We saw last week that Yosef’s karma came quickly: everything that he reported to his father about his brothers came back to him. He shared how his brothers were eating flesh cut off from a living animal, and his brothers sold him, cutting him off from the family. He told Yakov how the brothers treated the sons of the handmaids with contempt and called them slaves, and then “Yosef was sold for a slave.”1 Because he shared with his father that his brothers were acting immorally, Yosef’s “master’s wife cast her eyes upon him,”2 and he landed in prison in Egypt for two years.
In this week’s parashah, the same karma befalls the brothers: they are accused of being spies because they suspected Yosef of telling tales against them. Shimon is placed in prison because they threw Yosef in the pit twenty-two years prior. And of course, placing the blame of Yosef’s stolen cup was meant to bring the brothers to their knees in readiness to become slaves, thereby atoning for placing Yosef in slavery. Abarbanel adds to this that even the money that was returned to each brother and the fear it caused them was also meant to atone for their selling Yosef as a slave.3 As the brothers say to one another, “We are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.”4
This treatment measure for measure (midah keneged midah) is connected to the principle “do not judge lest you be judged.” And we see this throughout the stories of the twelve brothers and their tribes. But what we also see through Yosef’s plan to reunite his family and bring redemption to their father Yakov is that the world is equally balanced– with one step toward the side of atonement, a person can turn it all around.5
In life, we always have to balance putting our faith in Hashem with putting in our own efforts (hishtadlut). So we see that when Yosef was in jail, he said to the cup-bearer, after interpreting his dream, “remember me” and “mention me.” Yosef knew that Hashem is in charge and that when the time came, he would be released, and had he said simply, “remember me”, it would have sufficed, but by adding “mention me” he was putting too much faith in man and not enough in Hashem, and so his salvation from prison was delayed one year for each request. A tzadik is expected to be on the highest level and is dealt with in a very different fashion from the average person, so this isn’t to say if someone else did the same, they would receive an extra two years, but it simply stresses that that moment of faithlessness for someone like Yosef had a consequence of dwelling in a difficult space, delaying the redemptive part of the story for a longer period. We have to look for opportunities to let go of control and trust that all will be for the good.
We see in this that the sitra achra (the Other Side) works very hard to throw us off course, and so to balance this, we must be diligent in strengthening the side of holiness. MCA of the Beastie Boys said, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” We have to take that stand a step further and strengthen our emunah (faith) especially in the moments where the sitra achra shows us every reason to let go. And strengthening our emunah is done through action which brings love. Love and heart is what connects us all to each other, and each of us to our Creator. Just as a romantic relationship can’t grow stronger without words and actions that demonstrate the commitment; without them, the relationship weakens and the people grow detached. So, too, with our relationship to Hashem– we have to keep Hashem on our tongues and in our hearts.
We see in the Temple service that those that feel generous of heart were told to bring sacrifices, continuing this running theme in Torah— loving actions based on loving feelings strengthen and deepen those feelings, leading to more loving action, in a cycle. We see Yosef kept Hashem on his tongue at all times, so much so that Pharaoh’s response starts to incorporate awareness of Hashem in it. This was done by Yosef brushing aside that it was his own wisdom, asserting that it was Divine prophecy that resonated most as the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams over all the sorcerers’ attempts to explain them.
