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April 11, 2014

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Jewish World Review Dec. 7, 2007 / 27 Kislev, 5768

Where and why Joseph went wrong

By Rabbi Avraham Pam

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A penetrating essay on the requirements — and limitations — of faith and their real-life, political applications

“It happened at the end of two years.”

                        —   Genesis 41:1

http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 89:3) comments on this verse: ''Praiseworthy is the man who has made the Divine his trust — this is Joseph — and turned not to the arrogant (Psalms 40:5) — because Joseph told the wine butler, Remember me . . . and mention me to Pharaoh (Genesis 40:14), two years were added to his term in prison.''

Much has been written about this Midrash, which seems to contradict itself. Was Joseph a baal bitachon (lit., master of trust in the Divine) or not? If he is the embodiment of the verse of Psalms praising the man who has made the Divine his trust, why did he display a lack of it by soliciting the help of the wine butler?

This issue can be understood through a clarification of what faith is and what it is not.

The Talmud (Bava Basra 21b) discusses the question of "business infringement", when a person with an established mill or other business can prohibit someone else from opening a similar enterprise in close proximity to his. Under certain circumstances (the guidelines of which are discussed at length in Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, Ch. 156), the businessman can claim, ''You are cutting off my livelihood!'' and take steps to prohibit his competitor from opening a business.

This is recognized by Jewish Law as a legitimate, Torah-based right that a tradesman or storekeeper has to protect his own interests, even when it will be to the detriment of another person trying to earn a livelihood.

This is puzzling, because the Talmud (Beitzah 16a) says that all of a person's income is fixed by Heaven from Rosh Hashanah to Rosh Hashanah. If so, what does the mill owner or storekeeper have to worry about when a competing business opens close to his own? Whatever income is Divinely ordained for him that year will not be diminished because he has a competitor (or two) down the block.

The answer must be that while a person is required to have Faith in the Divine that He will supply him with his needs, this does not mean that he can sit with his hands folded and do nothing to earn his livelihood or protect his business interests. Can a person leave the gates of his jewelry store wide open at night and expect to find the precious gems still there when he returns in the morning? Can he say that he has nothing to fear from robbers and has full faith that whatever livelihood is destined for him he will get in any case? Certainly not; such an attitude is clearly unacceptable. Faith means doing what one can to earn a livelihood and yet recognizing that it is not one's wisdom or business acumen which brings him success, but it is He Who gave you strength to make wealth (Deut. 8:18).

It is true that there are many levels of faith in the Divine, and the more one elevates his neshamah (soul) and places his absolute trust in his Creator, the less hishtadlus (personal effort) is required of him to earn his livelihood. Nonetheless, the verse (Deut. 15:18) says, And the Divine, Your G-d, will bless you in all that you do, which, as explained by Sifrei, means that a person cannot sit and do nothing and expect to miraculously receive livelihood. He is required to ''do'' and can then hope for the blessings of Heaven.

How much must he ''do''? That is the difficult issue which people grapple with daily, trying to recognize the fine line where personal effort ends and faith begins.

Thus, if A has a mill and B wants to open a competing mill down the block, A does have the right under certain circumstances (see Choshen Mishpat 156) to stop him. Doing so would not be considered a lack of faith. When Jewish Law does permit B, the competitor, to open shop, then A would not be permitted to take measures to stop him.

It is an unfortunate occurrence that when a businessman feels threatened by a competitor, he resorts to all sorts of forbidden methods to impede or undermine him. He besmirches his reputation and maligns the quality of his products and services, or questions the fairness of his price structure. This rapidly degenerates.

If Jewish Law permits a competitor to open shop, then the preexisting storekeeper has to have faith that the competitor will not be cutting into his livelihood.

An acquaintance of the author owned a factory which produced ties. After World War II, this man hired some concentration camp survivors as employees and taught them the trade. When one of his workers decided to open his own tie manufacturing business, he offered him technical assistance on how to get established. He didn't look at the former worker as a threat to his livelihood, but did everything possible to help him make a living. He firmly believed that the Divine would give them both sufficient sustenance and his selfless act of kindness would certainly open up the Divine storehouse of the same on his behalf as well.

Writing in Emunah U'Vitachon (2:6), the Chazon Ish, explains that while there are different levels of personal effort required of a true man of faith, some types of personal effort are absolutely worthless and, in fact, display just the opposite. This, he explains, was the fault noted by the Midrash in the conduct of the great master of faith, Joseph.

