Suffering into Greatness: What Yosef HaTzadik Has to Teach us About Human Suffering

When we look broadly at the story of Yosef that spans several Parshiot in Sefer Bereishit, it can be hard to remember that he is one of 12 brothers. The lion’s share of the narrative in the Parshiot that cover the lifespan of the 12 brothers is devoted to Yosef’s story. Clearly there is something unusual about him.

Jacob, his father, a man whose dominant character trait is Truth sees it too, lavishing special attention and gifts on him. The Torah describes his deep affection for his son that surpasses his love for his other son with the words VeYisrael ahav et Yosef mikiol banav… (And Yisrael loved Yosef from all his sons…)

It is clear from the Torah’s disproportionate focus on his life and from his deeply knowing father’s treatment of him that Yosef is an incredibly gifted, powerful, and uniquely special human.

Powers That Are Raw
As we follow Yosef’s story we learn that although he is incredibly gifted and powerful, his kochot are raw. He dreams that his brothers bow down to him and promptly informs his brothers of their future servitude. He sounded a little like that guy at work that is the smartest guy in the room but is a little socially awkward and points out everyone’s flaws. His father recognizes this event as announcing the undeveloped nature of Yosef’s strengths, and the Torah records his father as ‘watching the matter’ (VeAviv Shamar et HaDavar).

In an act perhaps reminiscent of the office social circle stopping to invite the know-it-all to lunch (but certainly more severe), the brothers sell Yosef into servitude. He ends up in Egypt and works in an Egyptian household but is thrown in prison, wrongly accused of harassing his master’s wife. While in prison, we get another glimpse of Yosef’s incredible powers when he interprets the dreams of his cellmates. His predictions of one of them being released comes true, and on his way out, Yosef asks that his cellmate mention him to Pharaoh.

The language that Yosef uses in asking that he be remembered to Pharoah reveals to us where he is in his evolution from the man who tells his brothers they will bow down to him to the man that will ultimately be described as ‘Yosef HaTzadik’. Yosef asks that his cellmate remember him and mention him to Pharoah , ‘so that I might be released from this house’.

Yosef continues:
Because I was kidnapped from the land of the Jews, and even here I did nothing and they threw me into this pit.

The way he refers to his prison ‘Min HaBayit Hazeh’ (from this house), and the double language he uses in describing his being snatched from his homeland, ‘ki ganov gunavty’ (because I was kidnapped) is the language of a frustrated and angry man. His description of being thrown in prison are the words of someone who feels wronged and believes his circumstances unjust: “and even here I did nothing and they threw me into this pit”. Taken together, these words tell us they come from a man whose vision is limited to his immediate circumstances, they come from a man who at that moment in time, sees only his suffering.

Altruistic Silversmith
We often hear the process of evolution that G-d guides humans thru described as comparable to the process the silversmith uses to form and shape silver, keeping the silver in the heat of the fire long enough for it to become soft so that it can be shaped. In reality, this is an incomplete analogy because the process is strictly for the benefit of the silversmith who shapes the silver for his own purposes. The evolution process humans experience, on the other hand, is entirely for the benefit of the human, and is not for the benefit, strictly speaking, of the ‘Silversmith’.
Indeed, although we are taught that Yosef was punished for speaking out in frustration in asking of his cellmate that he remember him to Pharoh, that in asking, his faith was deficient, in reality, when we set aside the ‘should haves’ and ‘punishments’, we can see that he was merely put back in the oven to ‘bake’ a little more, to the point where he could truly develop into the walking, living, breathing man of pure faith he was meant to be.

Suffering as an Evolution Vehicle into Greatness
We can see this is true because when we next revisit Yosef, he is finally released from prison, and he speaks in a very different way, distinctly different from the frustrated man decrying his unjust treatment.
“It is not me, it is G-d who will interpret your dreams.” he tells Pharoah.
We see this theme again later, when Yosef brings his children, Ephraim and Menashe to be blessed by his dying father. Yaakov asks “who are these children?”. The chachamim tells us that Ephraim and Menashe grew up on their grandfathers knee, where he taught them Torah, so the question is perplexing.

Perhaps the question was the confusion of a dying man. Or, perhaps it was the question of a man of great vision and wisdom, who knew full well who were physically standing in front of him. Perhaps it was the prodding of a man who saw before him the long and difficult path his beloved son took, and it was his prodding of his son one last time to look and see, to really look and see, and seek out the answer to the question “who are these children?”, knowing full well that Yosef’s seeking of the answer would serve to strengthen his faith, deepen his understanding of his experiences and cause him to step further still into the immense man of his faith he was meant to be.

Yosef’s answer tells us that he was up for the challenge and it further clues us in to the enormity of his evolution from the prison bound man focused on his suffering:

“These are my children that Hashem gave to me in this place”.

