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Mordechai Soskil

Discovering Yosef

The question I would like to put before you is perhaps the most obvious one on the whole Saga of Yosef. Why was he allowed to treat his brothers that way? You know, the false accusations and the jail and the fear of imminent death or a life in servitude. Why was that ok?

Before we try and understand Yosef’s motivation here, I want to spend a moment talking about Yosef.  One of the things that I like to point out is that Yosef is one of the few people in Tanach where we actually get a narrative about his teenage years.  The text is explicit that when he has his dreams and gets thrown in The Pit That Has No Water In It and all that – he’s 17 years old. And we know that when he’s taken out of prison and brought to Paroh he’s 30.  That means that a significant chunk of his formative years (the years in our world where he would have been in yeshiva and maybe college and then a few years of kollel or in a smicha program) he was a servant in Potifar’s house.  After that he was in a prison that was so depressing a place, the text sometimes refers to it as a pit.

During those years Yosef managed to overcome so much that our traditional texts refer to him consistently as “Yosef HaTzaddik- Yosef the Righteous.” Very, very few of our heroes of old are given such a distinguished title. He earns that appellation at least in part because of his ability to overcome temptation during the episode with Potifar’s wife, who was literally throwing herself at him.

Not only that, but somehow, despite all his setbacks all the unjust things that happened to him, even in the Pit of Despair, he’s still the kind of guy that can see someone else having a bad day and say, “Hey, man.  What’s got you down?  Maybe I can help.”  Most of the people I know would be grumpy and hard to talk to if the milk they expected to use in their morning coffee had gone bad.  Or if they couldn’t find their keys because their teenager didn’t put them back in the right place, so they left for work 7 minutes late. Relatively minor annoyances put many people in tailspin of self-pity that makes other people’s suffering invisible.  Yosef had every reason to spend his days carving angry words on the side of his cell and picking fights in the gen pop yard.  But because of his deep faith in a Creator who loves and cares for him, he was somehow able to be the calm center of the storm.  He was the sunbeam that radiated joy that attracted everyone to him.  That ability comes from faith and trust and love in a Benevolent Creator who guides our lives.

So now let’s ask, can we connect the dots between a person of such profound moral grit and such deep faith and the person who seems to act like a Real Housewife of the Paroh’s Palace? What’s going on here?

The classic and most known answer for this is the comment of the Ramban.  He writes (42:9) that Yosef remembered his dreams from so long ago and he realized that the first dream was almost fulfilled.  Almost, but not quite, because to be truly fulfilled all of his brothers, including Binyamin would have to bow before him.  But he could sense that things were moving towards the Divine plan that he had been tipped off to in those dreams.  He needed to do whatever had to be done in order to bring about the will of Hashem as revealed in those dreams and that meant that first all his brothers, and then even his father and his wives, would have to bow in front of him.  It was all “lshem shamayim- for the sake of heaven” not out of any personal malice at all.

While I know that this is the most well-known explanation, I have to admit that it never really sat well with me.  Don’t get me wrong, I know that my knowledge of Torah compared to the Ramban’s is like an ant compared to the largest spheres in the heavens and so I have no right to judge.  That said, I don’t get it.  I can’t think of a different time that a navi was given a dream and told to hurt and shame and belittle and jail his brothers in order to bring about the word of G-d.  (Of all the levels of prophecy, “inspired dream” is pretty far down the list of “ways G-d talks to people about what he wants.”)  And besides that, the plan never works because Yaakov never bows to Yosef.  So, yeah.  I’m not sure I get it.

I think here’s what the Ramban is teaching us. [1] Yaakov and his family knew the prophecy that had been given to Avraham that foretold slavery and exile for the family.  Though a dream is a very low form of prophetic communication, Yosef was able to hear the resonance of Truth and Will in the dream.  He understood that Hashem was telling him that the exile begins with him as a ruler over the family.  And when Yaakov heard the dream the Torah tells us, “V’aviv Shamar et a davar – his father waited [or guarded] over these words.” Yaakov waited to see how it would come about because he too could hear the resonance of Emes (truth) in the dream.

But then years go by and the dreams fade from his attention.  Until one day he’s taken out of the depths of prison and later that day made vizier over the largest empire in the world.  Suddenly he knows that the dreams of years before are beginning a process of realization.

