Monday, 26 December 2016

Learning from Yosef's Bitachon

by Rabbi Eli Mansour (See all authors)

Parashat Miketz begins with Yosef still languishing in an Egyptian dungeon, where he had been imprisoned on false charges. Pharaoh's cupbearer had been in the dungeon together with Yosef, but was released from prison and reinstated, as Yosef had predicted. Before the cupbearer's release, Yosef asked him to plead his case before Pharaoh and try to have him released. But the cupbearer forgot all about Yosef, and it was not for another two years that God facilitated Yosef's release by sending Pharaoh strange dreams that required Yosef's interpretation.

The Midrash explains that the extra two years that Yosef spent in prison was a punishment for having placed his trust in the cupbearer, rather than on God. Yosef was to have trusted in God's ability to release him from prison, rather than looking to the cupbearer for help.

The Midrash's comment seems very troubling. Judaism does not encourage us to sit back idly and trust that God will miraculously care for our needs. A person cannot sit on the couch all day and expect God to throw money down the chimney. We are required to make an effort, and then trust in God to grant us success in our endeavors. Why was it wrong for Yosef to make an effort to secure his release? Why did his appeal to the cupbearer express a lack of trust in God?

One answer is that when Yosef spoke to the cupbearer, he repeated his request that he remember him ("Zechartani.Ve'hizkartani" - 40:14). Saying it once would have sufficed for Yosef's "Hishtadlut" (personal effort); by repeating the request, he exhibited a slight deficiency in his trust of God. Yosef exerted slightly more effort than he should have, and for this he was punished.

Why did this extra word warrant such a harsh punishment?

The amount of "Hishtadlut" required of a person depends on his level of "Bitahon" -trust in God. Most of us are on the level where we must put in a full day's work to secure a livelihood. But for those on a higher level, who live each moment of their lives with genuine faith in God's ability to provide, this level of exertion is inappropriate. They should be putting in a much smaller amount of effort - perhaps just a couple of hours a day - and trust that God will provide them with all their needs.

Yosef excelled in the area of "Bitahon," trust in the Almighty. Several incidents reflect this quality, perhaps most notably his conversation with the cupbearer and baker in the dungeon. The Torah tells in Parashat Vayesheb that Yosef one day noticed that they looked distraught, and he approached them to find out what was disturbing them. They told him about the peculiar dreams they had dreamt and their desire to understand their meaning. What is remarkable about this incident is Yosef's reaction to seeing his fellow inmates distraught. They were condemned to live in a dark, dreary, malodorous dungeon. Why shouldn't they be upset? Why would a person think to ask people in this situation, "Why are you distraught?" Didn't Yosef realize why they looked dismayed?

The answer is that Yosef's "Bitahon" led him to accept his situation without complaint. Yosef did not immediately understand why his fellow inmates looked distraught, because he did not feel distraught. He enjoyed the serenity that comes from faith in God, the comfort of knowing that wherever he was, God specifically wants him there. Yosef may not have enjoyed living in the dungeon, but it didn't cause him sorrow and distress. He accepted it as the will of God and felt content living in the conditions that God, for whatever reason, decided were right for him at that time.

This also explains how Yosef had the peace of mind to go over to his inmates to see what was wrong. Usually, people in distress are too preoccupied with their own problems to notice or care about the problems of others. But Yosef was not preoccupied with his problems. His "Bitahon" allowed him to live contentedly even in the oppressive conditions of an Egyptian prison, and his peace of mind enabled him to show care and concern for the plight of his fellow inmates.

This is why God was so strict with Yosef. The greater a person's "Bitahon" is, the more God demands of him. At Yosef's level, just a single, brief remark to the cupbearer would have sufficed for "Hishtadlut." He was punished for the small additional effort that he made in appealing to the cupbearer for help.

Of course, the standards demanded Yosef are not the standards demanded of us. However, we can, and must, try to apply the message of Yosef's "Bitahon" in our own lives. Many people mistakenly think that "Bitahon" means that if we trust in God, then everything will work out exactly the way we want. This is very far from true. Even the greatest Sadikim endure hardships, as we see throughout the Book of Bereshit, in the stories of the righteous patriarchs. The Talmud also tells of great Sages who suffered from illness and family tragedies. "Bitahon" means, quite simply, trusting that God knows what He's doing, and accepting every situation that we confront as His will. This outlook will give us the serenity, joy and peace of mind that we all long for. Once we realize that everything that happens was ordained by God for a purpose, we will accept even life's most difficult challenges calmly and patiently, and not allow them to cause us grief and heartache.