Joseph had already languished in prison for a decade and the experience had not crushed him as it would have a lesser person. His strong faith gave him the strength to endure this trial and not surrender to despair or give up hope of ever seeing the light of freedom again. After brilliantly explaining the strange dreams of Pharaoh's chief baker and wine butler, Joseph asked the wine butler to ''put in a good word'' for him before Pharaoh. Joseph, of course, realized that his salvation was totally in the Hand of the Divine.

Nonetheless, in order not to rely on a miracle, he felt that personal effort required him to enlist the help of the wine butler. If so, why was he punished so severely for doing so?

The answer is, as Chazon Ish explains, that the wine butler was a a wicked, egotistical, selfish person from whom no good could be expected.

Joseph should have turned not to the arrogant (Psalms 40:5) for assistance, as this was not a gesture of personal effort. Doing so improper for a true man of faith. Had the wine butler been even the least bit of a Mentsh, he would have felt immense gratitude to Joseph and could not possibly have attributed his explanation to a ''good guess.''

The Meshech Chochmah (40:2) asks: Why was it necessary for the Divine to give a disturbing dream to the chief baker which foretold that he would soon be beheaded? What bearing did this have on the situation and what role did it play in Joseph's release from prison?

He explains that the baker's dream and subsequent execution underscored the veracity of Josef's interpretation. If the wine butler alone had experienced a dream which Joseph interpreted favorably, that would not prove that Joseph was an expert dream interpreter.

It is human nature that if someone has a disturbing dream and asks a friend what he thinks it means, the friend will calm his fears by telling him, "Don't worry! It will be good!'' If things turns out well, the friend ''predicted'' correctly, and if they don't, then at least the person had a few days of tranquility before the calamity struck him.

The true test of Joseph's expertise was in his interpretation of the chief baker's dream. If Joseph was not 100 percent sure of himself, would he so confidently say that in three days' time the baker would be beheaded? What would happen if Joseph were proven incorrect and the baker would be returned to his post? If he didn't kill Joseph on the spot, he would subject him to unimaginable tortures for giving him such a scare by predicting his execution. It would have been suicidal for Joseph to offer such an explanation unless he was totally convinced that he was correct. Therefore, it was from the baker's dream that the wine butler realized that Joseph's interpretation was professional and not just some soothing words. Still, he felt no need for gratitude to Joseph.

If so, why did the wine butler finally inform Pharaoh of Joseph's abilities as a dream interpreter? Did he suddenly become a repentant?

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 89:7) supplies the answer and says that nothing changed with the arrogant, selfish wine butler. His advice to Pharaoh was motivated strictly by his own self-interests and self-preservation. He saw that Pharaoh was depressed by the inability of his advisers to interpret his two extremely disturbing dreams. The wine butler feared that he might even die due to his state of melancholy. If he did, his successor would probably appoint new ministers and the wine butler could lose his job.

To protect his own self-interests, the wine butler recommended Joseph as a dream interpreter. Even so, his recommendation was filled with words of abuse and denigration as he called Joseph a youth, a Hebrew foreigner, a slave (41:12).

That is the behavior of an arrogant, selfish person, and Joseph should have realized that it was pointless to ask anything of him. For this he was punished.

This idea has much contemporary relevance. If only the leaders of the State of Israel would understand the message of this Midrash, their foreign-policy dealings and decisions would be very different. So much of the anguish that the State suffers from is because its leaders put their trust and reliance on the promises and reassurances of their ''good friend.'' They fail to realize that they are often dealing with State Department people similar to the wine butler, who only have their own agendas and self-interests in mind. Even at a time of crisis, they will do nothing to help the Jewish State unless it fits their political purposes and offers them some concrete advantage.

This week's Torah portion is almost always read on during the week of Chanukah. The lesson of Chanukah is that, as the Talmud (Sotah 49b) puts it, we can only rely on our Father in Heaven to redeem us from our anguish. May we merit to this speedily, and in our days.

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Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Pam (1913 - August 16, 2001) was the dean of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn, New York and a member of the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel. Recently, some of his public addresses have been rendered into English by a disciple, Rabbi Sholom Smith. The latest is "Shabbos With Rav Pam", from which this essay was excerpted.

© 2007, Mesorah Publications, Ltd.