innocent.
Therefore, when Yosef predicted that he would be reinstated, he did not take him
seriously. After all, what does a slave know of the inner workings of Pharaoh’s
Anticipating this, Yosef incorporated it into his words
If only you will remember me with yourself when it shall be well with you.
By this, Yosef meant to say: “Do not be surprised at this unexpected
interpretation; when it comes true, you will realize that, like you, I am
innocent. And this will show that I was imprisoned through Hashem’s will.
Furthermore, I am not by birth a slave, but am of the noble family of Avraham
(well-known to the Egyptians). The only way I could have been sold as a slave
was by kidnapping:
“Because I was surely stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here too I have
done nothing that they should have put me in the pit.”
Throughout, Yosef does not display any lack of faith; on the contrary, he sees
the hand of Hashem in all that has befallen him. He is truly
the man who has made Hashem his trust.
Yosef’s error, however, lies in his words
and please show kindness to me (v.14).
Instead of stating, plainly and simply, that the cup-bearer will recognize
himself too as an instrument of Divine Providence, Yosef asks him to do an act
of kindness. By putting it this way, Yosef gives the impression that it will be
the cup-bearer’s charity, and not Hashem’s will, that will free him. In this
light, the two words, remember me . . . and mention me (ZECHARTANI . . .
V’HIZKARTANI), change from being expressions of Yosef’s trust in Hashem to
lapses in that trust. Of course, only someone at Yosef’s general level of faith
in Hashem would be so severely punished for this transgression. The two words
become two years added to Yosef’s captivity.
With just a subtle change of perspective, the events of Yosef’s life could be
seen as natural, or as manifestations of Hashem’s intervention. Similarly, the
events of the Chanukah story can be viewed as a series of stunning military
victories. However, the House of the Maccabees did not see things that way; they
attributed all their successes to Hashem. And the miracle of the oil
demonstrated clearly that Hashem gave His approval to their achievements.
The events that shape our lives also show the hand of Hashem. We need, with the
guidance of Torah leaders, to be able to see this and where Hashem is leading
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
After they fail to recognize him, Joseph accuses his
brothers of being spies: “You are spies, to see the nakedness of the land
you have come (Bereishit 42:9).” Hidden in this accusation, writes the
SH’LaH HaKadosh, is a reference to the future sin of the spies in the
desert; Your children, the spies sent by Moses to report to him from the
Land of Israel, heads of the tribes that will descend from you, will speak
ill of the Land of Israel.
My descendant, Joshua, on the other hand, will keep
faith with the Land, as will the daughters of Zelophchad, also my
Rashi explains (Bereishit 42:8) that the brothers
did not recognize Joseph because when they had last seen him he did not
have a beard, and now he had a full grown beard. But why should this have
sufficed to conceal Joseph’s true identity from his brothers?
Joseph, even when he was surrounded by Egyptian
culture, succeeded in preserving his righteousness. His brothers, however,
were unable to perceive that righteousness. They stood before Joseph, but
were deceived by externals - a beard - and saw “just another Egyptian.”
And similarly, their descendants who would be sent to scout the Land of
Israel would be oblivious to the land’s sanctity and focus only on the
difficulties to be encountered in its conquest.
Rabbi Jonathan Blass
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Tel: 972-2-566-1181 ext. 320