Freeing the Spirit
Divine providence seems to work in strange ways, especially for
Joseph languishing in an Egyptian prison. Unjustly accused of making
advances to Potiphar’s wife, Joseph has been thrown into the dungeon
and left there to rot. But destiny requires that he be released and
elevated to high office in the royal palace, and to effect this important
result, divine providence contrives a very outlandish set of
As we read in this week’s Torah portion, ten years after his
incarceration Joseph meets up with two discredited palace
functionaries, the royal cupbearer and the royal baker. One morning, he
finds them despondent. He questions them and discovers that they both
had disturbing dreams the previous night. He offers astute
interpretations of their dreams, and the sequence of events bears out
his predictions. Two years later, when Pharaoh has his own puzzling
dreams, the cupbearer remembers Joseph’s interpretive skills and
recommends him to Pharaoh. Joseph is brought to the palace, where
his brilliant interpretations and wisdom win him high office, and the rest
This story certainly makes for high drama, but why were all these
farfetched developments necessary? Why didn’t divine providence
manifest itself in a simpler way? Couldn’t Joseph’s release and rise to
power have been effected through more commonplace events?
The commentators explain that Joseph’s release from prison is
meant to serve as a paradigm of the ultimate in human emancipation.
The vicissitudes of life can cause a person to experience confinement of
many sorts, not only physical incarceration but also psychological and
emotional bondage of the spirit, which can often be far more painful.
How is a person to extricate himself from these situations? How can he
escape the isolation sometimes imposed by his conditions?
The answer is to focus on the needs of others. As long as a person
is absorbed in his own miserable condition, he cannot help but wallow in
self-pity to some degree and to walk on the edge of despair. Once he
shifts his focus to others, however, his presence in confinement is no
longer purposeless and negative. On the contrary, his is a positive
presence bringing relief to others and fulfillment to himself. By freeing
the spirit, he will in effect have emancipated himself from the shackles
of his condition.
Joseph personified this approach. Unjustly accused and
imprisoned, he did not withdraw into himself to bemoan his awful fate.
Instead, he immediately became the heart and soul of the prison,
always there to help a stricken inmate. In this sense, he effected his
own emancipation even as he still remained confined within the prison
walls. And to drive home the point, Hashem contrived that his actual
physical release should also be the result of the kindness he performed
A prisoner was thrown into a cell with a large number of other
prisoners. The walls of the prison were thick and damp, and high up on
one side, far above the heads of even the tallest prisoners, was a tiny,
heavily barred window that looked out over a barren piece of land.
Every day, the new prisoner would drag his bed to the wall under
the window. Then he would climb onto the bed, stand on his tiptoes
and, stretching, was just able to rest his chin on the stone window sill.
The other prisoners gathered in groups to talk or play games, but the
new prisoner never participated. He just stood there all day, staring out
“What do you see out there?” a prisoner asked him.
“Nothing,” he replied.
“Then why do you stand there all day?”
“As long as I look out at the world outside,” the new prisoner
replied, “I still feel a little connection with it. I still have a little
bit of my
freedom. But once I turn away from this window and look only at the cell
and my cellmates, all my freedom will be gone. Once I surrender to my
situation, I will truly be imprisoned.”
In our own lives, we are often pummeled by the slings and arrows
of outrageous fortune. Assailed by financial difficulties, family and
problems, pressure in the workplace and all sorts of other
strains and stresses, we can easily find ourselves becoming gloomy and
depressed. So what can we do? How can we regain the equilibrium and
morale we need to deal with our problems constructively? By throwing
ourselves into helping families less fortunate than ourselves or an
important community project. For one thing, focusing on others
immediately relieves the distress of our own situations. But more
important, it elevates us spiritually and allows us to view our troubles in
the broader perspective of what has lasting value in the ultimate
scheme of things and what does not.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.