Trusting in G-d
It is written, “ ‘If only you would think of me with yourself when he benefits you, and you will do me a kindness, if you please, and mention me to Pharaoh, then you would get me out of this building.’ …Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but he forgot him” (Genesis 40:14,23).
Following the Midrash, Rashi comments as follows: “ ‘The chief cupbearer did not remember’ – on that day. ‘But he forgot him’ – afterwards. Because Joseph depended on him to remember him, it was necessary that he remain imprisoned for two years, as is stated: ‘Happy is the man who has made the L-RD his trust, and turned not to the arrogant and to strayers after falsehood’ [Psalms 40:5] – and does not put his trust in the Egyptians, who are called arrogant.” The Midrash adds: “Because he [Joseph] said to the chief cupbearer, ‘If only you would think of me…and mention me’ [Genesis 40:14], two years were added to his suffering. Thus, ‘And it came to pass at the end of two full years’ [Genesis 41:1]” (Bereshith Rabba 89:2).
Joseph was punished for having asked the chief cupbearer to remember him. This is something of extreme importance that requires an explanation.
1. How is it that the righteous Joseph, the foundation of the earth (Zohar I:59b), placed his trust in a human being, for “Accursed is the man who trusts in people and makes flesh his strength and turns his heart away from the L-RD” (Jeremiah 17:5)? Is it possible to say that Joseph is under a curse? Far from us to even think such a thing, especially since we know that Joseph remained upright while in Egypt (Tanhuma Nasso 28) and served G-d everywhere! Yet how are we to understand the words of our Sages?
2. The Midrash seems to contradict itself, as the Imrey Chen underlines. First of all, according to the Midrash, the verse “Happy is the man who has made the L-RD his trust” applies to Joseph, which indicates that Joseph maintained his trust in G-d. In the end, however, the Midrash says that Joseph was punished by having to stay two more years in prison. This punishment was because he placed his trust in the chief cupbearer by asking him to remember and speak favorably of him to Pharaoh. Does this mean that Joseph placed his confidence in the chief cupbearer and not in G-d?
First of all, let us examine how Joseph preserved his Judaism while in the house of Potiphar, before he was thrown into prison. This will allow us to evaluate his trust in G-d and demonstrate that he did not accept favors from people.
It is written, “He would not listen to her to lie beside her, to be with her” (Genesis 39:10). The Midrash states: “ ‘To lie beside her’ – in this world; ‘to be with her’ – so that he should not be with her in the Gehenna in the World to Come” (Bereshith Rabba 87:6). Even though Joseph was sold as a slave in Egypt, he did not allow himself to be influenced by those around him. He remained upright despite all the efforts of Zuleika, Potiphar’s wife, to seduce him, as it is written: “And so it was – just as she coaxed Joseph day after day, so he would not listen to her” (v.10). The Sages explain that Joseph did not want to become guilty before G-d by lying “beside her, to be with her” (see Yoma 35b). This means that he did not even want to be in her presence, even without sinning, for our Sages say that the evil inclination first invites a man to touch the forbidden, then to make use of it. If Joseph had agreed to be in her presence, even without doing anything, he could have enjoyed a promotion in his master’s home. Despite this, he controlled himself and put his life in danger so as not to sin before G-d. He also did this so as not to give free reign to his desires, for giving the slightest opening to sin is a transgression against G-d, as the Sages have said: “When [the evil inclination] sees a person rolling his eyes, smoothing his hair, and lifting his heel, he exclaims, ‘This man belongs to me!’ ” (Bereshith Rabba 22:6). It is in this sense that “unchaste imagination is more injurious than the sin itself” (Yoma 29a).
Thus Joseph kept himself from sinning with his master’s wife. Later on in prison too, it is certain that he kept away from sin, such as by not eating forbidden foods (Me’am Loez, Ramban, and Siftei Kohen). He did not allow himself to be carried away by Egyptian customs either, something that demands firm willpower and great strength. He was not ashamed of being mocked or scorned, or to be disparagingly called a Hebrew slave (Bereshith Rabba 89:7), as it is stated: “With us was a Hebrew lad, a slave of the captain of the guard” (Genesis 41:12). At all times, every Jew may learn from Joseph’s example that despite the scorn of gentiles for Jewish customs, names, and way of dress, which are particular to Jews (Vayikra Rabba 32:5), one must continue to trust in G-d. Without G-d’s help, a Jew would not be able to survive among gentiles, not even for a day.
Still, despite Joseph’s virtues, his request that the chief cupbearer speak to Pharaoh on his behalf is considered a sin. This is despite the fact that the Torah obligates us to try everything in our power to placate those in power and to escape the suffering they inflict on us. The reason for this is that Joseph knew that Providence wanted him to descend into Egypt and become a prisoner there, and he also knew that the sole aim of his descent and sojourn in Egypt was the exile of the Children of Israel. All the suffering of Joseph and the Children of Israel – even the fact that Joseph was appointed to govern Egypt – resulted from G-d’s will. It was therefore forbidden for Joseph to make even the smallest effort to leave prison, and therefore he should not have tried to free himself prematurely. He was to stay in prison until G-d directed events in such a way so as to liberate him. His request was a sin, a lack of trust in G-d, and he was punished in proportion to his greatness and holiness. His imprisonment was prolonged in order to expiate this sin, for he should have known that his sojourn in Egypt and prison were Divine decrees, and thus he should not have tried to precipitate events. We cannot say that he did not trust G-d, for who served Him with as much faith as Joseph? However his desire to precipitate events was a sin, for he knew that everything results from G-d’s will.
