Genesis 41 – 44:17
Yosef: The Minority Leader with Major Influence
What does is it that makes a man a visionary or a dreamer? How would you define this type of personality and mindset? These type of people often tend to be charismatic leaders that not only command respect from a crowd, but they often tend to be people who are able to uniquely communicate the needs of the individual as well. They also know how to take one person’s dream and translate it into success for all.
We are going to take a look at that type of person today as displayed through the life of Yosef haTzadik.
My attention was actually captured by the last verse in our second reading. However to put it into context we should starts with the preceding verse as well. Our text reads as follows:
“And the statement was good
in the eyes of Pharaoh
and in the eyes of his servants.
And Pharaoh said to his servants,
‘Where will we find another man like this,
a man with G-d’s spirit in him?’”
| be’einei Paroh
| uve’einei kol-avadav
| hanimtza kazeh ish
| asher ruach Elohim bo
Our text tell us that this matter (ha-davar) was pleasing (vayitav) in the eyes of Pharaoh and his advisors. But what matter are we speaking of? In this parsha we learn that the Pharaoh had a disturbing dream, but he was not able to understand its significance. The dream and it’s meaning eluded him.
Yosef is still in slavery in Egypt, in-fact he is still imprisoned unjustly for a crime he was framed for when he is called up and out of prison to interpret a set of dreams for the ruler of Egypt. He has previously had success with interpreting dreams for some servants of Pharaoh’s, so he is eventually remembered and is turned to as a last resort.
Why do I put it that way? It’s because Yosef is certainly the last type of person this king and all his advisors would normally turn to. This is even stated by the Butler who brings up the story of how his dream was amazingly interpreted for him by Yosef.
Before the Butler gets too carried away he first has to give the king a few qualifying “buts.” He has to warn Pharaoh about the type of person he is speaking of. Actually, more precisely this butler actually gives Pharaoh the reasons that he would think of dismissing such a person, but he insists that Yosef should be listened to because his words prove to be true.
It doesn’t flow the same way in English, but in Hebrew it lays out the points like thuds for Pharaoh to brace himself for:
“Now there was with us a young man, a Hebrew, servant of the captain of the guard; we told him, and he interpreted our dreams for us. He gave each person an interpretation for his dream.”
וְשָׁם אִתָּנוּ נַעַר עִבְרִי, עֶבֶד לְשַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים, וַנְּסַפֶּר–לוֹ, וַיִּפְתָּר–לָנוּ אֶת–חֲלֹמֹתֵינוּ: אִישׁ כַּחֲלֹמוֹ, פָּתָר:
If we think about it, Pharaoh is the most influential man in the known world. His name really needs no explanation, he is king and conqueror over his own impressive empire. Naturally as a ruler of paramount influence he had the most senior and experienced advisors to turn to in all matters. He had the best and wisest men money could buy lining his court.
Though when they failed him, Pharaoh’s butler could only recommend that he call on a na’ar – a young man, a boy, a youth. Most often the classical bible translations render this as “lad,” but that doesn’t appropriately relay the meaning of the term. It is true this word is rooted the same as the word no’ar – which clearly means youth. But here this word na’ar comes with all the condescending tones that is similar to snapping one’s fingers and yelling “garçon” (French) or “joven” (Spanish) to a waiter; sure it means “youth,” but it also is a declaration about the other’s status of subservience. The Egyptians identify that their first objection to him is based on his youth. He is a child, to be seen and not heard.
Now the next thing that you would think that would be brought up would be the fact that he is a convict and a slave. No, this seems rather easy to dismiss. If we notice here, the fact that he is a convict and for what type of crime is of no concern worth mentioning. Even his slave status is not mentioned until last. He is not just a servant, he is an eved; a slave.
What is of more importance to bring up, in order of priority, is that Yosef is an Ivri – he is a Hebrew.
