Judaism: Be Remembered at the Right Time and in the Right Way
Yosef, in his role as dream analyst, heard parallel dreams and gave parallel but starklly different solutions for them. He told both the sar hamashkim (royal butler) and the sar ha’ofim (royal baker) that in three days, Pharaoh would lift their heads (“yisa Paroh et roshecha” – Bereishit 40: 13, 19). First he told the sar hamashkim the good news that this would be accompanied by a return to his elevated station. Yosef started with same words for the sar ha’ofim (royal baker) but continued that his head would not just be lifted up but would be lifted off of him, going on to explain that he would be executed.
What is the point of Yosef’s evident play on words, which must be more than a cynical use of language?
The midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 1:11) connects between the word, “yisa,” and the pasuk, “Raise the heads (s’oo et rosh) of the whole congregation of Bnei Yisrael” (Bamidbar 1:2), which uses the same root in the context of Bnei Yisrael being counted. The midrash says that if the people merit it, they will attain greatness, but if they are not deserving, they will die. The precedent for this possible double meaning is the lifting of our two Egyptian dignitaries’ heads.
The message is deeper than the fact that “raising heads” can refer to being counted, being decapitated, or being remembered positively. A raised head is one that is noticed and reacted to by others. Is it good to stand out? It worked out fine for the sar hamashkim, who could have rotted away in jail, had he not been remembered. However, the sar ha’ofim was remembered in a way that caused his execution. Bnei Yisrael, as Hashem’s beloved nation, is counted and receives special attention. That attention can cause blessing or downfall, depending on their actions.
Along these lines, we can suggest an explanation for one of this week’s parsha’s most famous and vexing issues. Why was Yosef criticized for requesting the sar hamashkim’s help – to speak to Pharaoh on his behalf? Rashi (Bereishit 40:23) says that because Yosef put his faith in this Egyptian, he was forced to stay in prison another two years. But wasn’t Yosef’s request a natural one? Aren’t we supposed to do hishtadlut, taking human steps that are natural paths through which Divine Providence operates? Are we supposed to get married without going on dates? Is the State of Israel supposed to defend itself without an army?
While many answers are given to this question, let us discuss two solutions, both predicated on a single textual observation. Yosef told the sar hamashkim that he had been accused and punished without fault (ibid. 15). In other words, he wanted to be released due to mistrial and go free. No more and no less.
One answer then is that Yosef was actually guilty of being too minimalistic. Did he think that he was forced into exile, slavery, and finally jail where he impressed an officer of the royal court just to get out of jail? His own dreams had revealed that he was to be a great ruler and that there was an important reason for it. Why settle for freedom when Hashem could cause his special divine gifts to be recognized by Pharaoh. Indeed, when the sar hamashkim eventually spoke on his behalf, he mentioned nothing of Yosef’s innocence but of Yosef’s miraculous abilities.
A second answer is connected to the observation we began with. Yosef asked for his sentence to be revisited, claiming that he got unjust treatment. Is that wise? Although being remembered worked well for the sar hamashkim, it cost the sar ha’ofim his life. If Yosef was relying on divine protection, then he should have let Hashem continue to have things unfold miraculously, and not take risks because of impatience in waiting for divine intervention.
Many people’s nature is to raise their heads in search of prominence. Is that good? Without people who strive for advancement and achievement, our world would not progress as it can, physically or spiritually. But some would be wise to learn the lesson of the raised head. If the wrong person pursues prominence or the right person does so at the wrong time or place, he may find frustration or even infamy instead of success and fame. A high profile, while allowing kiddush Hashem, can also be a vehicle to the opposite.
The gemara (Sota 22a) deals with the following double-edged sword. It is a sin to take authority before one is ready, but it is also a sin to refuse responsibility when one is prepared. One needs to allow the prominence to progress at its own pace. Divine intervention and deserved recognition by one’s respected peers are indicators of who should stand out before the public, or the king, or the King, and when.
According to both explanations, Yosef had every right and obligation to expect that the time would come for marked improvement in his life. In Yosef’s special situation, he should have realized that Hashem would continue to bring these changes in His way and at His time.
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