If Joseph trusted in G-d, why did he ask the chief cupbearer to mention him to Pharaoh? The reason is that Joseph was afraid of having committed a sin, just as Jacob had also been afraid that he had committed a sin that would deliver him into Esau’s hands (Berachot 4a). Thus Joseph feared remaining in prison due to some possible sin on his part, and he was punished in order that others may realize that a person must trust in G-d alone.
Joseph tried to rectify this sin afterwards, as we see when he explained Pharaoh’s dream to him: “Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying: ‘That is beyond me. It is G-d Who will respond with Pharaoh’s welfare’ ” (Genesis 41:16). Joseph’s response is surprising, for he ended up interpreting the dream.
First of all, we must realize that when a person commits a sin, if he is to rectify it he must repent “through the very thing [he] sinned with” (Shemot Rabba 23:3). When a person is presented with the opportunity to sin in a similar way as before, yet he does not again sin, then “the Knower of all that is hidden testifies about him that he will never return to that sin again” (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:2). If the opportunity to commit the same sin comes to a person again, yet he does not commit it, his regret and repentance are accepted, and his evil inclination will no longer incite him to sin anymore. At that point, the Sages say, “his repentance is total and complete” (Yoma 86b).
This is also the case for one who possesses any inborn character fault. If he wants to rectify it, as soon as this natural tendency presents itself, he must suppress it and control his feelings without fail. From that point on he can be assured that this vile tendency will disappear, giving way to a virtue.
For example, humility is the opposite of pride; contentment is the opposite of greed; confidence in G-d is the opposite of lacking faith in G-d.
This allows us to say that Joseph repented “through the very thing [he] sinned with.” When he stood before Pharaoh to explain his dream to him, he could have certainly attributed his divination abilities to himself and told Pharaoh, “I will explain your dream according to my wisdom.” That would have earned him tremendous honor and surely have procured him great wealth. However Joseph knew that he had previously sinned by placing his trust in a man and that he had lacked faith in G-d. This is why he put himself in danger before Pharaoh by proclaiming, “It is G-d Who will respond with Pharaoh’s welfare.” Joseph in this way conveyed the following idea to him: I myself have no knowledge or wisdom, for wisdom comes only from G-d, and He alone can explain Pharaoh’s dream. This means that Joseph placed all his confidence in G-d, and he repented in exactly the area he had sinned.
By doing so, however, Joseph put himself in danger. We know that Pharaoh made himself out to be a god (Shemot Rabba 8:3) and he boasted, “The river is mine; I created it.” Pharaoh believed in no deity other than himself, and so when Joseph told him that “G-d will respond with Pharaoh’s welfare,” he could have replied, “Who is the L-RD that I should heed His voice?” (Exodus 5:2). Pharaoh could have said that there was no deity other than himself, and he could have thrown Joseph into prison. However Joseph was not afraid of this, for he knew that he had committed a sin by trusting in the chief cupbearer instead of having faith in G-d. This is why he used this occasion to express, before everyone there, his complete confidence in Hashem, telling Pharaoh that only G-d could appease him, no one else. It was precisely at that critical moment, when Joseph’s fate would be decided and he would be either punished or saved, that he rectified his sin and attributed greatness to Whom it rightly belongs (Bereshith Rabba 89:9). Joseph asserted his confidence in G-d without fear of being sent back into prison, and he corrected his sin by repenting in the appropriate way, namely in a situation similar to the one in which the sin occurred.
We therefore see that the Midrash was right in stating that the verse, “Happy is the man who has made the L-RD his trust” applies to Joseph (Bereshith Rabba 89:3). This is because Joseph expressed his confidence in G-d at a critical moment, just as he had previously distanced himself from the Egyptians and separated himself from them in Potiphar’s house, not imitating their customs. However Joseph knew that he had sinned by having placed his confidence in a man, be it just briefly. Thus before Pharaoh, instead of promoting his own wisdom, he based the explanation of Pharaoh’s dream on G-d’s wisdom, without fear that he would be thrown back into prison. This is because, at that very moment, Joseph remembered his sin and placed his complete trust in G-d.
G-d actually demonstrated His kindness by keeping Joseph in prison for two more years. If Joseph had been set free two years earlier, before Pharaoh’s dream, the latter would not have heard of Joseph or called upon him to explain the meaning of his dream. In that case, Joseph would not have been able to rectify his sin by expressing his confidence in G-d. If he had been set free two years earlier, another master would have purchased him as a slave, perhaps even bringing him to another country. In that case, all his prophecies of greatness would not have been fulfilled. Yet because Joseph remained in prison, he was later appointed as the governor of Egypt and all his prophecies were fulfilled. The Midrash confirms what we have said: “Why were two years added to his imprisonment? So that Pharaoh might dream a dream through which he [Joseph] would become great” (Bereshith Rabba 89:3). Each one of us must place his trust solely in G-d, which will earn us good in this world and the next.