Yosef and Hashem – A Stormy Relationship
This week’s parsha reads like a page turning novel. Family feuds, attempted murder (almost), seduction, slavery, princes and prisons; it has it all. But, as we are aware, this is no novel. This is the timeless Torah which we read year-in year-out as we search for the deeper meaning to these colorful stories. We will investigate one aspect of the Yosef saga in the hope that we can glean from our discussion a message for our everyday lives.
On reading Parshat Vayeshev, one quickly becomes aware that Yosef goes through much turmoil in his early years. Promoted in some form by Ya’akov, as is symbolized by his special cloak, he soon finds himself helpless at the bottom of a pit. He is then dragged out of the pit only to realize that he has now become a slave. Although he is sold to slavery, he attains a somewhat prestigious position as head of Potiphar’s household. This newfound promotion does not last long and Yosef ends up in prison. There too, he receives preferential treatment and is given responsibility for other inmates. Nevertheless, he languishes in jail for an extended period until he finally rises to the role of viceroy ofEgypt.
What is the reason for the repeated episodes in which Yosef rises and then falls again? We may not be able to resolve this question completely but we will focus on one of the above mentioned events which may shed light on the rest of the story.
At the beginning of Chapter 29, which describes the events in Potiphar’s house, we are told that Hashem is with Yosef and he achieves success. Furthermore, even Potiphar notices this as is stated:
“His master saw that God was with him (Yosef) and that in whatever he did, God ensured that he was successful”.
The commentaries discuss what it was that caused Potiphar to come to this conclusion. Rashi, quoting a midrash, explains that “shem shamayim shagur befiv” which means that he often employed the name of The Almighty when he spoke. This is based on the fact that Yosef mentions God, or more specifically Elokim, on several occasions over the course of his interactions with the Egyptian people. However, all evidence we have of such references is found in events which occurred after this verse. The encounter with Potiphar’s wife, the conversation between Yosef and the ministers of Pharoh in jail and Yosef’s meeting with Pharoh himself all involve uses of God’s name by Yosef. But these all transpire later on in the sequence of events. We could suggest that these point to the fact that Yosef often employs God’s name in regular conversation and we can therefore assume that he did so on a regular basis. It is this characteristic which leads Potiphar to the conclusion that Hashem is “with” Yosef.
Ramban disagrees with Rashi and suggests that Potiphar merely noticed that Yosef was more successful than others in his everyday functions. He therefore assumes that this is due to a form of Divine assistance. Ramban equates this realization with the statement made by Avimelech and his chief of staff, Phichol, to Yitzchak “we have seen that Hashem is with you” (Bereishit 26:28). They reach this conclusion because Yitzchak had achieved much success in the agricultural realm whilst those around him had not. This they attribute to Divine assistance. The same appears to apply to Yosef.
All of the above makes us wonder as to why, if Hashem is so obviously involved in Yosef’s endeavors, does he end up being thrown into prison only a few verses later?
Let us examine another verse in this section. The Torah tells us that Potiphar entrusted Yosef with almost his entire estate and that Yosef was “yefeh toar vefeh mareh”. (Bereishit 39:6). This phrase can be loosely translated as well-built and handsome. Ramban explains that this description of Yosef is included here to lead in to the next event in which Potiphar’s wife takes an interest in Yosef.
Rashi, though he invokes the same basic idea that this phrase is a form of introduction to the next episode, leads us in a different direction:
“When he saw himself rise to ruler he began to eat, drink and groom his hair… God said, ‘Your father is mourning and you are grooming your hair! I will unleash upon you this bear.'”
Rashi interprets Yosef’s actions as being the reason as to why Hashem decided to test him through the attempted seduction by Potiphar’s wife. Yosef’s behavior is viewed as being inappropriate and thus cause for Divine retribution. We suggest that it is for this reason that the aforementioned Divine assistance evolves into a mode of punishment.
But what is so severe about Yosef’s conduct as to warrant such a strong reaction from Hashem? In order to answer this question, we return to a midrash cited by Rashi at the opening of the parsha. Commenting on the first verse “Vayeshev Ya’akov”, the midrash states: “Ya’akov wished to live in tranquility, the troubles of Yosef leapt upon him. The righteous request to live in tranquility; Hashem responds, is it not sufficient for the righteous that they have the world to come prepared for them, that they wish to live in tranquility in this world too?”
These are harsh words indeed in that they suggest that tranquility, whilst seldom found, should not even be requested, at least not by the righteous. It would seem that God wishes us to use our time in this world to create, to produce, to advance both on an individual level and as a society. In comparing the tranquility in this world to that in the world to come, the midrash contrasts between the nature of the two entities. Whilst we may hope to glean from our endeavors in this world when we reach the world to come, we must constantly strive for greatness in this world. We must use every minute to grow spiritually, religiously and to further the needs of humanity as a whole.
Based on this notion, we now return to Yosef. He is described by the midrash as eating, drinking and being concerned with his physical appearance. In modern day terms he could be said to be “living it up”. This form of existence tends to negate more fruitful pursuits. It is for this reason that Hashem elects to test Yosef and subsequently presents him with new challenges through which he will have to reevaluate his priorities in life.
We have explained one of the cases in the parsha during which Yosef rises and falls again. It is possible that the same notion can be used to explain similar episodes in the parsha. I leave this to the readers to consider and ponder. In connection to this, I have always been puzzled by Rashi’s comments at the end of the parsha. Rashi states that the reason why Yosef remained imprisoned for an extra two years was due to his lack of belief in God as demonstrated by his pleas to Pharoh’s butler to exert his influence to have Yosef released. Why would these efforts by Yosef be frowned upon by Hashem? Any insights as to how to explain this would be welcome – firstname.lastname@example.org
In conclusion, relating to our main theme, I feel it appropriate to quote here the comments of Mori Verabi, Rav Yehudah Amital zt”l, taken from an article entitled “Tension vs. Tranquility in the Worship of God”:
“Over the last generation, various doctrines originating in the Far East have penetrated the Western world. Modern Western man lives his life in great tension. Under the influence of Eastern teachings, many have begun to advocate a life of tranquility and meditation. Some have seen in this the ideal of human redemption – the ability to reach internal tranquility.
I harbor fundamental reservations regarding such approaches. There are certainly people who at times live their lives in excessive tension; they need help to reduce their tension levels. But turning tranquility into a way of life is misguided on several counts. First of all, such an approach is liable to hinder a person who strives for advancement and development in his life. There is a certain contradiction between aspiring for tranquility and positive ambition, the force that drives man to advance and develop himself. Second, directing one’s life towards internal tranquility involves egotism, for this is often accompanied by disregard for the problems and needs of society.”