The Inside Story Revealed
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
It's hard to believe it, but two years have passed since the end of last
week's parsha. It had been in the tenth year of Yosef's stay in prison that
he had interpreted the dreams of the baker and the wine steward. However,
one mistake had cost him two extra years in prison, and that was that he
had put too much trust in the wine steward as an instrument in his
redemption from jail (see Rashi on 40:23).
The only question is, to most of us, it would seem as if Yosef had merely
made a reasonable "hishtadalus" (effort) to free himself from his
predicament. The Talmud teaches that one is not allowed to rely upon
miracles, and Yosef's actions seem to have been consistent with this
After all, it had already been a miracle that G-d had placed the royal
baker and wine steward into the same prison as Yosef. It had been a miracle
that they had dreamed and felt in need of an interpretation, and had been
prepared to confide in Yosef. How many more miracles could Yosef have
relied upon to change his situation? Wasn't it time to take advantage of
G-d's help, and play a role in his own redemption?
For most people, yes. However, Yosef was a tzaddik and being so, he would
have been justified in relying one-hundred percent on G-d, given that he
saw through the veil of nature, and was somewhat unbound by it. On the
other hand, even a tzaddik has to work within the confines of nature, and
therefore, perhaps, Yosef's mistake lay not in the first part of his
statement, but the latter part.
Looking at the possuk, it says:
"Please remember me when it works out well for you, and please be kind to
me and mention me to Paroah and bring me out of this house. For, I was
kidnapped from the Land of the Hebrews, and here also I did nothing to
warrant being thrown into prison." (Bereishis 40:14)
Although it is true that Yosef probably felt the need to clear his name,
what kind of impression did the last part of his statement leave in the
minds of the people in prison? He had done the favor for the wine steward
by positively interpreting his dreams. The realization of his
interpretation would have confirmed that Yosef was no ordinary "criminal."
Why did he have to add the words, "For, I was kidnapped from the Land of
the Hebrews, and here also I did nothing to warrant being thrown into
prison." Doesn't it sound like bad things happen to good people, randomly?
As the Chumash proves, Yosef's tenure in prison was not for naught. It was
a stop (albeit a dreary one) along his long and arduous route to greatness,
and the fulfillment of this own dreams. But for someone on Yosef's level of
righteousness, "All is for the good" should have been his motto, and
instead of complaining about how he arrived in jail, he should have been
"Gee. I wonder what great result will come of all of this? I wonder what
fantastic finale G-d has in mind for me?"
For us, it might be difficult to say such words with conviction in a
similar dilemma as the one Yosef was in, but for Yosef the Tzaddik (as he
is called), they should have been easier. Think of the tremendous
sanctification of G-d's Name had Yosef simply stopped short, and merely
asked for a favor in return!
We find a similar situation later on in the Chumash (Bereishis 47:8). After
Yosef and his father are finally reunited in Egypt, Ya'akov was brought
before Paroah to be introduced. Upon seeing how worn down Ya'akov looked,
Paroah asked Ya'akov his age. Ya'akov sensed Paroah's wonder and offered an
explanation for why he looked so old. However, say the rabbis, for each
word of "complaint" Ya'akov articulated, he lost one year of life,
forty-four years altogether.
If we learn anything at all from this episode that is relevant to our own
lives, we must remember that, being part of the Jewish people, we have the
responsibility to remind the world that G-d runs the world, and that
nothing happens randomly, even when it appears otherwise. We have to accept
what happens to us with as much of an "stiff upper lip" as possible, and
show our best face. It is difficult, but, on the other hand, who knows what
positive results will occur as a result?
