The Two Pits That Transformed Yosef

Yoav Weinstock is the pedagogic director of the Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School, Named in Memory of Samuel Pinchas Ehrman, where he also teaches History and Jewish Philosophy

Yoav WeinstockMore than anything else, the biblical figure of Yosef is associated with the pit. There are two pits, two abysses, if you will, one more disheartening than the other.

The Torah elaborates on the first pit: the encounter between the brothers and Yosef, the brothers’ deliberations, and even Yosef’s cries from inside the pit[1].  After his brothers throw him into the pit, Yosef arrives in Egypt, where, so we are told, the Lord blesses him and makes all “his endeavors to prosper.”[2] This holds true for Yosef’s dealings in Potiphar’s house[3], and in the prison[4] as well.  During his time in prison, we also learn of his ability to interpret dreams. 

Nevertheless, Yosef is forgotten by the Chief of the Butlers and the Chief of the Bakers, and remains another two full years in prison.  Rashi explains this additional prison time by with reference to Yosef’s placing his trust in the hands of the Chief of Butlers and the Chief of Bakers, in the hope that they be the ones who get him out of “the pit”.[5]  When Yosef ultimately leaves the prison-pit, we meet an entirely different Yosef: Yosef makes no utterance to Pharaoh without mentioning the name of God.  “And Yosef answered Pharaoh, saying: It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace.”[6] 

The word bila’dai (“it is not me”) contains a profound meaning.  The exegetes have offered different interpretations for this word, but all have one thing in common – Yosef makes a distinction between his ability to interpret dreams and his own personality and strengths. In other words, I am not a source of wisdom, nor do I have control over wisdom, or as Rabeinu Bahya puts it:  “The power of wisdom and insight is not my own, it is external to me.”[7] This very notion reaches a climax in the final verses of Yosef’s confession, when he says to his brothers: “And now be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me hither; for God did send me before you to preserve life.  So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God; and He hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”[8]

Yosef experiences the Divine blessing in his lifetime hands-on.  In his early days he is blessed with the ability to dream dreams, and later on he is blessed with the talent of knowing how to interpret them.  How is Yosef the youth different from Yosef who emerges from the pit?

Yosef the youngster is a man who dreams, and it appears that he is hated for relating his dreams.[9] His brothers’ hatred does not only stem from the dreams’ content, but the very act of relating them. The brothers’ hatred, as expressed in the verses, appears before we are told of the actual content of the dreams.  This fact led the exegetes[10] to explain that Yosef, through his arrogant behavior, ignited their hatred. 

In his exegesis, Ha’amek Davar, the Netziv uses harsh language pertaining to Yosef:  “It is well known that dreams must only be told to one beloved… but he approached them and related his dreams, creating the impressions that they are beloved to him.  However, this is hypocrisy and flattery and is unacceptable…” 

In comparison to the brothers, who are candid and sincere,[11] Yosef does not appear to be forthright with his feelings.  A moment before the climax of the saga called “The Sale of Yosef” and the brothers’ hostile action, we are exposed to Yaakov’s criticism of Yosef:  “And he told it to his father, and to his brethren; and his father rebuked him, and said unto him: ‘What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down to thee to the earth?'”

Some exegetes see Yaakov’s rebuke as a tactical one, with the aim of mitigating the brothers’ hatred.[12]  But others take Yaakov’s words as real criticism, expressing Yaakov’s pain at Yosef’s arrogance.  This is expressed well by the Ramban[13]:  “…in order to rebuke him for his arrogance of heart that led him to dream such a dream.  He wished to say to him – this is but mere arrogance and folly that have made you think of such things…”  Not even once in this entire episode, is the name of God mentioned by Yosef, and the saga ends with his being sold and taken to Egypt. 

So, what ultimately transforms Yosef? 

The two pits.