We read of Pharaoh that “in the morning, his spirit was troubled. He sent for and summoned all the magicians of Egypt and all the wise men. Pharaoh told them his dream, but no one could interpret them to Pharaoh” (וַיְהִ֤י בַבֹּ֙קֶר֙ וַתִּפָּ֣עֶם רוּח֔וֹ וַיִּשְׁלַ֗ח וַיִּקְרָ֛א אֶת־כׇּל־חַרְטֻמֵּ֥י מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־כׇּל־חֲכָמֶ֑יהָ וַיְסַפֵּ֨ר פַּרְעֹ֤ה לָהֶם֙ אֶת־חֲלֹמ֔וֹ וְאֵין־פּוֹתֵ֥ר אוֹתָ֖ם לְפַרְעֹֽה)6
Pharaoh’s wise men did interpret the dreams, but not in reference to him as a Pharaoh, instead as a king, so he was unsatisfied with their interpretations.7 Rashi explains their interpretations as such: Pharaoh would beget seven daughters and bury seven daughters. It was only Yosef that was able to not only interpret the dreams incorporating every aspect of the dreams that Pharaoh had shared, but was able to fill in the parts Pharaoh had left out and offer practical advice so as to keep Egypt in good standing, thus saving Pharaoh and his kingdom. Yosef saw the seven healthy cows in the dream as good and the scrawny cows as evil, something that always exists in the world, where the evil scrawny cows consume the healthy cows in a way that sometimes it seems that evil conquers good. But Reb Natan of Breslov explains that Yosef, a tzadik, is always able to overcome evil even if it has been “swallowed up” by evil. The Lubavitcher Rebbe reminds us that evil is transient while good always remains intact.8 The wise men told Pharaoh that Yosef’s interpretation didn’t make sense, that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of a famine, because the cows co-existed, so that would clearly not be correct. Yosef explained that they would have to put away food during the years of famine, taking advantage of the good days and storing them in the same way one should with good deeds in this world. And in this way, when the bad/evil befell them there was good to fall back on. So, too, we should store up good deeds, so the evil that exists will be met by good at the same time.
“Now let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvest of Egypt during the seven years of abundance. They should collect all the food of these good years that are coming and store up the grain under the authority of Pharaoh, to be kept in the cities for food. This food should be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine that will come upon Egypt, so that the country may not be ruined by the famine.”9
This saved not only Pharaoh’s kingdom, but Yakov and Yosef’s brothers whose provisions eventually started to dwindle. As it’s written, “God has sent me ahead of you to prepare sustenance for you.” 10
As Pharaoh praised Yosef’s wisdom, Yosef corrected him, “Only God will explain Pharaoh’s dream.”11 As it says in Bereishit Rabbah, “[Yosef] gave credit to the One to whom it was due.”12 And as we read further, Yosef kept reiterating the same message to Pharaoh so as to raise his God-consciousness, (e.g. “That which God wished to tell Pharaoh,” “For this matter is truly from God, and God is hastening to do it.”13 Chazal teach that a wise man is greater than a prophet,14 and Yosef, in his humility, related that he had only attained the level of prophecy and not the higher level of wisdom. And with that we see that he was successful in bringing the highest level of Holiness down to the king of materiality and idolatry when Pharaoh himself responds in kind, “Is there then any other man like this with the spirit of God in him?”15 and “God told you all this.”
The way that the dream was interpreted to provide a practical plan to avoid famine is the same way that we have to go about life in order to be strong enough to not only endure, but to thrive physically, mentally and spiritually when adversity and famine in its many forms rears its face, taking us away from revealed good and blessings. Just as the lyrics from the Bangles smash single, “Walk Like An Egyptian” go – If they move too quick (oh whey oh), They’re falling down like a domino. It’s a reminder that we need to pause and be mindful when things are good, knowing that life is full of ups and downs, so to prepare physically and spiritually for the moments when things are difficult, so we don’t fall down like dominos. Which is essentially what would have happened during the famine without Yosef’s practical interpretation.
Yosef’s narrative is that of someone who stays faithful in the face of “bad”; when others would be in despair or fully give up, Yosef rises. He is sold into slavery, and he finds himself in jail in Egypt, the lowest point in his life, and from that very low point, he continued to reveal Godliness through prophecy, and as his story reveals, in the land of his hardships, he became his most fruitful.16 Just as Hashem said to Avraham, “From the same star that you see that you will not have a child, from there I will show you that you will have a child,” showing that from the same source which undermines your emunah will come the emunah which brings salvation.17 We see that emunah is the throughline that connects all the pieces of Yosef’s story.
