Lessons from Joseph with Application to the Holocaust
RABBI ISRAEL CHAIT (1990)
Transcribed by student
There is another idea I would like to mention regarding how one should understand the Holocaust. At the end of parshas Vayeshev Joseph interprets the dreams of the wine steward and the chief baker. On the third day afterwards, all occurred precisely as Joseph had predicted: the baker was hung, and the wine steward was returned to his post. But then the Torah says, “And the wine steward did not remember Joseph, and he forgot him” (Gen. 40:23). The simple understanding is that the wine steward forgot Joseph and there’s nothing more to the story. But on this verse, Rashi says that there is something more: Joseph committed a serious sin:
Since Joseph depended on the wine steward to remember him, he had to remain in prison an additional two years, as it says, “Happy is the man who trusts in God and does not turn to the arrogant” (Psalms 40:5) and does not trust in Egypt who are called arrogant.
The difficulty with this Rashi is that we do not see Joseph committing a sin. But if we understand this [Rashi], we will understand what is meant by “God’s decrees” on people. Everyone learns that due to Joseph’s faith in the wine steward, God decreed for Joseph two more years in prison in response. I say that this is a very simplistic evaluation. [But] it is not so simple that Joseph committed a sin, and now there was a decree from God. There’s much more to this account.
A person is supposed to use all diplomatic means at his disposal to benefit himself. Torah endorses this, as we see Jacob approached Esav bowing seven times and sending him gifts. Jacob acted properly; Joseph acted the same way. What then was Joseph’s sin?
[Joseph said to the wine steward] “In three days, Pharaoh will
pardon you and restore you to your post; you will place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, as was your custom formerly when you were his cupbearer. But think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place. For in truth, I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews; nor have I done anything here that they should have put me in the dungeon” (Gen. 40:13-15).
What was wrong with Joseph asking the wine steward to assist him? The baalei mussar cite a Chazal that you could answer this in a manner of mussar—moral discipline. Jacob was punished through Dinah’s rape because he placed her in a box when Esav approached. Jacob did not want
Esav to see her because he would have taken her as wife. Chazal say that to Jacob was not punished for putting her into a box, but because he shut it too tightly. That came from hatred. But I’m not satisfied with that kind of answer. I like to see the answer from the event itself [from the verses]. To suggest such an answer there must be some expression in this story [which is absent here in connection with Dinah].
My opinion of Joseph’s mistake is that had Joseph properly thought through matters, he should not have said anything to the wine steward. There was no reason for Joseph to speak because he performed an unbelievable feat that astounded the Egyptians, the wine steward in particular. And the wine steward would have remembered Joseph. If the wine steward would not have been impressed with Joseph’s accomplishments, he would not have been impressed with his entreaties. Pleading won’t help. The language of Yonasan ben Uzziel, but more so, the Tirgum Yerushalmi where he expands on Yonasan ben Uzziel is how I thought of an approach:
Joseph abandoned the kindness from above (God) in place of the lower kindness (man). And he abandoned the kindness that accompanied him from his father’s house and he placed his faith in the wine steward, made of flesh and blood that tastes death, “His breath leaves and he returns to the ground” (Psalms 146:4). And
Joseph did not remember the verse, “Cursed is he who trusts in man, who makes mere flesh his strength” (Jer. 17:5)
Of course, this verse did not yet exist in Joseph’s time. But it means that all the prophets possessed all true ideas. What Joseph said was very bad:
But think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place. For in truth, I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews; nor have I done anything here that they should have put me in the dungeon.
One should learn from Joseph’s mistake. Here, one gains very practical advice. If one tells another person, “I was mistreated by such and such person and another and I am not at fault, and now again I am in trouble,” meaning that one claims that he has been victimized, this can result in one of two responses. One is that since people have psychological kindness, one can have pity and will want to help. But there’s a second effect: one listening to claims of victimization might think that himself, “It’s strange that all this happened to this person; there must be a reason. A great chocham this person certainly is not! And perhaps he is not a truly nice person, as he’s complaining that he is a victim.”
That was Joseph’s mistake. How do we know that Joseph had this second negative effect on the wine steward? Torah records the wine steward’s words two years later, standing before Pharaoh:
And Pharaoh told them his dreams, but none could interpret them for Pharaoh. The chief wine steward then spoke up and said to Pharaoh, “I must make mention today of my offenses. Once Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and placed me in custody in the house of the chief steward, together with the chief baker. We had dreams the same night, he and I, each of us a dream with a meaning of its
own. A Hebrew youth was there with us, a servant of the chief
steward; and when we told him our dreams, he interpreted them for us, telling each of the meaning of his dream. And as he interpreted for us, so it came to pass: I was restored to my post, and the other was hung.” (Gen. 41:8-13)
He referred to Joseph as young and as a slave. Chazal commented that with these terms, the wine steward degraded Joseph. Although the wine steward wished to be the hero and save the day by producing an interpretation for Pharaoh, he did not want Pharaoh to be impressed with Joseph: “He can interpret dreams, but otherwise he is a fool, a slave who has no other qualities.” He was selfish and stripped Joseph of any good qualities other than his interpretive skills. Why? Because Joseph’s story of victimization created a poor image in the eyes of the wine steward.
Torah’s lesson is that faith is only to be placed in God; we do not confide in man. One cannot turn to man for that kind of support. This is what the Yerushalmi means that Joseph forgot the verse, “Cursed is the man who places his faith in flesh.” At that moment standing before the wine steward, Joseph the tzaddik experienced a moment of weakness and sought the support of a human being to comfort him and take up his plight. He misjudged and therefore remained in the pit for an additional two years. Joseph the tzaddik felt that people will have mercy on him when they realize that he was a victim. Doing so denies God. Only one Being can know your plight; God and no one else. We appeal to God and not flesh and blood for mercy. [When Jacob sent Esav gifts and bowed to him, he did not turn to man alone for mercy, as he also prayed to God. It appears that Joseph placed all his trust in man alone.]
Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was rushed from the dungeon. He had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh. (Gen. 41:14)
Once they were bringing Joseph before Pharaoh, he abandoned the role as victim. Pharaoh’s servants wanted to whisk Joseph from the pit and bring him before Pharaoh to quickly help resolve Pharaoh’s disturbance from the dreams. But Joseph said, “Wait, I will present myself as a confident and collected individual.” He shaved and changed his clothes; he no longer desired anyone’s pity. And in truth, that mode of operation [dignity] was the only thing that secured Joseph’s total success. He learned from the last incident that although it is very tempting to turn to one of flesh and blood to seek justice, that is not the correct way. Had Joseph not told the wine steward all the stories of victimization, the wine steward, being so impressed, would have made a bee line to Pharaoh immediately and Joseph would have been freed right away. That is what Chazal mean that he remained in prison two more years [because he played the victim]. The diplomatic move Joseph should have made was not to make any move at all. He should have remained silent. [The astounding impression he would have left on the wine steward would have eventuated in his release.]
Another important point is that when one is asked for a favor, that person loses respect as he now feels that the one seeking the favor [Joseph] had ulterior motives. Joseph lost respect because he asked for help. As soon as a talmid chocham derives any benefit from a typical person, the latter loses all respect for him. It is the same phenomenon.
We started by seeking to understand “God’s decrees.” But this does not mean what people think [that it was God who decreed those two additional years of Joseph’s imprisonment]. A
negative “decree” refers to when a person abandons wisdom. Maimonides says in Hilchos Dayos (5:11):
The way of intelligent people is to first arrange a livelihood, then to buy a house, and then to marry. As it says, “Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his
home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go
back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her” (Deut. 20:5-7). But a fool first marries, and if he then finds that means he buys a house and afterwards at the end of
his life he seeks a livelihood or lives off charity. And so it is stated in the curses, “If you pay the bride-price for a wife, another man shall
enjoy her. If you build a house, you shall not live in it. If you plant a vineyard, you shall not harvest it” (Deut. 28:30). Matters will be
reversed to inhibit success. And in a blessing it says, “And King David was wise in all his ways and God was with him” (I Sam. 18:14).
The worst decree in Torah’s rebukes is that man abandons the path of wisdom.
There is an issue now whether the slogan “Never Again”—a response to the Holocaust— conforms to Torah ideals. One could say that if the Holocaust and the future tragedies are divine decrees, saying “Never Again” opposes God’s will. However, this is a question only for one harboring a primitive notion of what a decree is. But as Maimonides says, and when we look deeper into Torah, an evil decree refers to one who abandons Torah and wisdom resulting in a distorted life leading to catastrophic results. [It is self-inflicted and not God’s doings.] An example is from Channuka when a miracle took place because of the war. What would have transpired had the Jews not waged war? Would you say that they would have retrieved the temple? If so, they wasted their efforts. But it makes no sense to suggest they would retrieve the temple without war. Without battle, it would have been a tragedy. Would you say that tragedy was a divine decree too? No. To say that the Holocaust was a divine decree and just write it off as some unavoidable tragedy is nonsense. It is only a decree—a gizaira—in the sense that it was due to our abandonment of Torah and wisdom. But to claim it was a decree, yet I see a defect [that may have caused it] and not correct that defect, that is nonsensical. The only heretical notion would be if one said “Never Again” means not to follow the ways of Torah and feel certain that one’s own efforts will prevent tragedy. But that is not what Meir Kahane meant. The idea of searching for a flaw [that warranted the Holocaust] and to seek out a rational mistake that was part of the tragedy does not violate Torah. Also, if one would say “Never Again” and feels that he could abandon Torah but he’s going to fight to prevent another Holocaust, perhaps you could say such a proactive defense might prevent another Holocaust, but other decrees could take place [for leaving Torah]. Because once one abandons Torah and wisdom, one lives in distortion and it is impossible to abandon Torah and wisdom and not meet with some catastrophe.
There is no heresy in suggesting that through abandoning Torah and wisdom the Jews acted poorly [going like sheep to the slaughter] and this contributed to the Holocaust. Perhaps they went like sheep because they did not follow wisdom. There is no heresy in saying so.
Again, Joseph’s two additional years in prison was a decree in the sense that it was a result of his poor actions and not a direct act of God.
The brothers expressed the proper view of calamity:
They said to one another, “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us”
[The brothers did not say some decree fell upon them, but they traced their calamity back to their error.]
I personally say it should be emphasized that Israel’s catastrophes are due to abandoning Torah and wisdom. When Joseph erred, he placed his trust in the wine steward because he was in a low state and sought comfort from flesh and blood. What was the wine steward’s response? “And he did not remember Joseph and he forgot him.” “And he did not remember” refers to the removal of the wine steward’s emotional impact during Joseph’s interpretations. But when the wine steward left Joseph’s presence, his emotions favoring Joseph weakened, yet, he felt a sense of obligation to Joseph. To relieve his burden to Joseph, all the wine steward needed was some way to explain away Joseph’s significance, and then he could “forget him.” He felt Joseph’s many troubles were self-inflicted and this allowed him to forget Joseph, thereby relieving his sense of obligation to him.
I stress this to show how Chazal deduced this explanation from the verses because they held that Joseph made a political error. Alone in prison for many years, Joseph sought human emotional support out of weakness. Therefore, Joseph made this error [of pleading with the wine steward instead of remaining silent and allowing the impression he made through his interpretation to weigh on the wine steward]. That is how Chazal knew it was based on a sin.