Of course we all know how this story ends. Yosef interprets the dream of Pharaoh and is made a regent over all the land of Egypt, second in command to the ruler himself. He is elevated because of the good interpretation of the dream. Pharaoh being convinced that if this wise lad could see what was coming he could also help prevent that disaster.
Yet even as Yosef became a man of authority and status, the stigma of being a Hebrew always hung over him.
Now what proof do I have to make such claim? I present us with a verse from a little bit later on in our parsha. The banquet scene with Yosef and his unwitting brothers:
“And they set for him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, that did eat with him, by themselves; because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination unto the Egyptians.”
Think about this for a moment. Later on in our parsha we read of Yosef in the best light. Where he is really showing off his authority and is at his most ostentatious, as he calls a banquet for his clueless brothers. But notice when the meals are served Yosef sits alone. And his brothers, they dine on their own. We are told why, because Egyptians are not allowed to eat with Hebrews, it is toyveh – it is an abomination, it is detestable to them to eat with Hebrews.
One of the points that many seem to miss is that our text also suggest that even the Egyptians on staff for Yosef ate separately from him as well, they ate at the same time but they set out separate place-settings for themselves to the side. There are three sets of place-settings laid out! Even in his role as ruler, Yosef was not socially equal to the Egyptians. To even eat with him, the Egyptians considered that to be against that natural order of their world.
This is a long side-track, but it’s important for us to understand the amount of discrimination and the layers of prejudice Yosef had to battle in his lifetime. We just tend to think it all got easy for him once he was raised up as regent, but that’s not so.
If this was the case, that Yosef was always under a racial stigma, then why would we suppose that the Egyptians would give such authority to Yosef the Hebrew? Well, as our text reveals the first reason is because the interpretation that Yosef gave to Pharaoh’s dreams was pleasing in their eyes (vayitav hadavar b’einei). It satisfied something in them. And specifically in Pharaoh himself, in a very personal way as well.
Now what we need to recognize regarding the revelation that Yosef gave is that Pharaoh did not wait to see if this interpretation proved to be valid. He just accepts it as so. But how can this be? How could a man such a Pharaoh put his trust in seemingly unsubstantiated claims. How could he just trust in this Yosef’s words and advice so?
Also we need to notice that Pharaoh just flung the task of governance on Yosef without him even directly asking for it. Notice that Yosef tells Pharaoh to find for himself a man who is “navon u’chacham / who is smart and wise.” Someone that is witty and intelligent. I’m not ssur if Yosef is talking about himself, or is merely just giving the qualifications for the type of man who Pharaoh needs. But he finds himself landing the job.
What is it about his message that made Pharaoh value it more than all the words of his advisors? What was it that caught his attention that made him trust Yosef more than even his cabinet? Our rabbis tell us that it was because Yosef’s message resonated with Pharaoh in away that the others didn’t.
The Midrash Shechel Tov (12th century) offers us some interesting insights that address these points in its commentary for our two previously mentioned verses (see Midrash Shechel Tov, Genesis 41:37-38).
The midrash tells us that when Pharaoh dreamed this up in his head he had also received the interpretation for it. He didn’t just have a dream! He had dreamt of the solution as well, though he had forgotten them both.
I think most of us know this type of frustration, to be startled awake by a dream. And having your partner asking you to tell them the dream, but as you try to recount it you realized you forgot your dream. You woke-up knowing what it was about, but now as you try to explain what captured you so the memory begins to fade. And that often becomes more frustrating as one senses there is something just out of grasp in our minds, and then it’s gone again. It’s even more irritating as people try to help you piece it together with things that don’t seem to fit. This seems to be what Pharaoh is experiencing.
The midrash tells us that when Pharaoh heard Yosef’s interpretation Pharaoh began to recall his dreams again. He was able to recognize the vision that Yosef was having as being the same as the dreams that Pharaoh had experienced.
Our sages and scholars also give us some other interesting insight into this text. The Abarbanel (Don Isaac Abravenel, 15th Century, Spain) also gives us another reason why Yosef’s interpretation was valued over that of Pharaoh’s advisors. The reason they could not interpret his dream was because they saw the two dreams Pharaoh had as independent and separate dreams. But it was only Yosef that was able to pair them together, and thus offer a solution to both.
