Vayeshev: Majesty and humility

“Man, in Judaism, was created for both victory and defeat – he is both king and saint.  He must know how to fight for victory and also how to suffer defeat.” – Rabbi Soloveitchik, “Majesty and Humility”

Man, explains Rabbi Soloveitchik, is a dialectical being whose objective is to emulate a dialectical God. On the one hand, man is summoned to fight for victory, to conquer every vista of human endeavor, for in so doing he emulates God in His aspect of majesty.  On the other hand, man is called upon to emulate God in His aspect of humility. God, in the very majestic act of creation, withdrew – in the act known as tzimtzum – in order to make room for another, in order to make room for creation itself. So too, man, as part of his quest for victory, must withdraw, retreat and, in this sense, accept defeat. In fact, it is only in defeat that man redeems the coarseness of his personality thus realizing the saint within.

Interestingly, it is this – between majesty and humility, between victory and defeat – that informs the roller-coaster ride that is the rise to power of Joseph, king and saint.

We meet Joseph at the age of seventeen, strutting in his “coat of many colors”; he is manifestly being groomed for leadership (Kli Yakar 37:3).  Joseph, for his part, dreams of leadership, not once but twice.[1] Unsurprisingly, when Joseph relates his visions of grandeur to his brothers they are less than enthusiastic: “Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us?” (37:8)  Joseph answers not, for this is clearly his interpretation as well. What is not clear to Joseph is that, if his vision of majesty is not tempered with a strong dose of humility, his dreams stand little chance of being realized (see Deut. 17:20).[2]

But clarity comes fast and hard, as it is not long before the brothers dispose of Joseph, and his dreams, at the bottom of a nearby pit. And if being stripped of his coat of majesty and being thrown into a pit is not humbling enough, being sold in the market as a lowly plantation slave would surely have its affect. And indeed, whereas Joseph could only speak of himself at best, or report on his brothers at worst, he now spoke of loyalty to his master and allegiance to his God (39:8-9).  Joseph, it seems, had assimilated the lesson of defeat and as a result, we surmise, “the Lord was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man” (39:2).

Here, then, we see the making of what Rabbi Soloveitchik calls the “hero” – in the biblical sense of the word.  The hero, explains Rabbi Soloveitchik, is an individual who purges himself of his “brutish and raw state of mind” through “catharsis”, a process that “expresses itself in paradoxical movement in two opposite directions – in surging forward boldly and in retreating humbly”.  In so doing, the individual attains “a sanctified personality balancing majesty and humility.”  It is a balance, however, that must come at every level of human experience: “the aesthetic-hedonic, the emotional, the intellectual, the moral-religious.”

That Joseph mastered catharsis in the aesthetic-hedonic is depicted unequivocally in his retreat from the seductive advances of his master Potiphar’s wife.  Indeed, his response stands as the epitome of how everyone is to respond to the allures in this realm: “He takes his own defeat.  There is no glamor attached to his withdrawal… [it] is not a spectacular gesture, since there are no witnesses to admire and to laud him…  It happened in the privacy of their home, in the stillness of the night.”  Appropriately, it is from this very event that Joseph earns the title of saint (Zohar, Vayeshev, 194b).

Nevertheless, while Joseph unquestionably demonstrated his capacity for the heroic, he is, once again, sent down to the pit for another cathartic test – evidenced by the introductory words, “And it came to pass after these things…” (40:1).  These words appear only three times in the entire Torah: once, to introduce the Akeida, paradigm cathartic test; once, to introduce the affair with Potiphar’s wife; and now, to introduce the episode with the butler and the baker.

Rabbi Soloveitchik, while defining four levels of cathartic refinement, highlights two – the aesthetic-hedonic and the intellectual – as most prominent.  And so Joseph, having purged himself in the aesthetic-hedonic area, is now, I suggest, brought face to face with his intellectual prowess.  Indeed, in addition to the great perspicacity he displayed in his dream interpretations, Joseph further demonstrates his intellectual acumen by imploring the butler: “have me in thy remembrance when it shall be well with thee, and show kindness, I pray thee, unto me, and make remembrance of me unto Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house” (40:14).

The butler, however, did not remember him (40:23) for another two full years (41:1,9-13).  “Why,” asks the Midrash, “did Joseph suffer another two years in the pit?”  The answer: Because of the two times he asked the butler to remember him. … And so it is said, “Until the time that his word came to pass, the word of the Lord purified (tzerafathu) him” (Psalms 105:19).  Something in Joseph’s request of the butler demanded purification.  While some contend that it was a lack of faith (bitachon) or excessive initiative (hishtadlut), I propose, that it was the need for catharsis of the intellect.

Indeed, the Psalm brought by the Midrash uses the very word Rabbi Soloveitchik uses for catharsis – tzraf – purification.  (Joseph here did no sin, exhibited no lack of faith, no excess of initiative – for, indeed, are not faith and initiative really but two sides of the same coin?)  The reason that Joseph needed to stay in the pit was because he needed to redeem his intellect, he needed purge himself of its concomitant “pride and arrogance.”  That is, if Joseph, having applied his intellectual talent in his dream interpretation also used it to free himself his freedom, he would have strutted out of prison with feelings of pride and arrogance not befitting “a sanctified personality balancing majesty and humility”.

After two years in the pit, now purged of any dross ensuing from his profound intellect, he is ready to meet Pharaoh.  The subtle yet telling contrast between Joseph’s words to the butler and the baker versus those to Pharaoh bear witness to his catharsis.  Whereas Joseph in the prison said, “Do not interpretations belong to God? tell it me, I pray you”, Joseph in the palace is completely self-effaced: “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace” (41:16).  Furthermore, whereas Joseph in the prison introduces each dream interpretation with the words: “This is the interpretation of it” (40:12,18), Joseph in the palace employs no proud introductions.

As a postscript, it can be seen that Joseph had purified himself in the realms of the emotional and the moral-religious.  Catharsis of the emotion, explains Rabbi Soloveitchik, “consists in active human interference in the emotive experience” – something Joseph did each time he met his brothers, turning to cry, yet composing himself for the play.  Catharsis of the moral-religious, writes Rabbi Soloveitchik, is characterized by a “withdrawal [that] is identical with the awareness of [one’s] imperfection” – something Joseph did in accepting his father’s prioritization of Ephraim over Manasseh, against his own judgment.[3]

Joseph, then, as king and saint, stands as paradigm of the complete personality to which we all strive, the sanctified personality balancing majesty and humility.


[1] The number two, perhaps hinting at the dialectic underlying the whole narrative, figures most prominently throughout:  two dreams of Joseph, two times into a pit, two times sold (Yishmael, Midian), two dreams of Pharaoh’s servants, two dreams of Pharaoh, two children (Manasseh, Ephraim) …

[2] Amongst the laws of the king we find the statement: “…that his heart not be lifted up above his brothers… so that he may prolong the days of his kingdom, he and his sons in the midst of Israel” (Deuteronomy 17:20).

[3] Given the thesis presented herein, my son Eitan Navon suggests that Jacob’s re-prioritization of Ephraim and Manasseh could be an expression of the need for humility in the one groomed for majesty, and vice versa.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at
Related Topics
Related Posts