The first pit was the one into which Yosef was thrown by his brothers, and the second is the prison-pit from which Yosef is taken out and brought before Pharaoh, stripped of everything he has ever had.  Yosef, who started out as a talented and beloved youth, is thrown into a pit, far away from his father’s home, without any family, without dreams, disconnected from everything he had known.  In its profound sensitivity, the Zohar describes Yosef in the Egyptian prison-pit as one who “was in great sadness, a sadness of sprit and a sadness of heart, when he was a prisoner.”[14] Nonetheless, from this very sadness and the time spent in the pit, a new Yosef emerges:  “‘And they brought him hastily out of the pit’ – he emerged from this pit and cleansed himself in the pure water of a well.”[15]

The greatest transformation in Yosef was the fact that he stripped himself of all ownership of the talent with which he was blessed, as put so well by Rabeinu Bahya, and as mentioned above:  “The power of wisdom and insight is not my own, it is external to me.”[16] In his youth, the blessing took on the shape of arrogance, but in Egypt it turned into success.  Both of these layers were trapped in what is called ego – the sense of having personal ownership of one’s talents and blessings.  The pit stands for this state of stagnancy – being stuck in oneself.  There is nothing outside the pit and there is no getting out.  It was Yosef’s emerging from the pit that served as an opening through which he could come out of his own self, thus giving him the opportunity to relate to the blessing bestowed upon him as a Divine abundance flowing through him, rather than a blessing owned by him.  Only once he achieves this perception can he become the bestower-of-abundance and provide food during the famine. 

We, too, have little blessings in our lives: one person is able to make others happy; another has a bodily talent or a mental capability; a third has monetary abundance.  Each and every one of our blessings may lead us either to feeling a sense of ownership, or else to achieving success.  Yosef teaches us an important lesson on how to perceive the blessings in our lives:  “bila’dai” – nothing really belongs to us.  It was given to us so that we might do good with it in the world; and become a channel of blessing that spreads God’s abundance in this world. 

[1]  As is mentioned in our portion during the discussion of the brothers among themselves, oblivious
to the fact that somebody was listening in on their conversation (Bereshit 42, 21): “…when he besought us and we would not hear.”
[2] Yosef is the only figure in the Bible of whom it is said that he was matzliach (prosperous, successful).
[3] Bereshit 39, 2-3:  “And the Lord was with Yosef, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian.  And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand.”
[4]  Bereshit 39, 21-23:  “But the Lord was with Yosef, and showed kindness unto him, and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.  And the keeper of the prison committed to Yosef’s hand all the prisoners that were in the prison; and whatsoever they did there, he was the doer of it.  The keeper of the prison looked not to anything that was under his hand, because the Lord was with him; and that which he did, the Lord made it to prosper.”
[5] Rashi on Bereshit 40, 23:  “Because Yosef placed his trust in him [Chief of Butlers}, hoping he would remember him, he was forced to remain prisoner for an additional two years. As is written (Psalms 40, 5) – ‘Happy is the man that hath made the Lord his trust, and hath not turned unto the arrogant, nor unto such as fall away treacherously’, and did not trust the Egyptians who are called treacherous (Isaiah 30, 7).
[6]  Bereshit 41, 16, and the same holds true for the following verses.  See also Bereshit 40, verses 28 and 32, and how Pharaoh responds in verse 38.
[8]  Bereshit 45, 5-8
[9]  Bereshit 2 -11: “These are the generations of Yaakov. Yosef, being seventeen years old…and Yosef brought evil report of them unto their father… And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.  And Yosef dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brethren; and they hated him yet the more.   And his brethren said to him: ‘Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us?’ And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words…And his brethren envied him; but his father kept the saying in mind.”
[10]  The Ramban on verse 8 writes as follows: “Also because of the arrogant manner in which he told them the story – ‘Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed.’  Similarly, Rabeinu Bahya on verse 1: “…Yosef sinned because he was the cause of his brothers’ sin.  After all, he was the reason for their sinning in that he wished to domineer over his brothers, who were both older and more respected than he, and would provoke their anger and condescend them with his dreams.”
[11]  Rashi on Bereshit 37, 4: “‘…and could not speak peaceably unto him’ – by mentioning their disgrace, one also hears their praise – their hearts and lips were equal, there was no hypocrisy.”
[12]  For example Rashi on verse 10: “…Yaakov wished to remove this matter from the brothers’ hearts so that they stop being jealous of him…”
[13]  The Ramban on Bereshit 37, 10.
[14]  The Zohar on Bereshit, page 194a, translated from Aramaic.
[15]  Ibid.: translated from Aramaic.
[16]   Rabeinu Bahya on Bereshit 41, 16.

Shabbat Shalom!


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