Shabbat Vayeishev: The Extra Years Joseph Spent In Prison Is A Lesson For As All


He was a handsome lad, only 17 years of age, thrown into an Egyptian prison. His brothers had sold him into slavery and now he was falsely accused of making improper advances towards his master’s wife. Joseph is soon joined by two of Pharaoh’s courtiers, his wine steward and baker.

In the morning, Joseph sees his two prison mates looking downcast. When Joseph inquiries about the reason for their dejection they tell him that they each had an unusual dream but had no one to interpret its meaning. They relate their dreams to Joseph and he tells them its significance. The sommelier was told that he would have a positive outcome, returning to his former position. The baker, however, was informed that his end was near — he would be hanged. But Joseph had one request of the wine steward: When he returned to Pharaoh’s palace, to ask the ruler to free Joseph from his unjust imprisonment.

The interpretations turn out to be correct: the baker is hung and the wine steward is returned to his previous cup-bearing task. But the parsha ends with the following:

“And the wine steward did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.” Rashi, quoting the Midrash [Bereishit Raba 89:3], says that Joseph remained in confinement for another two years, as punishment for relying on flesh and blood for his salvation.

This comment by Rashi always troubled me. What was wrong with asking someone’s favor in a difficult situation? There are two paths in dealing with life’s hardships. The first is trust, “bitachon,” relying only on God for salvation. The second is making a personal effort, “hishtadlut,” and not relying solely on Divine intervention.

The story is told about a man on a cruise ship who falls overboard, and the ship sails away. He prays, “God, please make a miracle and save me!” A fishing boat passes but the man remains silent, awaiting the miracle. A yacht goes by, and then a helicopter, with the man’s same lack of response. “Der Abishter vilt helfen,” the One Above will help. The man drowns. In Heaven he complains, “God, I had total trust in You. Why did you let me drown?” And God responds, “I sent you a fishing boat, a yacht, and a helicopter. All you needed to do was wave to them.” Hishtadlut. You have to buy a lottery ticket to win.

Joseph made the effort. So why was he punished? With a careful reading of the verses, the answer may be found next week in Miketz, when Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and is immediately rewarded. He becomes the plenipotentiary, the second most powerful man in Egypt. Let us compare the two stories and see if there was a significant difference in Joseph’s actions.

Hishtadlut, effort, also requires acknowledging God as the One who has the final say. Joseph did that in prison. When told of the dreams by the courtiers Joseph begins by saying that God is the One to Whom dream interpretations belong. He acknowledges that he is just the intermediary. But after Joseph hears the dreams and gives the interpretations, he does not mention God’s Providence again. Now contrast this to what he says to Pharaoh. Joseph begins by saying “Biladai,” it is beyond me, “God will respond with Pharaoh’s welfare.” Joseph interprets the dreams but then says that this is what God is about to do. He acknowledged God before and after he heard the dreams. This had a great effect on Pharaoh unlike the lack of an impression left on the wine steward. Pharaoh says to his servants, “Could we find another like him — a man in whom is the spirit of God?” Pharaoh then says to Joseph, “Since God has informed you of all of this, there can be no one so discerning and wise as you.” The difference between the two stories is clear.

We can now reinterpret the final words of the parsha. “The wine steward did not remember Joseph, and forgot him.” Don’t we know that if he didn’t remember Joseph that he forgot him? However, who did the wine steward forget? (“Vayishkachaihu”.) He forgot God (The pronoun “hu,” meaning Him, often refers to God). In the Pharaoh dream story Joseph remembers to attribute his abilities before and after hearing the dreams. Pharaoh then mentions God twice, and did not forget Him, unlike the wine steward.

What lesson can we learn from these stories? Before entering into difficult or unknown situations — such as a business venture, an operation, a test — many of us pray to God for success. But sometimes after a good result we sometimes forget Who is behind it all. Sometimes we may even think, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth” [Deuteronomy 8:17]. The extra two years Joseph spent in prison is a lesson for us all.

Fred Ehrman is a retired investment adviser and security analyst. He has held leadership positions in several Jewish organizations. He is in his fourth cycle of Daf Yomi.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 4:12 p.m.
Torah: Ge. 37:1-40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6-3:8
Havdalah: 5:13 p.m.