In the Torah section of VaYeshev, the Torah informs us of a series of events in the life of Joseph, first of two sons to his mother Rachel, the favored wife of Jacob. Like his mother, Joseph was favored by his father. “And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons since he was a child of his old age, and he made him a fine woolen tunic” (Bereshit 37:3).
His being favored by his father along with some ill-placed boyish behavior, led to the jealousy and enmity of his brothers. “And his brothers were jealous of him” (Bereshit 37:11). “And they hated him” (Bereshit 37:4). “And Judah said to his brothers…Come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites…and his brothers agreed” (Bereshit 37:26-27). His brothers think of a scheme to get Joseph out of the way, which leads to his being sold into slavery.
“And Joseph had been brought down to Egypt and Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh, the Chamberlain of the Butchers, a prominent Egyptian, purchased him” (Bereshit 39:1). Despite Joseph’s ordeal, “G-d was with Joseph, and he became a successful man” (Bereshit 39:2). Joseph became Potiphar’s most trusted servant.
Then, more trouble arises, as Potiphar’s wife becomes infatuated with Joseph, finds a ruse to remain in the house alone with him and attempts to attract his attention. “And so it was, just as she coaxed Joseph day after day, so he would not listen to her to lie beside her, to be with her. Then there was an opportune day when he entered the house to do his work – no man of the household staff being there in the house. And she caught hold of him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me!,’ but he left his garment in her hand and he fled” (Bereshit 39:10-12). Her affections spurned, Potiphar’s wife lies to her husband and his household, saying that Joseph attempted to attack her. As a result, Joseph is imprisoned.
Even being in prison, Joseph did not falter. “And G-d was with Joseph, and He endowed him with charisma, and He put his favor in the eyes of the prison warden. The prison warden placed all inmates of the prison in Joseph’s custody” (Bereshit 39:21-22). Now, after previously becoming Potiphar’s most trusted servant, Joseph becomes the prison warden’s most favored inmate. Joseph’s character does not let him give up hope. Joseph continues to “move on” and, as a result, G-d allows even those who enslave him and those who imprison him to appreciate Joseph.
“And it happened after these things that the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and the baker transgressed against their master” (Bereshit 40:1). These two high officials are placed in to the same prison as Joseph. They each have a dream, are impressed by Joseph and turn to him to interpret their dreams. The cupbearer tells Joseph, “In my dream…there was a grapevine in front of me. On the grapevine were three tendrils, and it was as though it budded, its blossoms bloomed and its clusters ripened into grapes. And Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand and I took the grapes, pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and I placed the cup on Pharaoh’s palm” (Bereshit 40:9-11). In response to the cupbearer’s dream, Joseph tells him that in three days he will be taken out of prison and reinstated as Pharaoh’s cupbearer. Excited at Joseph’s interpretation of the cupbearer’s dream, Pharaoh’s chief baker tells Joseph his dream. “In my dream…three wicker baskets were on my head. And in the uppermost basket were all kinds of Pharaoh’s food – baker’s handiwork – and the birds were eating them from the basket above my head. Joseph responded and said, ‘This is its interpretation: The three baskets are three days. In three days, Pharaoh will lift your head from you and hang you on a tree and birds will eat your flesh from you’” (Bereshit 40:16-19). Unlike the cupbearer’s dream, Joseph interprets the baker’s dream to mean that he will be executed in three days.
The 20th century Torah giant, R. Meir Shapiro of Lublin, as cited in Ma’yano shel Torah, wonders as to the reason for the disparity in Joseph’s interpretations. What did Joseph see in the baker’s dream that would lead him to such a negative interpretation? In response, he tells of a story where a piece of art was hung in an art gallery. The artwork depicted a man holding a basket of fruits in his hands which were so life-like that birds descended unto the painting to try and eat the fruits. All were impressed by this work of art, and a prize was announced for anyone who could find a flaw in this masterpiece. Of all those all over the world who gazed at the painting, one clever man approached, saying that while the fruits were tremendously life-like, the man holding the fruits, however, was not very like-like at all. Had the man in the painting also been just as life-like, the birds would have hesitated to approach the work of art for fear of the man. This man won the prize.
So too, R. Shapiro suggests, when Joseph heard that, in the baker’s dream, birds were eating from the basket that the baker was holding, he knew that the one holding the basket cannot have any life in him, for, otherwise, the birds would be dissuaded from approaching. Joseph deduced that the baker must be a dead man.
Joseph did not let his ordeal destroy him. Joseph continued to “plug away” and “do his thing,” impressing all those around him. His mind did not fail him. He always kept his mind focused. He used it to its fullest and he succeeded wherever he went. It was this extraordinary character and mind of Joseph that could stay strong with him throughout such harrowing episodes in his life that would allow him to properly interpret what he saw. It was Joseph’s strength of mind and character, understanding that there is no point in despairing for G-d is with him, focused at doing his work diligently and properly in order to succeed at what he does and impress those around him while not giving in to despair despite his tremendous ordeal, that allowed Joseph to see what many would not.
Joseph understood the recipe for success. Like Joseph, we must keep in mind, as King David tells us, “For G-d will not forsake His people, nor will He leave His heritage” (Tehillim 94:14). Each one of us must keep his mind focused. G-d is with us, “through thick and through thin”, during good and during bad, and as long we stay true to Him and His heritage, like Joseph, we will succeed.