Parshas Miketz – Yosef the Ruler, Yosef the Humble

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Miketz, freedom comes suddenly for Yosef ha’Tzadik, Yosef the righteous, who has languished for the past twelve years in Egyptian jail, after wrongly accused – and framed – of attempting to seduce Eishes Potiphar (Ch.39). 

After ten years in jail, one day he correctly interprets the dreams of the Butler and Baker (Ch.40), who are imprisoned along with him.  After these interpretations, he remains in jail for another two years (Rashi to 40:23).

When Pharaoh dreams dreams, and there is no one to interpret the dreams to his liking, Pharaoh’s servant, the Butler, suddenly remembers Yosef.  אֶת-חֲטָאַי, אֲנִי מַזְכִּיר הַיּוֹם – My sin I remember today, the Butler declares!  Pharaoh became angry at his servants and placed me in jail, me and the Baker, and we dreamt dreams… וְשָׁם אִתָּנוּ נַעַר עִבְרִי, עֶבֶד לְשַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים, וַנְּסַפֶּר-לוֹ, וַיִּפְתָּר-לָנוּ אֶת-חֲלֹמֹתֵינוּ – and there with us was a youth, a Hebrew, a slave to the Chief Executioner (Onkelos’s pshat of שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים), and we told to him our dreams and he interpreted our dreams…And it was just as he interpreted for us, so it did happen, I was restored to my post and he (the Baker) was hanged (Bereishis 40:9-13). 

And immediately, yeshuas Hashem k’heref ayin (the salvation of G-d comes in the blink of an eye!), Yosef the prisoner, Yosef the rejected, Yosef the hated, Yosef the hounded, becomes Yosef the Viceroy of Egypt.  וַיִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-יוֹסֵף, וַיְרִיצֻהוּ מִן-הַבּוֹר; וַיְגַלַּח וַיְחַלֵּף שִׂמְלֹתָיו, וַיָּבֹא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה – And Pharaoh sends and summons Yosef, and they rushed him from the pit.  He shaved, and changed his clothes, and he came to Pharaoh (v.14).

After Pharaoh tells Yosef that he has heard that he is a dream interpreter, Yosef replies: בִּלְעָדָי:  אֱלֹקּים, יַעֲנֶה אֶת-שְׁלוֹם פַּרְעֹה – It is beyond me!  G-d will answer for the peace of Pharaoh (v.16). 

The magnitude of Yosef’s reply here should not be underestimated.  He is now thirty years old; he was sold when he was seventeen.  He is unsure when, if ever, he will be freed from bondage.  He has ONE chance to make a first impression before the most powerful ruler of the ancient world.  This is his moment to shine.  “Yes, I interpret dreams!  Yes, I have the answer to your agitation!”  “Yes, I am a brilliant Hebrew who can make all your problems go away!” is what he should have, could have, might have said… And yet, with humility, honesty and grace, he says: It is not me, it is G-d

When the Butler and Baker dream their dreams in jail, two years prior, instead of taking any credit for himself, Yosef similarly proclaims: הֲלוֹא לֵאֱלֹקּים פִּתְרֹנִים – are not interpretations to G-d? (40:8).

Yosef, the one in whom the Name of G-d was regularly in his mouth (Rashi to 39:3), realizes that all his wit and charm, all his talents, abilities and capabilities, were but a gift from G-d. 

As great as he was, that is how humble he was.  Taking no credit for himself, even at the expense of his life (before Pharaoh who did not believe in G-d! [see Ex.5:2]), Yosef (proverbially) bows before the Source of all gifts. 

A true eved Hashem is one who recognizes that the more powerful he is, the more G-d has bestowed His goodness, and Divine grace, upon him. 

R’ Soloveitchik zt’l teaches, “Man in general is unfit to rule.  He has no right to exercise dominion over his fellow man.  Certainly, Judaism says, the ruler may be capable; otherwise he would not be a ruler.  He may be brilliant.  G-d may have blessed him with a sense of leadership and an inspiring personality.  Certainly those who are subordinate may be dull, meek, and in need of guidance.  Yet, Judaism asks, does intellectual superiority justify the exercise of power?  Do personal traits, no matter how relevant, grant a person the right to order, instruct and dominate?

“Judaism has never measured the worth of a human personality by the yardstick of the creative talents with which the individual is blessed.  A contrite heart is more cherished by the Almighty than a keen mind.  A modest and humble person – even if he lags behind others intellectually because circumstances prevent him from actualizing the human potential which G-d implanted in him – is more acceptable to G-d than a vain and proud person who is favored with the opportunity to achieve fame and take advantage of every talent G-d has vested in him.

“Man has not been invited to share in the attributes of meluchah and memshalah, kingdom and power (respectively), which belong exclusively to the Eternal One.  True, the Almighty quite often asks man to join Him, and paradoxically, to be like Him, to ‘walk in His ways’ (Deut.28:9).  Just as He is gracious and merciful, so you shall be gracious and merciful.’ (Shabbos 133b and see as well Sotah 14a).  Yet power is an exception to this rule.  Power is an exclusively divine potency to which man has no access. Melech Elyon dislikes melech evyon if the latter begins to take himself seriously.  The quest for power precipitated the oldest sin on the part of mankind.  The serpent took advantage of the human urge to rule, to be mighty, to dominate, to emerge victorious from every engagement, to legislate his own laws…” (Vision and Leadership, p.148-149).

Yosef went from slave boy to king in a moment’s time.  He was the most successful and powerful person in ancient Egypt, nay, in the ancient world!  Perhaps his stunning greatness was not in spite of his humility, but because of his humility.  He understood that all that he had was merely a gift from G-d, Who gives to Whom He sees fit. 

R’ Baruch of Medziboz (d.1811, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov), known as Reb Boruch’l, used to say: “Our father Avraham, a very modest person, said: I am but dust and ashes (Gen.18:27).  Moshe and Aharon said: Who are we? (Ex.16:7).  King David said: I am a worm, less than human (Ps.22:7).  But there is an additional, even greater level of modesty – and that is to say nothing” (Tales of the Righteous, p.63).

May we find within ourselves the humility and dignity to recognize that all that we have is but a gift from G-d, and may we use our strengths and innate talents to serve Hashem and fellow man. 

בברכת שבת שלום, חנוכה שמח, וחודש טוב,

Michal

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