It seems like Yoseph had the worst timing. After years of slavery he ended up in jail. There he finally made contact with someone close to Pharaoh’s inner court who could help him win his freedom. After correctly interpreting the Royal Butler’s dream he owed Yoseph a tremendous debt of gratitude. However, last week’s Parsha ends with little hope of Yoseph ending his long ordeal:
וְלֹֽא־זָכַ֧ר שַֽׂר־הַמַּשְׁקִ֛ים אֶת־יוֹסֵ֖ף וַיִּשְׁכָּחֵֽהוּ“Yet the Royal Butler did not remember Yoseph; he forgot him” (Bereishis 41:23).
Two long years must go by until Jewish destiny unfolds and Yoseph began his meteoric rise to power.
Why did Yoseph have to languish for two more years?
The Classic commentator, Rashi, provides the answer we are familiar with. Yoseph should not have put his faith and trust in a man (the Royal Butler) but rather in God. The difficulty, of course, in this answer is that we are supposed to take the initiative – השתדלות to improve our situation. God helps those who help themselves. The Royal Butler was only one degree of separation from the most powerful person in the world.
Furthermore, think of what must have gone through Yoseph’s mind. Was it just a coincidence that Yoseph correctly interpreted two dreams while he was in jail? Yoseph surely saw the resurgence of his God-given talent as a sign that God’s salvation was close at hand. This was the same talent that caused jealousy among his brothers. The same talent that he knew deep down was part of his essence and a promise from God of future greatness.
God sweetens our bitter waters
Midrash Tanchuma offers a completely different approach – hidden in a precept about making a blessing on rain:
הָרוֹאֶה אֶת הַגְּשָׁמִים יוֹרְדִין בִּזְמַן שֶׁהַבְּרִיּוֹת צְרִיכִין לָהֶן, כֵּיצַד הוּא מְבָרֵךְ. כָּךְ שָׁנוּ רַבּוֹתֵינוּ, עַלהַגְּשָׁמִים הוּא אוֹמֵר, בָּרוּךְ הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵּטִיב
“What blessing should one recite upon seeing rainfall at the exact time that Mankind needs it? Our Rabbis taught: on rainfall one should say: ‘Blessed Be He who is good and does good” (Similar to what is found in Mishnah Brachot 9:2).
When Mankind gets the exact amount of rain they need, when they need it, you thank God. But what relevance is that to Yoseph?
The answer is couched in the follow-up question of the Midrash:
וְהַגְּשָׁמִים מֵהֵיכָן יוֹרְדִין. רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר, הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ מִמֵּימֵי אוֹקְיָנוֹס הוּא שׁוֹתֶה. אָמַר לוֹ רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, וַהֲלֹא מֵי אוֹקְיָנוֹס מְלוּחִין הֵן. אָמַר לוֹ: מִתְמַתְּקִין מִן הֶעָבִים שֶׁבָּרָקִיעַ,
“Where does the rain descend from? Rabbi Eliezer said ’The entire world consumes the waters of the ocean.’ Rabbi Yehoshua remarked ‘Is not the ocean water salty? Indeed it is’, he replied, ‘but it is sweetened by the clouds in the firmament”’ (Midrash Tanchuma Miketz 1;1).
Are the clouds taking their sweet time?
The reason that ocean water needs to be desalinated is that salt water would be damaging to crops. The Midrash is pointing out that the clouds “sweeten” the salty ocean water so Mankind indeed gets what they need, when they need it.
As the commentator to Midrash Tanchuma, Be-er Ha-amorim, says, “sweetening the water” is a metaphor for the timing of Yoseph’s rise to power. Let’s say that the Royal Butler had true gratitude and used his influence with Pharaoh to secure Yoseph’s release from prison two years earlier. Yoseph was still a foreigner with a criminal record. Instead of jail he may have been reassigned to be a servant in a different royal household. However, on the fateful day that Pharaoh was desperately seeking someone to interpret his dream, Yoseph’s whereabouts may have been unknown.
Or perhaps, if the Royal Butler had already pulled strings for Yoseph with influential ministers, to secure a new position for a prisoner of the state, he may have felt awkward to mention Yoseph again. That would expose himself and the minister to charges of corruption. The way the story unfolded, the Royal Butler had the extra incentive of two years of guilt. Furthermore, he knew exactly where Yoseph was. The same place he left him two years ago – safe and sound in jail.
It is only at this exact point in time that Yoseph is perfectly positioned to go from prisoner to Viceroy of Egypt in ten minutes.
The timings of our life
Was there ever a time you felt that you were waiting an extraordinary long time for something that you thought you were ready for? Perhaps in finding your soul mate or advancing your career? Based on this Midrash you might come to realize that, actually, everything happened at exactly the right time. If you want to know what was going on while you were waiting, that’s simple – God was in the process of “sweetening your salty waters.”