Parshat Vayashev: Yosef and the Power of Chen

And Yosef found favor in the eyes of Potifar; he made him his personal attendant and put him in charge of his household, placing in his hands all that he owned” (Berashit 39,4).

Yosef’s meteoric rise to prominence in the house of Potifar is absolutely shocking; how can a 17-year-old shepherd boy who has no knowledge of Egyptian culture or language suddenly find himself in charge of the estate of a high-ranking government official?

The question becomes even more poignant when Yosef is falsely accused of rape by Potifar’s wife and thrown into jail. Within a short time, Yosef is put in charge of all the other political prisoners. Have you ever heard of a prisoner being put in charge of the jail? 

So what is the secret of Yosef’s success? What allows Yosef to rise to prominence in every place he finds himself?

The text makes it clear at several points that God is with Yosef, and certainly this is the cause of his success. However, there is a phrase that both Potifar and the jail warden use: Yosef finds chen in their eyes. 

So what is chen, and how does it teach us about Yosef’s unique ability to rise to power whenever he finds himself? We usually translate the word chen as favor, i.e. Yosef found favor in the eyes of Potifar. But there is more to say.

In Rebbe Nachman’s first teaching in Likutei Moharan, he discusses the word chen, and teaches that the two Hebrew letters that make up the word, chet and nun, have a Kabbalistic hint. The chet represents Chochma, the divine emanation of wisdom, and the nun represents Malchut, or Divine Kingship. 

Without taking a deep dive in the language of the Kabbalah, chen is that quality which allows one’s words to resonate in the heart of the listener. They are words which emanate from outside the narrow purview of the one who speaks them. 

Yosef finds chen in the eyes of Potifar. Why? Is it because of his physical beauty, or is there something else? After listening to Yosef, Potifar instantly realizes that he sees the world from a higher or more enlightened perspective. Therefore he is perfectly suited to manage the entirety of his house.

So too with the prison warden. He realizes that Yosef sees more than the details; he sees the entirety of the picture. He is the embodiment of Divine wisdom. We will see this again and again as the story reaches its conclusion with Pharaoh’s cupbearer and the baker with their dreams, and even with Pharaoh himself, who proclaims, “have you ever seen a man so filled with the spirit of God?” Everyone is immediately taken by Yosef’s Divine gift of chen, and his words immediately resonate in their hearts.

Well, almost everyone. Before we get to the end of the story, let’s look back at the beginning of our parsha; Yosef’s words arouse hatred and jealousy in the hearts of his brothers. They were deaf to his words, and they see Yosef as a traitor fit to be cast aside from the family. 

The passage states that the brothers could not speak peacefully with him. Their speech with Yosef was broken; they could not hear him, and he could not hear them. Was it Yosef’s dreams of grandeur which caused the communication breakdown? Or maybe it was Yaakov’s favoritism, as illustrated by the coat of many colors, a kingly garment given to show his affection for Yosef. It will take us to the very end of the story till this communication rift is repaired, and the brothers can experience Yosef’s chen.

But from the bottom of the pit Yosef rises, and it is eventually his chen that elevates him all the way up to the highest position in Egypt. Like oil that always rises to the top of a mixture, Yosef will always separate and elevate. It is Yosef’s chen, his voice that resonates in the hearts of all who hear him, that is the secret of Yosef’s success. 

Yosef’s embodiment of the quality of chen offers all of us an important lesson. Of course we all want to be heard, and we all want people to resonate with our words. But do our words have chen? Do they express a broader, enlightened perspective, or are they narrow and shallow? This doesn’t exclude personal experiences; as a matter of fact, it might require them. But in order for our words to truly have chen, they must shine a new, expanded light on the topic. They  must show something to the listener that was there all along, but that they never saw before.

So do you have a favorite speaker or author whose words resonate deeply with you? What is it about the quality of their speech or writing that draws you in? Do you see the quality of chen in their work?

Dedicated to the memory of Sheina Ruchel bat Harav Yechiel Michel

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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