In a similar fashion, we see Yosef’s father sees life in much the same way. We read that Yakov saw that there were provisions in Egypt. (וַיַּ֣רְא יַעֲקֹ֔ב כִּ֥י יֶשׁ־שֶׁ֖בֶר בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם)18 To understand the significance of this, we have to jump into the word shever (provisions,שבר) which in Hebrew means “break”, but it can also be read as seiver (hope,שבר) and so the Midrash says, Yakov saw shever (a famine) and saw seiver (the plantitude of their harvest.) And so while Yakov saw shever, he also saw Yosef had descended to Egypt, and in that he saw seiver, as Yosef would become the ruler that would save them. At the same time, he foresaw that the Jews would become slaves in Egypt (shever), but he also foresaw that the Jews would be redeemed from there, reaching even greater spiritual levels (seiver).19 It is the same throughout our life: shever is inevitable, but we must always realize that seiver follows, and all will be rectified at the right time.20
When I was on the plane on the way to my mom’s unveiling, after her yahrzeit, I opened up Likutey Moharan and Rebbe Nachman’s lesson that ties into this blew my mind. It was based on Tehillim, “בַּ֭צָּר הִרְחַ֣בְתָּ לִּ֑י” which means, In my distress, you relieved me.21 It’s a praise that even during the time of the distress itself, Hashem provides the relief. The phrase “it could always be worse” does have truth to it, and the exercise in that mindset or mantra is that by realizing it is better than it could have been is a way to stay grounded and hopeful, which is essential in the period before it does actually get fully better.
Scripture relates a story of King David, who composed much of Tehillim, including the verse above. When King David fled Avshalom, he ascended the Mount of Olives weeping as he went, but as he fled, he composed a psalm, 3:1, “A song of David, when he fled from his son Avshalom”. 22 The Midrash23 asks: if he wept, why was he singing? And if he was singing, why was he weeping? And goes on to relate a story of a king who became angry with his son and sent him away. The king sent a messenger to check on his son, and the messenger found the prince weeping and singing and was confused by such behavior and inquired why. The prince replied, “I weep because I angered my father and have been separated from him. But I sing because he did not have me executed. Not only did he not kill me, but he sent me to dwell in exile among dukes and noblemen.” And in that vein, the Talmud24 teaches that it even in his fleeing David rejoiced when he found out that the evil that would befall him from his own house was from his own son, realizing if it had come from a servant there would be no mercy shown him, but when he saw it was from Avshalom, his own son, he knew there was hope that even a rebellious son will show mercy. And so the psalm from the heart sang from a place of relief in the space of distress.
I love synchronicity because just as I finished writing the paragraph above, I decided to take a quick break and put on Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist and just then, a song I’ve never heard called “Grateful” by KOTA The Friend came on that I feel resonates so much with this message:
Grateful, grateful, grateful, grateful, grateful
Even in a rough patch, I’ma always make due
Even when I’m down bad, I be sayin’ thank you
Even when I’m wild sad
I could never hate you
Thank you for the setbacks on the way up
Thank you for the stories that they made up
Thank you for my noah’s arc, that’s word to blu, the deep blue sea, can’t mess with me
I’ma be great when you showin me love
I’ma be great when u throwin’ me hate
I’ma be great even when I am done
You got another thing comin if u think
Being grateful for life and never losing hope, even in the difficult moments, is the way we can turn them around. The story of Yosef paints a picture of exactly that. Rebbe Nachman once said, when we are asked how things are, each of us should say they’re going well and thank Hashem, even when they are very difficult. When we stay in such a mindset Hashem thinks, “This is good!? I’ll show you what good really is!”26
Notes & Sources
- Psalms 105:17
- Rashi on Genesis 37:2, and Bereishit Rabbah 84:7
- R’ Y. Nachshoni, Hagot B’Parshiot HaTorah, p. 265
- Ibid 42:21
- Talmud Kiddushin 40b; Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah
- Ibid 41:8
- Bereishit Rabbah 89:6
- Likkutei Sichot by The Lubavitcher Rebbe p. 513
- Genesis, 41:33-36
- Ibid 45:7
- Ibid 40:8
- Bereishit Rabbah 89
- Genesis 41:25 & 32
- Talmud Bava Batra 12a
- Genesis 41:38 & 39
- Ibid 41:52
- R’ Y. Nachshoni, Hagot B’Parshiot HaTorah, p. 57
- Genesis 42:1
- Bereishit Rabbah 91:1
- Likutey Halachot V, p; 143a-286
- Psalms 4:2
- Ibid, 3:1
- Shochar Tov (3)
- Talmud Brachot 7b
- “Grateful” by KOTA The Friend
- Siach Sarfei Kodesh 1-32