With all due respect, Joseph was not exactly a brilliant thinker.
In this week’s Torah portion of Mikeitz, Joseph is pulled out of prison and interprets Pharoah’s dream to the king’s liking. The young Hebrew predicts seven boom years in which grain will be plentiful, followed by a horrible famine throughout the globe.
His advice: Save the wheat for the bad years. Pharoah turns to his advisers and says something like, “This is one smart kid.”
Excuse me. That’s something a 10-year-old can figure out. Either the king is mesmerized, or he’s surrounded by stupid people.
But that’s not what Pharoah says. His actual words were, “Will we find [anyone] like this, a man in whom there is the spirit of G-d?”
That’s different. Pharoah was not cooing over Joseph’s intellect, rather the divine spirit that guided him. Joseph was just a receptacle — but an important one.
With G-d in Joseph’s corner, the plan was not the key, rather the execution. Sure, you can store massive amounts of grain until famine strikes. You could build warehouses with hermetic insulation and perfect air circulation. Temperatures and other conditions would be tracked by computer. But try ensuring that the grain would not rot over the years. No amount of brilliance or technology could ensure that.
Moses Ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, says Pharoah did not want to impose his decision regarding Joseph on his ministers. The emperor wanted a consensus for what would become an unprecedented move — the appointment of a foreigner to become viceroy over the greatest country in the world. The ministers came back with numerous objections: Joseph was too young, inexperienced, didn’t speak Egyptian, and, perhaps most important, was a former slave. How would that go down in public opinion?
Pharoah’s answer: Go find me somebody in Egypt who could match Joseph. That ended the argument.
Throughout his ordeal, Joseph is termed “successful.” Even in the worst situations, he comes out on top. He is sold by his brothers and eventually becomes a slave in Egypt — the lowest status for a human. And yet the Torah says, “The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master.” [Genesis. 39:2]
What does the Torah mean by “success”? Can a man be a slave and still be successful? The answer is that G-d ensured that no matter how far he fell, Joseph would always bounce back. Wherever he was he prospered. If he found lemons, he would set up a lemonade stand in a thirsty neighborhood. When he was in the home of Potiphar, Pharoah’s chamberlain, the latter just grew richer and richer and attributed it all to his new valet.
But Joseph would fall again when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him. When Joseph refused, the scorned woman claimed she had been attacked by the handsome lad. Again, G-d intervened. Instead of being executed, Joseph was sent to prison. As the new inmate, Joseph should have been on the bottom of the totem pole. Instead, the warden liked the new arrival and put him in charge of everything.
The warden of the prison did not inspect anything [that was] in his (Joseph’s) hand, for the Lord was with him, and whatever he did the Lord made prosper. [Genesis 39:23]
As the warden’s chief of staff, Joseph tried to make prison a better place. This was no ordinary lock-up. It contained all the disgraced staff of the royal court. Men who were ministers yesterday found themselves in chains because they had made a bad decision or just looked the wrong way.
Joseph decided that morale was the most important thing. Each morning, he greeted the has-beens with a smile and bon mot. When two ex-ministers related a dream that disturbed them, Joseph offered to interpret — on the house.
But Joseph slipped. He asked one of the ministers, whom he prophesied would be returned to the royal court, to petition the king for his own release. That was a slap in the face to G-d: After all the divine success, why Joseph would stoop to begging a mortal to help him? That would cost Joseph another two years in jail.
Still, G-d did not forget the young Hebrew. Instead, He created another opportunity — the unresolved dreams of Pharoah. The re-installed minister, who had refused to help Joseph, now told Pharoah of this young, foolish Hebrew who interpreted his and his colleague’s dreams in prison. Pharoah ordered Joseph to be taken from prison, spruced up and brought to the royal court.
Pharoah told Joseph he needed a dream interpreted. The king was struck by Joseph’s answer.
And Joseph replied to Pharaoh, saying, “Not I; God will give an answer [that will bring] peace to Pharaoh.” [Genesis 41:16]
Most people in Joseph’s position would have put on a show. They would have faked it, claiming to be a great oracle with a long track record. They might have tried to negotiate their release before trying to crack the dream.
Not Joseph. And that explains his success: His faith in G-d was everything; his reliance on G-d was total; his refusal to take credit was genuine. He was not important; G-d was.
Pharoah knew that Joseph would not merely be an adviser. The newly-released inmate would bring divine blessings to all endeavors. He would save the emperor as well as Egypt. In other words, Joseph meant success.
“You shall be [appointed] over my household, and through your command all my people shall be nourished; only [with] the throne will I be greater than you.” [Genesis 41:40]
Joseph got the job for life, and then set upon his next mission — bringing his family to Egypt to start the Israelite nation. It would take time and lots of cunning, but he wouldn’t rest until the task was completed.
And that is success