Who was Yosef? While some reinterpret the direct meaning of the text and teach us that Yosef was always Yosef HaTzaddik), a straightforward analysis of the beginning of Parashat Vayashev does not support this interpretation.
Rashi quotes the midrash Bereishit Rabbah (84:7) on 37:2 on the words: “v’hu na’ar (and he was a young boy)” and says “that he [Yosef] practiced babyish actions such as primping his hair and using eye shadow in order to beautify himself.” As the midrash notes, these certainly were not the actions of a 17-year-old young man. Instead, they were the behaviors of a vain and self-indulgent individual. Clearly, at this point in the Torah’s narrative, Yosef is someone other than a tzaddik.
But our parasha, Miketz, reveals Yosef’s true mettle and ultimate potential. Pharaoh had two disturbing dreams that eluded interpretation. He was beside himself with anxiety and mental anguish. Out of desperation, Pharaoh retold his dreams to his confidants and magicians, but remained disappointed with their inadequate interpretations.
In a moment of high drama, Pharaoh’s cupbearer declared that he remembered someone who had been in prison with him who accurately interpreted dreams. He described the dream analyst as a “na’ar,” an “ivri,” and an “eved” (a mere youth, a stranger and a slave). In short, Yosef was on the very lowest rung of Egyptian society and hardly worth mentioning. Yet, “desperate times call for desperate measures,” and the cupbearer nonetheless decided to share this information. His goal, of course, was to curry favor in Pharaoh’s eyes. Little did he know, however, that he would begin the chain of events that would eventuate in Ya’akov and his sons coming to Egypt, Yetziat Mitzraim, Kabbalat HaTorah and, ultimately, the fulfillment of Judaism’s messianic vision of the future.
Yosef was summoned from his pit and prison of despair. He shaved, changed his clothes and came before Pharaoh, the most powerful man on the planet. Pharaoh told Yosef that he had heard he was capable of accurate dream analysis. Let us think for a moment how most of us would have responded to the all-powerful ruler at this time. We probably would have said, “Yes, I can interpret dreams very well. In fact, your majesty, I haven’t been wrong yet. I’ve a gift that is now at your service. What did Pharaoh dream? Allow me to interpret its meaning.” Instead, in perhaps his finest moment, Yosef was transformed into Yosef HaTzaddik when he declared to Pharaoh: “Bil’adai, Elokim ya’aneh et shalom Pharaoh — it is not through my wisdom [Onkelos] that I shall interpret your dreams; G-d will provide an answer that will bring peace to Pharaoh.”
In one fell swoop, Yosef became one of the greatest figures in Jewish history. Rather than responding to Pharaoh in an arrogant and self-serving manner, Yosef presented himself as the humble servant of the Master of the Universe and the mere conduit through whom Hashem’s dream interpretations would flow. Yosef’s humility proved him to be a true son of Ya’akov Avinu and one who was worthy of the mantle of leadership that would soon be placed upon his shoulders.
I believe that Yosef’s actions teach us a good deal regarding the proper way to serve Hashem. These ideas were further refined and given powerful voice by the Michah the Prophet when he declared: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the L-rd demands of you; but to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d.” (Sefer Michah 6:8)
With the Almighty’s help and our fervent desire, may we strive to emulate Yosef’s humility and declare as one, “Bil’adai!”
Shabbat shalom and Chanukah sameach!