The day comes when he sees his brothers before him, but just them, and not even all of them.  He realizes that the dreams are incomplete and he makes a calculation. The prophecy given to Abraham will surely come about and the people will be slaves in a foreign land.  But his ruling over his brothers is the Will of Hashem, perhaps because it will mitigate the slavery.  Somehow if he is in charge it will be the teaspoon of sugar that helps the medicine go down.  But if that’s true then he really has to make sure that the dreams come true.  He has to have all his brothers, and even his father bow.

Now he could just tell them, “Hey guys – it’s me.  Just bow and let’s go get ice cream,” but then it’s not really bowing.  He’s not really ruling over them if they know their little brother is the king’s main guy.  (I know if my little brother were the king I wouldn’t really feel so subservient to him. I would just be stoked that we can now afford to order takeout whenever we want.) So he can’t tell them. He has to keep up the façade.  It’s not at all what he wants, but he feels compelled to bring about those dreams so that it will be better for everyone in the end.[2] No one wants to hold their kid down to get her shots.  But parents do it because they love their kid and want them to be healthy. Same here.  Yosef doesn’t want to be this vicious, heartless, ogre.  But he feels compelled to bring about the dreams to help the family in the end.

Now I think we have a more consistent understanding of Yosef; faithful, devoted, selfless and gritty.  Willing and able to get the job done even if it’s hard. Willing to trust in Hashem’s guidance even if he doesn’t understand.  That was Yosef in Potifar’s house, and in the jail and with his brothers.

Are there any practical lessons for us from the story of Yosef and his brothers? A normal, boring person would give a normal, boring (if also correct) answer, such as, “it shows us to have faith in Hashem even in the darkest moments,” or “we should remember Hashem has a plan, even when we don’t understand it.” Yeah, ok, that’s true. But I want to add two thoughts. We see from here that Hashem has a plan even if we are screw-ups. Even if we are delinquents. Even if we feel like the darkness we find ourselves in is literally all our fault, that doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be light at the end. The brothers SOLD YOSEF AS A SLAVE and even that didn’t interfere with Hashem’s plan for his great and holy nation. We shouldn’t think that anything we do creates a pit Hashem can’t help us climb out of.

And I also want to bring out a point about leadership. Yosef is a leader of Mitzrayim, obviously. In that role he sets up a successful bureaucracy. He designs a system of taxation, food storage and distribution, and resettlement. He has been blessed with skills and he uses them to great impact. But it doesn’t take long till he is forgotten by exactly the people he was helping. Yosef is also the de facto leader of the family, but that’s clearly because of the Golden Rule. He’s got the gold; he makes the rules. Contrast that to the leadership of Yehudah. And here I would like to draw your attention to one very easy to overlook sentence. As Yehudah and Yosef have their final confrontation, as Yehudah sets the scene he relays what Yaakov said when told they would need to bring Binyamin down. Your servant my father said to us, ‘As you know, my wife bore me two sons.” My wife bore me two sons. Yaakov is so caught up in his current grief and his potential future grief that he accidentally says something powerfully upsetting. My wife bore me two sons.

You and I know that actually, Yaakov’s 4 wives bore him 12 sons. But that’s not how Yaakov feels about it in the moment. (You might want to argue facts against feelings, and I wish you well with that. Facts are just things that exist. Feelings are about who a person IS. You can’t change feelings with facts, no matter what Ben Shapiro would prefer.) He actually says to Yehudah, son of Leah, that his mom is not THE wife and he is not a REAL son. To his face. But Yehudah doesn’t get hung up on that at all. In fact, when Yehudah is busy putting his own life on the line, he will say whatever needs to be said to try and help Binyamin. Even if that means acknowledging out loud his secondary status. This type of leadership is profoundly selfless. It’s not about efficiencies with systems it’s about impact with people. The Jewish people never really forget this heroism, which ironically is an act of utter selflessness that cements his role as leader.

[1] Based on Michtav Me’Eliyahu Vol 2. P. 226 and the Vilna Gaon’s Aderes Eliyahu which I saw quoted both in the Shaarei Aharon and in the Pnei Yerushalyim’s notes on the Ramban.  But I admit this is not what he says exactly, so take it or leave it.

[2] Here’s a crazy thought – what if Yosef was right and his helping the dreams come about really did make the slavery easier?  One of the long term consequences of Yosef’s leadership as that the family came down to live in Goshen.  All together in Goshen. Where they could easily keep their own names, language and dress (that is, aspects of culture.) If it wasn’t for the fact that Yosef had been so strong a leader then maybe the exile starts with the people dispersed throughout Egypt.  Then who knows what would have been left to redeem?

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children. And a blessedly expanding herd of grandchildren.
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