The famed scholars Nechama Leibowitz comments on this point of the Abarbanel, asking us to take notice that when Pharaoh refers to his dreams he speaks of them in the singular. He says “I’ve dreamed a dream,” chalom in the singular. (see Genesis 41:15,17) He seems to know that they are one in the same, they are one dream. And likewise there is only one answer to those dreams. He just feels that they are one in his soul. No answer was pleasing to Pharaoh until a unified solution was offered to him by Yosef.
When Yosef is taken out of the prison, cleaned and shaved he was still facing a lot of discrimination against him. They couldn’t fully wash away all the stigma. By the standards of Pharaoh and his men, he was still but “a boy.” Yosef was not exactly the type of person that one would expect to give audience to (probably the reason why the Butler never brought him up), let alone put in a place of authority and leadership for the king.
Yet he is still elevated as a leader, all things considered. But even then, he is not transformed into a beltway-boy. He is not ever really accepted into the establishment and upper-crust. He is respected, but not honored with true dignity. They always saw him as different.
And he was different. What makes Yosef different from that of Pharaohs men is that he was not just able to deliver a visions of the future, Yosef was able to offer a solution and a plan. While the rest of the men were following after their own separate visions of Pharaoh’s dream, Yosef was already several steps ahead of them in offering a comprehensive answer to it all. He was the first to step out of fantasy and into reality with some sort of suggestion and advice. And that commanded respect, above all the individual speculations of the others in Pharaoh’s court.
In the end Pharaoh is forced to concede, and even battle off the objections of his own prejudices and that of his court in saying “Even if we tried, would we ever find another man like this?” Pharaoh himself says that Yosef has a unique character about him, that he has the spirit of G-d in him. That Yosef is blessed with a unique quality of wisdom that only G-d alone can give. He isn’t exactly what they were looking for, but he is the best they can find. He is worth giving a chance to.
Do you consider yourself a dreamer? Do you aspire to be a visionary? Maybe you might even consider your ability to be effective and influential in your community to be limited by the prejudices people have against you. You might identify with Yosef in this way. Maybe you are different, because you don’t fit in for some sort of social, ethnic or religious reasons. If so, then you have the example of Yosef going before you as a pioneer of success and strength in the face of lifelong prejudice.
The example of Yosef goes before us, challenging us to be people who are more than just smart-talking men. It is also tasking us to be more than mere dreamers as well. Here at this point in Yosef’s life he has matured to being more than a mere dreamer with his own goals in mind, he is now a problem solver and a unifier. He is now able to use his words as more than just tools of gossip and judgmentalism that divide, as in his youth among his brothers when he bombarded them with his self-serving visions. Here he is now able to use his words in a way that resonate with truth for the listener. He was able to take things that were seemingly confounding and contradictory, then unify them as a single goal that everyone could identify with. Even his critics had to concede in the end, that his advice seemed pleasing even in their eyes as well (uve’einei kol-avadav).
I wish that more of us were willing to take up these examples from Yosef so that we can also be effective and purposeful people. To be a visionary, and not just a dreamer. People who will be willing to bring unity to our goals of social justice and spiritual harmony.
The Midrash Sechel Tov also makes another point of this in its commentary here, hinting at a reason to seek this path of unity and harmony. The midrash suggests that we should operate according to ways that are pleasing to G-d, for when we do that it will show with even our enemies being compelled to be at peace with us as well. (Proverbs 16:7) The sages tell us then even our enemies will become advocates and allies with us.
If our vision and spirituality is valid, it will show by compelling unity among us and our enemies. That is an interesting challenge I am willing to take-on. I hope that there are others who are also willing to join me this year in doing the same.
The lesson this week is simple. Sometimes the last thing we need is just another smart person in the room. What society really needs is people with a lot of spirit.
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