This man, a man humbled and evolved to such a degree that he takes no credit for his abilities to interpret dreams, a man who marvels out loud, that in a land where they worship animals, where barely an ounce of Godliness is to be found, in this place G-d has given me these beautiful and spirit-filled children, this man who has G-d’s blessings on his lips every time he opens his mouth, this is the man that emerges from being sold into slavery and from a lengthy and extended stay in the depths of prison. This is the man who will forever be known as ‘Yosef HaTzadik’, and it is clear that his stay in prison and the events following are responsible for this stunning transformation.

Filling in the Gaps in our Vision
The fact is, when we are deep in it, it can be impossible to See. It was true for Yosef when he spoke out of frustration and unjustness at being kidnapped from his homeland and being locked in prison, and it is true for us in our lives. But when we speak about the Torah being a ‘blueprint’ we speak about it providing us with a vision to see the end of the story, the end of our personal stories, when by virtue of our situation, we cannot.

With Yosef’s story, the Torah gifts us with the full picture, that we can, with confidence apply to our own lives. We see Yosef experiencing enormous suffering, locked in his own prison, blinded with uncertainty, overcome with a sense of unjustness, but the Torah gives us the benefit of the full picture and we can see the end of the story where he becomes the man of great faith he was meant to be.

But, it is more than that. The Torah is ‘thorough’ in giving us a full picture of how Yosef’s suffering is ultimately good in all ways. He is responsible for saving his family from starvation. He is single-handedly responsible for saving the entirety of the Jewish people, his making it thru his experiences intact is the sole reason a fledgling nation is not stopped dead in its tracks.
Perhaps this too is a piece of the ‘blueprint’ of the story of Yosef HaTzadik: to know that whatever suffering we might be going thru has implications far more reaching than we could ever imagine: that making it thru our experiences intact could literally have positive implications for generations and generations to come.

The fact is the Yosef the Torah reveals to us after he emerges from prison is a man of such greatness and shine that it records in detail his engineering his brothers healing– planting a cup, accusing them of stealing–all so that he can bring about the healing of his brothers from their selling him into servitude, so that they might continue their lives and enter the Olam HaEmet unencumbered by the weight of their actions.
Yosef’s evolution is so thorough that G-ds goodness is on his lips every time he opens his mouth. This is the Yosef that emerged from his prison. *This* is the blueprint of the Torah. This is what he is there to teach us. This is not a simple story seemingly begging to be made into a movie, it is a message to every Jew in suffering for all eternity: showing us the full picture of Yosef’s suffering and subsequent evolution into greatness assures us that our own suffering is purposeful and drives us to our own greatness.

These and Those Are the Words of Our Living G-d
The Talmud in Eirvuin 13b describes a spirited discussion in which the Rabbis debate whether the House of Hillel or the House of Shammai are to be followed when it comes to Jewish law. The house of Shammai typically takes a position that is ‘stricter’ when it comes to Jewish law, while the house of Hillel typically takes a more ‘lenient’ position. The Talmud relates that in the middle of the discussion a heavenly voice sounded in the study hall and said “Eilu VeEilu, Divrei Elokim Chaim” (these and those are the words of the Living G-d).

Although the simple interpretation of the heavenly voice is that both Shammai and Hillel’s opinions are to be considered ‘Torah’, perhaps the intent of Heaven is to pass on a deeper message. That message is that these and those—both the ‘strict’ interpretation and the ‘lenient’ interpretation emanate from a living G-d. The ‘lenient’ interpretation–the things that we can easily and clearly label as blessings–children, great careers, our healt– it is clear and easy for us to understand that they emanate from a Living G-d.

The ‘vav’ in ‘veilu’ tells us and these–the ‘strict’ things–the suffering and the times we find ourselves in our own personal prison, those things also emanate from a Living G-d, a G-d involved in every aspect of the world, both communal and personal. Even these things emanate from Him and the intention is a refinement process that bring us to a shine and polish exactly as it did for Yosef HaTzadik. Indeed the use of the phrase ‘divrei elokim chaim’ rather than any of the other numerous ways of referring to G-d tell us that they both emanate from a ‘Living G-d’, a G-d very much ‘alive’ and involved in every decision and occurrence of our daily lives.

An Assurance from Yosef’s Story
When we look to the Torah and see the full story of Yosef we can know with confidence that this is not a mere story, it is a blueprint in the truest sense of the word. The story of Yosef fills in the gaps in our vision and gives us the full picture of suffering as evolution into greatness rather than suffering for sufferings sake and we are given this full pictured view so as to apply it with confidence to our own lives. When we look to Yosef’s story we can know that it is an assurance from our Living G-d that the end of all of our stories are complete and good in the same way they were for Yosef HaTzadik.

This article is dedicated to the memory of HaRav Yaakov Moshe ben Yisrael Natan Ztl
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About the Author
Nathan Safran works in technology and lives with his four wonderful children and wife in Teaneck, NJ