From the moment the Viceroy of Egypt (Yosef in disguise), accused his
brothers of being spies, they sensed that something was "rotten in
Denmark," or Egypt, as was the case. What had they done to warrant such an
absurd accusation? The whole episode must have seemed to so surreal to
The truth is, Yosef wasn't trying to drive them up the wall with his false
accusations; he wasn't taking revenge either. In fact, according to a book
called "Bris Shalom," in his words was a clue that it was him; for, the
Hebrew word for spy (meraglim) is made up of six letters that could allude
to the following six words (each letter of "meraglim"-mem, raish, gimmel,
lamed, yud, mem-is the first letter of each of the following words):
M'imi Rachel genavtem, l'Midyanim Yishmaelim mechartem-from my mother
Rachel you stole me, to Midyanites and Arabs you sold me.
Now, you're probably wondering, what kind of clue was that? First of all,
you'd have to suspect that the stranger talking to you was sending a
message, and then, you'd have to be a master decoder to figure out the clue
fast enough to know what was happening at the very moment it was unfolding.
Was that fair?
The truth is, "meraglim" as a clue onto itself could never have been
enough. But sometimes, a series of strange events when woven together into
a unified tapestry create a broader vision that reflects on each piece of
the "puzzle," until every detail seems like a clue meant for
interpretation-if not to the brothers, then at least to Ya'akov once they
returned home and related all that occurred to them in Egypt.
In fact, there is reason to believe from what occurs later on in the parsha
that Ya'akov did sense that the strange dictator in Egypt was no normal
Egyptian after all. Working through his remaining sons, Ya'akov may have
even entered into the "game" to see where it would end. Perhaps, just
perhaps, it might return his dear missing son, Yosef. Perhaps, just
perhaps, all was not lost, as it had seemed for thirty years.
It is no different with G-d, who drops hints all over the place in our
lives, each of which on its own makes no sense as a clue. However, taken in
context of many events transpiring in a single period, or even over many
periods of one's life, we can see the "hint" for what it is, and notice the
hand of G-d in our lives directing us towards truth and fulfillment. And
the faster we take note of this, the more direct the dialogue between G-d
and us can become.
Though many people are accustomed to giving presents on Chanukah, the truth
is, it is a "borrowed" custom (probably from that non-Jewish "holiday" that
occurs around the same time of year as Chanukah). The Jewish custom is to
give Chanukah-gelt (money), which is why playing dreidel for money is a
centerpiece of the Chanukah experience (it was designed not only to make
little kids rich).
What connection is there between Chanukah and money?
Chanukah is a holiday about revealing inner potential. The olive oil, which
we light during the eight days of Chanukah, comes from within the dark,
(unpickled) bitter olive. Paralleling this is the body and the soul; the
soul, like the oil, is hidden within the body, potential light that only
shines when "extracted" and "ignited." This is why the words "hashemen"
(the oil) and "neshama" (soul) are made up of the same letters: nun, shin,
mem, heh (not to mention "mishnah," which is the Oral Law that is hidden in
the Written Law).
To extract the oil, the olive must be squeezed. To extract the soul and
reveal it, the body must be "squeezed" also so-to-speak, which is the role
of Torah and mitzvos. Torah and mitzvos create "crises" by making demands
upon our bodies that go against their nature, like acting with kindness and
selflessness, among many other types of mitzvos. This is why Torah and
mitzvos are the best way to refine personality and raise one's level of
The Greeks believed that "seeing is believing," and made the olive the
symbol of their wisdom since it was what they saw. The Jews claimed and
died for the believe that "believing is seeing too," and that nothing is
necessarily what it seems to be on the surface. (Even today in Western
society psychologists have difficulty acknowledging the presence of the
soul since it can't be seen with physical eyes.)
There are very few symbols of hidden potential as accurate as money itself.
Barely worth the paper it is printed on, the dollar can transform itself
into almost anything, open closed doors, even transform the way of thinking
of an entire nation almost overnight. (Perhaps the U.S. dollar is one of
the strongest currencies in the world to this day because it is the only
one to at least mention G-d on the bill itself!).
