Finding God in the Yosef Narrative
by Gabrielle Berger
Gabrielle (Hiller) Berger, an alumna of Midreshet Lindenbaum (’09), teaches Gemara in Fuchs Mizrachi School’s Junior High and Stark High School in Beachwood, Ohio.
Sometimes I find myself a little jealous of our forefathers and their almost casual relationship with God. Sefer Bereishit seems to be full of conversations they have with Hashem, ranging from Avraham pleading with God to reconsider destroying Sodom (perek 18) or God informing Yaakov of his new name (perek 35). However, from the beginning of the Yosef story in perek 37 until Yaakov and his family travel down to Egypt in perek 46, these divine encounters that we have come to expect are noticeably absent. Direct conversations with God have vanished. Why? What role does God play in the Yosef narrative?
Upon close examination, it emerges that although direct conversations with God are lacking in the Yosef story, God plays a critical part in more subtle ways. Three sets of dreams shape and move the narrative forward. Yosef’s pair of dreams plant the seeds for the brothers’ plot to kill him. The dreams of the butler and the baker ultimately lead the butler to recommend Yosef to Pharaoh when Pharaoh himself has his own pair of dreams. Subsequently, Pharaoh’s dreams result in Yosef’s high-level appointment over Egypt. In his commentary to 37:6, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch notes that while Chazal in Masechet Brachot attempt to determine whether or not there is significance to dreams, it is, nevertheless, apparent that God is maneuvering to plant thoughts in people’s minds and to set in motion a series of events.
God’s subtlety does not end there. In perek 37, the “man” that Yosef meets in Shechem who directs him to his angry and jealous brothers in Dotan is identified by Rashi (37:15) as the angel Gavriel. The actual sale of Yosef, full of confusing and contradictory information about who actually executed the sale, could be understood as purposefully ambiguous, aimed at hinting to the reader the real purveyor of Yosef’s sale: God. All of the characters who play a role in the sale are merely puppets in God’s plan to fulfill the promise to Avraham at brit bein ha-betarim and begin the descent of the Jewish nation to Egypt. Hashem’s name is not mentioned once in perek 37, but Hashem’s fingerprints are on each twist of the plot.
At the beginning of perek 39, when Yosef is sold to Potifar, we are suddenly hit with an onslaught of Hashem’s name- five times in four pesukim– all part of detailing God’s aid to Yosef in gaining favor in the eyes of his master Potifar. Once Yosef secures a high position within the household, however, God’s name is mentioned differently: it is invoked almost exclusively by Yosef himself, who always seems to have God’s name on his lips. A similar pattern emerges when Yosef is sent to jail. We are told that Hashem is with Yosef and helps him to gain favor in the eyes of the chief jailer. Again, once Yosef is promoted, he constantly mentions Hashem’s name, a theme that continues when Yosef is brought before Pharaoh and again when he finally encounters his brothers. Whether by affirming that he fears God, giving credit to God for his ability to interpret dreams, or assuaging the guilt of the brothers by assuring them that the sale was all God’s plan, Yosef makes clear that he approaches life through the lens of a true servant of Hashem.
Interestingly, for the most part, other people in the narrative who also invoke Hashem’s name seem to do so because of Yosef’s influence. After Yosef declares that Hashem is the true source of dream interpretations, Pharaoh himself acknowledges that Yosef possesses “ruach Elokim,” “the spirit of God” (40:38). The man in charge of Yosef’s household casually mentions God’s name to the brothers (43:23) within a normal conversation. Finally, Yehuda, when defending his brother Binyamin, states “Ha-Elokim matza et avon avadecha,” “God has uncovered the crime of your servants” (44:16), comfortable mentioning God’s name in the presence of Yosef. Perhaps Yosef, by constantly mentioning Hashem’s name, helps people to themselves more clearly see Hashem’s hand in their lives.
Now we can return to our question: Why is there a different method of communication and portrayal of Hashem in the Yosef narrative? Perhaps, the less obvious role of Hashem here is representative of what galut, exile, will be like. Yosef’s behavior sets a model for what we, as ovdei Hashem, servants of Hashem, should strive for as we struggle to live and grow in a non-ideal world. When Yosef is at his low points, either as a new servant in Potifar’s household or as an inmate in jail, Hashem is more obviously active, helping to raise Yosef’s esteem in the eyes of his masters. But once Yosef is in a position where he has a voice, he can take charge in publicizing Hashem’s name.
It is worth noting that Yosef is not a navi, a prophet. Hashem does not send him direct messages nor is he told the future. Yosef is simply referred to as a tzadik, a righteous person, someone who is perpetually looking for Hashem’s Hand in his life- something that we are all capable of, if we make a choice to do so.
Parashat Miketz is almost always- with this year being a rare exception- read on Shabbat Chanukah. Yosef’s penchant for crediting God clarifies the connection between the parsha and Chanukah, the holiday of pirsumei nisa, publicizing the miracle: Hashem is always present behind the scenes. The question is how do we respond? Do we fail to notice those moments of the Hand of the God in our lives, or do we choose to recognize it, share it, and publicize it as Yosef did?
 See “An Equivocal Reading of the Sale of Joseph” in Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives, Volume II by Edward L. Greenstein