Ah, the Joseph story. Such fond childhood memories. Such drama. Such a soundtrack. By a country column the single longest unbroken narrative in the entire Torah. From dreams of bowing wheat to dreams of thin cows and a huge amount in between, sometimes the issue with a lengthy narrative is that it becomes difficult to the point of impossible to spot patterns and themes emerging as we traverse the bigger picture.
One of those themes is the mystery of the missing two years.
“And it was – at the end of two years of days – and Pharaoh was dreaming. And behold – he stood at the banks of the Nile. And behold – seven robust, healthy cows emerged from the river, and they grazed in the swamplands. And behold – seven other cows emerged from the river after them; lean and malnourished. And they stood alongside the healthy cows along the riverbank”. (Genesis 41:1-3)
Cue Pharaoh-as-Elvis-tributes (“Hey hey hey Joseph! Won’t you tell poor old Pharaoh. What does this crazy dream meaaaaan? Ohhh yeah yeah yeah”). Intriguingly, the commentaries pick up on the apparently superfluous “At the end of two years of days”. Some suggest that the emphasis ‘of days’ teaches that Pharaoh had the same dream every single night for two years – an experience that no doubt caused him so much aggravation that he was willing to hear the interpretation of a young Hebrew prisoner. But other commentaries take things a step further, suggesting that the ‘two years of days’ refers to the 2-year anniversary of the butler’s release from prison at the end of last week’s portion. Apparently, the two events – Pharaoh summoning Joseph and the butler’s release – are intricately connected. How?
Here is the reading of Rabbi Chizkiyah ben Manoach (‘Chizkuni’, d.1310, France):
“These years are counted from the day the chief cupbearer was released…The Torah wished us to know that Joseph spent an extra two full years in prison because the cupbearer did not keep his promise [to secure Joseph’s release].”
The plot thickens. That the Torah went out of its way to link Pharaoh’s dreams to his cupbearer’s is one thing. To do so in the context of tracing that link back to Joseph is something else entirely. Let’s revisit that conversation between him and the cupbearer:
“And Joseph said to him: ‘This is its interpretation: The three vines represent three days. In three more days, Pharaoh will raise your status and restore you to your office, and you will again serve Pharaoh his goblet, as you once did when you were his cupbearer. If only you will remember me, in as much as it will be good for you, and you will please do me this favour and mention me to Pharaoh – thereby bringing about my release from this prison…And it was, on the third day…and Pharaoh restored the cupbearer to his duties, and he placed the goblet on Pharaoh’s hand…but the cupbearer didn’t remember Joseph, and he forgot him.” (Genesis 40:12-23, abridged).
Here too there is a superfluous repetition. If the cupbearer “didn’t remember Joseph”, does it not go without saying that QED he “forgot him”?
Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi, d.1105, France) provides an astounding insight, based on the Talmud:
“This repetition teaches that the nature of the cupbearer’s forgetfulness was absolute to the point of miraculous. i.e. he forgot Joseph totally the moment he left the prison. Why was this? As a punishment for Joseph, who had placed his fate in the cupbearer’s hands instead of God’s.”
Fascinating. The two years (measured to the day) at the beginning of this week’s sedra existed as a punishment for Joseph’s misplaced trust. The commentaries explain further: He was punished with two years measure for measure for the two expressions of trust he uttered to the cupbearer (“If only you will remember me” and “mention me”).
At a very simple level, the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime…at all. It reminds me of that well-known parable of the hapless man stuck on the roof of his house as floodwater rise all around. A speedboat turns up but he refuses to jump in, convinced that God will save him. Then a rescue helicopter hovers overhead but he refuses to climb the rope ladder, convinced that God will save him. Eventually the waters overwhelm him and he drowns. Upon entering through the pearly gates, he begs an explanation from God: ‘I had complete faith in you! Why didn’t you save me?!’, to which God replies, exasperated, ‘Who do you think sent the boat and helicopter?’
In truth, the line between ‘bitachon’ (trust in God’s intervention) and ‘hishtadlut’ (taking independent action) is an extremely fine one. How the lonely person of faith toes that line is subject to some of the most vast and profound philosophical debate in all of Jewish theology. And Joseph’s life story speaks directly to this impossible juggling act. You see, his ‘hishtadlut’ in asking the butler for help was totally out of character. Consider this:
When Joseph’s brothers seize him, throw him in a pit and eventually sell him to slavery, he doesn’t seem to utter a word. When Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him of assault and has him thrown in jail, he doesn’t utter a word. He remains completely passive. But it goes much deeper than that.
On the rare occasion that Joseph does find his voice and takes centre stage, he accredits nothing to his own skills or prowess. Here is the conversation between him and Pharaoh’s butler and baker:
“And Joseph came to them in the morning, and behold – he saw that they were downcast. So he asked Pharaoh’s ministers (who were with him in the prison) ‘Why do you look so down today?’. And they said to him, ‘We dreamed a dream, and no-one can interpret it!’ And Joseph said to them, ‘Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.’” (Genesis 40:6-8)
Despite the fact that he is speaking to two potentially highly influential people (Pharaoh’s ministers – one of whom is about to be reinstated to his position of influence), Joseph ignores Lloyd-Webber’s stage directions and takes a very deliberate step out of the spotlight, thrusting God front and centre. Incredibly, he does it again – this time even more forcefully! – when he speaks to the supreme ruler of ancient Egypt:
“And Pharaoh said to Joseph: ‘I dreamed a dream, yet none can interpret it. Now I have heard that you are able to hear the essence of a dream, to interpret it correctly.’ But Joseph answered Pharaoh: ‘It isn’t me – God will answer the welfare of Pharaoh’.” (Genesis 41:15-16)
And he does it again when the mask finally slips and he reveals his true identity to his gobsmacked brothers…
“And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come nearer to me’, and they approached him. And he said: ‘I am Joseph, your brother – who you sold to Egypt. But now, do not be downcast or distressed about the fact that you sold me here. For in truth, God sent me ahead of you to provide sustenance…And now, realise that it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Genesis 44:4-9, abridged).
Over and over, Joseph takes a step back and firmly draws the line of causality back to God. A skilled interpreter? Oh, not me – that’d be God. A talented economist? Nope, nothing to do with me. A rightfully vengeful brother? Absurd. God sent me here, you were just His messengers.
In fact, that opening word he says to Pharaoh – “Bil’adai” – is unique in the entire Torah. It sums Joseph up so succinctly: “It isn’t me”.
Perhaps now, Joseph’s passivity in the face of challenge becomes that much clearer: Why resist, when a benevolent and all-knowing God is pulling the strings? Perhaps now, it becomes clear why Joseph was taken to task for letting his guard down and handing over those strings to a cupbearer of flesh and blood.
You see, the kabbalists refer to Joseph as the ‘righteous foundation of the world’. A righteousness, faith and trust so pure and so unflinching, that many hundreds of years later the Prophet Chabakuk saw fit to fix the Torah’s all-encompassing principle as ‘A righteous one lives by their faith’. True, to aspire to Joseph’s level of bitachon is a gargantuan task. But then after all, he was a dreamer, teaching us all how to dream.
- December 16th 2020