Presents are limited to what they can become, and in for what they can be
bartered. On the other hand, money can fulfill almost any need at almost
any time, which is why people are living and dying for it. However, as
powerful as money may have become in the minds of men, the most important
thing to recall is that money is, at best, only a symbol of the real
currency and potential that matters most to G-d: the light of the hidden
This is a Chanukah-story I tell it every year, if only to proclaim the
miracle. I can confirm its veracity, because it happened to me personally.
In my second year of marriage, we lived in a neighborhood of Yerushalayim
called Har Nof. At the time, I had been learning in a kollel in the Old
City, some forty-five minutes away by bus. Yet, still, Friday mornings I
used to go in for the morning to learn, even on the short winter
afternoons, such as erev Parashas Mikeitz which happened to fall that year
during Chanukah, as it usually does.
We were having important guests for Shabbos-my father- and
mother-in-law-and I wanted to prepare a special d'var Torah for the Shabbos
table. As was my custom in those days, the last fifteen minutes before
leaving for home, I would begin learning the parsha to search for a
question to ponder on the way home, which, I hoped, would form the basis
for my Shabbos table d'var Torah.
How many times I have learned this week's parsha, I do not recall. But I do
know that I never stopped on the possuk I stopped on that morning, the one
which has the freed and cleaned-up Yosef standing before Paroah, answering
Paroah about his claim that Yosef can interpret dreams:
Yosef answered Paroah, saying, "Not I, but G-d will answer the peace of
Paroah." (Bereishis 41:16)
All of a sudden it occurred to me: how could Paroah talk seriously with
Yosef, let alone trust his interpretation of the royal dreams? Wasn't Yosef
accused of being an adulterer? And if you tell me, so what! Egypt was an
extremely immoral place, I'll counter by telling you that we learn from
Avraham that, although the Egyptians didn't mind murdering people, they did
hate adultery (that's why Avraham told Paroah that Sarah was his sister,
and not his wife, fearing that Paroah would kill him in order to take Sarah
and avoid adultery!). It was like President Clinton pulling some ex-con out
of penitentiary to interpret his dreams, and then, after liking the
interpretation, elevating him to the position of Vice President! Wouldn't
that raise some eyebrows? As I closed my Chumash and prepared to make the
long journey home, I was satisfied that I was on to something big, and
began pondering the question as I left the Old City for Har Nof.
Now, for those familiar with the Old City, let me just state that in those
days, buses did not enter the Old City by the Wall. To leave the Old City,
you either took a taxi or you walked out Sha'arei Yaffo (Jaffa Gate) and
took the Number Twenty bus. That alone constituted a fifteen minute walk,
mostly uphill. Loaded down with challahs and other Shabbos food, I headed
for the bus.
However, it happened to have been a beautiful, warm, sunny erev Shabbos
afternoon, even though it was December. Though I was loaded down, I was
inspired to walk even further to the main post office past the Old City,
where I could catch either the Fifteen or Eleven bus, both of which go
directly to Har Nof, saving me the need to transfer buses later. In fact,
the only difference between the two lines was the route: the Fifteen bus
passed through Geulah, and the Eleven bus passed by Machanei Yehudah (the
"Shuk"). For me, the only issue was, which pandemonium did I want to
suffer, erev Shabbos chaos of the shuk, or of Geulah?
As I weighed my options, life became even more confusing when both buses
showed up at the same time, equally as crowded. I'm not quite sure what
steered me, but I headed for the Fifteen bus, and after getting on, I began
my odyssey to the back of the crowded bus, hoping to find some safe place
to hang on to my groceries and a pole for balance; a seat was too much to
As I made it to the back of the bus, I saw a seat in the corner that was
empty. Not wanting to seem selfish and make a chillul Hashem (profanation
of G-d's Name), I let the seat remain empty, just in case someone else had
precedence over me. No one sat down. I began to check the seat for bubble
gum, or something of the sort, but the seat checked out. Once I felt safe,
I sat down, parked my groceries under the seat, and silently sang praises
to G-d for my little island of calm in the midst of all the panic.
