Weekly Torah Portion - Yosef: A Glimpse of Greatness
by Rabbi Yonasan Gefen
Much of our day is spent running from place to place, from person to person, from one email to another. By the end of the day we frequently don't really remember what it is that we have accomplished, much less whose life we had a chance to touch. Rabbi Gefen helps us learn an incredible lesson from Yosef in this weekly Torah portion.
Towards the end of the parsha, Joseph finds himself in a hopeless situation, having been in prison for ten years with no prospect of freedom. Then Joseph interprets the dreams of Pharaoh's ministers, beginning the process of his meteoric rise to the position of viceroy over the whole of Egypt.
There is one easily overlooked verse which signals the beginning of the drastic upturn in Joseph's fortunes. After the two ministers dreamt their respective dreams, they were very distressed because they did not know their meaning. Joseph saw their unhappy countenances and he asked, "Why do you appear downcast today?" (1) This seemingly inconsequential question led to the interpretation of the dreams which eventually resulted in Joseph's liberation and incredible rise to power.
Had Joseph never asked them why they were upset then they would probably never have confided in him and the golden opportunity for freedom would have been lost. His small act of thoughtfulness may not seem particularly noteworthy, but in truth it is quite remarkable considering his situation at that time - he had been living in appalling conditions for ten years with no realistic hope of freedom. He had every right to be totally engrossed in his own situation and not notice the facial expressions of those around him. Moreover he was assigned to serve the two ministers who were very important people in Egypt - they likely treated him as an inferior and gave him absolutely no attention. Yet he overcame all these factors and showed concern at their distressed appearance.
There is a great temptation to go through life so absorbed in our own lives that we do not recognize the needs of others. One of the keys to being a genuine giver is to overcome our own self-absorption and notice the world around us. Sometimes this even requires that we ignore on our own needs for the sake of others.
The most glaring example of this is found earlier in the parsha when Tamar is being taken to be burnt at the stake. She had every opportunity to save her life by revealing that the items in her possession were those of Judah. However, she gave greater emphasis to the embarrassment that Judah would endure if she did so and therefore remained quiet.(2) The Talmud learns from here that a person must give up his life before embarrassing someone else.(3) This teaches us that there are occasions where we are obligated to give greater precedence to the feelings of others than even our own.
Righteous people epitomized the ability to negate one's own needs and focus on the needs of others. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was once being taken in a car by a student from his yeshiva. As Rabbi Feinstein entered the car the student closed the door onto his fingers, yet he remained completely silent as if nothing had happened. A bewildered onlooker asked him why he did not cry out, he answered that the student would feel incredible embarrassment about having caused him pain and therefore Rabbi Feinstein controlled himself and kept quiet. This is a well-known story but it deserves thought; Rabbi Feinstein exemplified the ability to ignore his own feelings in order to spare the pain of his fellow Jew.
It is not only in times of pain that we should focus on others. Rabbi Aharon Kotler and his son Rabbi Shneur went to Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer (Rav Aharon's father-in-law) to say goodbye shortly before leaving Israel for Rabbi Shneur's wedding. Rabbi Isser Zalman stopped in the middle of the stairs on the way down rather than escorting them all the way to the street. They asked him about it and he explained, "Many of the people who live around here have grandchildren who were murdered by the Nazis. How could I go down to the street and embrace my grandchild, flaunting my joy publicly, when these people can't do the same?!" (4)
These superhuman demonstrations of selflessness can be an inspiration to us. There are numerous examples where we can overcome our own self-absorption and show an awareness of the needs of those around us. When we are walking down the street we tend to be involved in our own thoughts but it is worthwhile to be aware of the people around us - there may be someone who is carrying a heavy load and would appreciate a helping hand.(5) There are many occasions when we may not be experiencing great joy or pain but we may still tend to focus on our own lives to the exclusion of others.
There are numerous examples of small acts of thoughtfulness that can light up people's lives. And we learn from Joseph that we can never be certain of the consequences of one act of kindness. The Alter of Slobodka zt"l says that we can also never know how much reward we receive for a small act of kindness. He discusses when Jacob removed the stone off the mouth of the well so that everyone could drink the water. This small act of kindness would not seem to rank highly amongst the numerous mitzvos that Jacob performed throughout his life. However, it is in fact the source of great merit for the Jewish people. Every year we recite a special prayer for rain - Tefillas Geshem. In this prayer we mention some of the great acts of the forefathers such as Jacob's overcoming of Esau's angel. Yet we also mention Jacob's removal of the stone: "He [Jacob] dedicated his heart and rolled a stone from the mouth of a well of water - for his sake do not hold back water." Every act of kindness done with purity of heart is of immeasurable value. May we all learn from our forefathers and be true givers.
1. Vayeishev, 40:7.
2. Vayeishev, 38:25.
3. Bava Metsia, 58b.
4. Kaplan, Major Impact, p. 53.
5. This is closely related to the mitzvo of 'prika' (unloading an animal of its heavy burden) and although it may not constitute a technical fulfillment of that mitzvo nonetheless it certainly reflects a fulfillment of the spirit of the mitzvo - concern for someone else's discomfort.