Rabbi Yossi Slotnick
Former Rosh Kollel in Cape Town (1997-1998)
At the end of parshat Vayeshev, we hear Yosef’s request of the royal butler:
“But remember me with you when it will be well with you, and please do kindness with me and mention me to Paro, and bring me out of this house. For I was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews; also here I have done nothing to cause them to put me in the dungeon.”
But, as we know, the parsha ends with a disappointing anticlimax:
“The butler did not remember Yosef, but forgot him”.
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, offers the following comment:
“Because Yosef trusted [the butler] to remember him, he was required to remain imprisoned for a further two years.”
This is a most puzzling assertion: could anyone imagine that the correct course of action for Yosef would be to sit and do nothing to help himself? After all, our tradition teaches that a person must make his own efforts, and God will help him to be saved. Is it possible that God punishes Yosef for making every possible effort to get himself out of prison?
A look at the midrash in question (Bereishit Rabba [Vilna] parsha 89) only exacerbates our bewilderment:
“‘Happy is the man who places his trust in God’ – this is Yosef,
‘and does not turn to arrogant people’ – Since he told the royal butler, “remember me” and “make mention of me”, a further two years were added for him.”
The Midrash would seem to be contradicting itself: Yosef is the classic example of someone who appeals to “arrogant people” – for he asks the butler for help, and the Midrash itself regards the two more years that he spent in prison as the result of this appeal. How, then, can Yosef be regarded as the prototype of a person who “places his trust in God”?
Some years ago I heard from Rav Breuer that had the butler not “forgotten” Yosef, Yosef would have thought that what saved him from prison was his own assertiveness. He asked the royal butler for help, and he indeed helped him – this understanding would remove God from the picture. But after two more years passed and it was clear to all – especially Yosef – that the butler had forgotten him, and then suddenly he remembered him, it was clear that that this was the hand of Divine Providence, not coincidence. Rav Breuer in fact maintained that the two extra years were not a “punishment”, but rather a necessity arising from the Divine plan. Since God wanted Yosef to understand that Divine Providence was involved, Yosef needed to remain imprisoned for another two years, in order that this message would not be ambiguous or unclear.
I believe that this inspired explanation can help us to understand the Midrash. We need to consider what Yosef thought when his plan to receive assistance from the butler failed. Was he overcome with despair? Did he give up? Did he begin to accustom himself to his fate in prison?
The Midrash answers unequivocally, “Happy is the man who places his faith in God – this is Yosef”! Yosef never placed his faith in arrogant people. Neither when he appealed to the butler for help nor when this plan “cost” him another two years in prison did he turn to arrogant people; he never relied on them to save him. His trust was always with God. Even if the butler would have remembered him immediately upon being freed, and even when he does actually remember him, two years later, Yosef is fully aware that it is the hand of God that pulls the strings.
The Midrash is actually questioning the equation that King David draws in this psalm: not everyone who turns to arrogant people ceases to place his trust in God. The question is whether he places his trust in those people, or whether he merely appeals to them. And the example chosen is Yosef, who – despite having appealed to the butler – is nevertheless considered the model of one who places his trust in God.
The other wonderful example of this duality is what we celebrate at this very time – the festival of Hannukah. The distance from the victories of the Maccabees over the Greeks to an assertion that “my might and the strength of my hand have achieved all of this valor” is a short one. The Maccabees possessed the insight to direct their victory towards the purification of the Temple- thereby making a statement that it was God who had brought about the victory of “the few against the many” and the delivery of “the wicked ones into the hands of those involved in Torah”. There is no attempt here to blur the fact that heroic battles were waged by mortals, but it is accompanied by the understanding that human victory is rooted in man having placed his trust in God.