The story of Joseph may be the most compelling story in the whole Torah. There are dreams, the conspiracy of the brothers, getting sold into slavery, Potiphar’s wife’s seduction, prison, more dreams, and that’s just this week’s parsha! But there’s one moment in the story that is, to say the least, perplexing. And there is a popular explanation that is often given as an answer. To be honest, the popular explanation has never satisfied me.
Joseph has been sent to an Egyptian prison after he was falsely accused of raping his master’s wife. While in prison, he doesn’t despair, but ends up raising through the ranks of the prison and becomes highly regarded. Think: Andy Dufresne from Shawshank Redemption (doing the guards taxes, building a library, etc.) While there, two men end up in the prison, Pharaoh’s chief butler and Pharaoh’s chief baker. They each have a dream and Joseph interprets them. Just as Joseph interpreted, the chief baker is executed and the chief butler is set free. But just before the butler is released Joseph says the following:
“In another three days, Pharaoh will lift your head and restore you to your position. You will place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, as was your previous practice when you were his butler. But remember me when things go well with you. Please deal kindly with me and mention me to Pharaoh and take me out of this house.” (Bereishis 40:12)
It’s from this interaction, Joseph telling the butler to remember him and tell Pharaoh about his deeds, that the Rabbis say Joseph was kept in prison for another two years.
Talk About Making a Mountain Out of a Mole Hill!
Joseph gets two additional years in prison for asking for help? It’s not like he blasphemed God or did something malicious. And why shouldn’t he ask for help? He’s already been in jail for 10 years. In Judaism we have the concept of histadlus. You do everything you can, and it’s after that that you pray to God for your efforts to succeed. In fact, there’s that joke about this very idea.
A man is sitting in his house during a terrible storm. As the waters rise, an evacuation truck comes by and says, “This storm is getting pretty bad, come with us.” The man replies, “No it’s okay. God will save me.” Then the water continues to rise and he has to climb to his roof. A boat comes by and the rescuer says, “Come aboard, I’ll get you out of here.” The man refuses once again claiming, “Not to worry, God will save me.” Finally the water is so high, the man is standing on his chimney and a helicopter choppers by, dropping a rescue ladder. Once again the man declines saying, “Thanks but no thanks, God will save me.” Eventually the man drowns. Up in Heaven the man stands before God and asks, “God, I was a religious God fearing man. Why didn’t you save me?” To which God responds, “I sent a truck, I sent a boat, and I sent a helicopter. What were you waiting for?”
So why is Joseph punished when he was seizing an opportunity that God obviously sent? The clearest answer I have been given is that though Joseph was doing histadlus, he put his trust in the butler, not in Hashem. As if to say, the butler is saving me, not Hashem. Had he truly had emunnah (authentic trust in Hashem) he wouldn’t have been punished. That answer has never sat well with me. Does a mindset make such an important difference? Maaaaybe to a tzaddik like Joseph, but what am I, a regular Joe, supposed to do with that? Is it so crucial that I recognize that everything should be attributed to Hashem otherwise I’m going to be punished?
The Butler’s Perspective
So let’s look at the butler. He’s in prison, terrified that he may never leave or worse, be executed and he meets this man Joseph. Joseph has higher status, but he befriends the butler. Joseph is altruistic and he shows a genuine concern for the butler’s well being. He’s speaking about this God thing, and from that, everything, despite being in prison, seems to be going really well for Joseph. Perhaps the butler is thinking, “Wow, look at this amazing person. If believing in this God makes you like this, perhaps I should sign up.” Then on top of that Joseph interprets the butlers dream and tells him he’s getting out. What an incredible impression he made on the butler.
But then Joseph says, “Hey when you get out, don’t forget about me.” Like a millionaire who has to question whether the person they are dating loves them for them or for their money, this comment now reframes the entire relationship in the butler’s mind. “Oh, all those wonderful things you said and did, you didn’t do them because you cared about me. You did them because I’m Pharaoh’s butler.” And it’s because of that the butler waits two years (till Pharaoh is perplexed by his dreams, and the butler can get credit for bringing the solution to his problem) that he remembers Joseph.
However, if Joseph fully trusted in Hashem and had not made his request to the butler, the butler might have left prison completely blown away by the magnitude of Joseph’s character. He might have believed Joseph had an authentic concern for him. With that feeling, he may have immediately told Pharaoh, “You’ve got to see this guy locked up in your prison. He’s amazing.”
It’s hard to interact with people who can further our careers or help us and not pursue that objective. Even if on a subconscious level. But a person can smell an agenda a mile away. The only way to truly have an authentic relationship would mean that you’d have to remove the possibility that you can benefit from them. And the only way to do that is to recognize that your advancement doesn’t come from this person. It comes from God. The more you realize that, the more you can honestly care for someone else. And when you develop that trust in God, people can feel it. They pick up on the fact that you’re not looking out for yourself but are looking out for everybody. It’s an attractive quality and it sets you apart from those around you. So when you’re at that next networking event, maybe don’t concern yourself so much with letting people know who you are (or who you want them to think you are) and just listen. Before you know it, you might have an opportunity fall right into your lap.