I had barely opened my pocket Chumash to re-think through my question when
the bus made its way to Geulah. After fighting some traffic, it finally
made it to the main stop on Malchei Yisroel, letting off many people, but
taking on even more. I was engrossed in my Chumash, and barely noticed that
the only seat available was the one next to me.
However, in the back of my mind I was somewhat conscious of the krexing
(groaning) of a tired, middle-aged man, as he made his way right for the
seat next to me. I had this eerie sense that he was the talkative type, and
I turned myself toward the window even more, and made my Chumash even more
obvious. The only thing missing was a "Do not disturb" sign.
I should have gone for the sign, because the angle at which I sat, and my
raised Chumash did little to deter this American who seemed bent upon
striking up a conversation with anyone who would listen, or not listen, for
"I see you're learning Chumash," he said quite innocently.
"Yes," I said politely but curtly, hoping to indicate that that was to be
the end of the conversation. There was only twenty more minutes to Har Nof,
and I had yet to find a satisfactory answer for why Paroah was prepared to
overlook the charges against Yosef of adultery. However, the man was
"Where do you learn?" he asked next. I told him the name of my yeshiva,
expecting little in return, but again, I had been wrong. Like Yehuda in
this week's parsha, I had had other plans, and was blind to the unfolding
"Really? I know your Rosh Yeshivah. In fact, his brother is my rav back in
the States, and his son made my son's shidduch. It's a great story. Let me
tell you how it goes ..."
And so he did, and did, and did. Defeated, I closed my Chumash, and slipped
into a captive audience mode. The truth is, it was a remarkable story. Had
it been any other time, and had I already developed a novel d'var Torah for
the Shabbos table, the story would have thrilled me. It was hard to feel
broth frustration and excitement simultaneously.
As the bus made its final approach toward Har Nof, the story ended, and the
"I'm sorry. I know you were learning Chumash before I interrupted you ..."
"So you noticed, eh?" I thought to myself.
"... At least let me give you a d'var Torah on this week's parsha ..."
"You might as well," I thought to myself, sarcastically, "because I sure
don't have one!"
"... In fact, it is right on the possuk that you had your finger on, before
you closed your Chumash ..."
My eyes, for the first time that trip, lit up. He continued,
"In that verse (the one upon which I had stopped on in the yeshiva when the
question first occurred to me), there is an extra word ..."
"Nu?" I said to myself, still somewhat skeptical.
"In the possuk before it, it says, 'Paroah said to Yosef, I had a dream and
no one can interpret it, and I heard about you, saying (leimor), you can
hear a dream and interpret it.' The next possuk says, 'Yosef answered
Paroah, saying (leimor), Not I, but G-d will answer the peace of Paroah.'
It seemed to me that the 'leimors,' at least one of them, was extra."
"Well, it is not uncommon that the Torah speaks like that ..." I said.
"I know," he jumped in, "so I went to many rabbis in my city to see what
they thought, and they all agreed that the leimor was extra, but had no
interpretation for it. However, one rabbi I went to had already noticed the
extra word on his own, and did have an interpretation to offer, which I
found very interesting. He told me that the leimor was to allude to a
sub-dialogue between Paroah and Yosef."
"A what?" I asked, now feeling the pressure of my stop fast approaching,
and the need to get off the bus.
"The rav was basing his pshat (interpretation) upon the Talmud, in
Sanhedrin (56b), which is finding sources for the Seven Noachide Laws in
the Torah. It turns out that, according to the Oral Law, different words
allude to different mitzvos. The word 'leimor' is the word that alludes to
the mitzvah not to have illicit relationships!"
Boinggggg! "Like adultery?" I asked hesitatingly, feeling something very
hashgochadik (Divine Providence-like) about to happen.
"Exactly," he answered. "Paroah's leimor alludes to Paroah asking Yosef,
'How can you be an interpreter of dreams? You're an adulterer! Even your
own G-d hates such illicit behavior ... why would He want to work through
you?!' Yosef's leimor means, 'That's exactly the point! The very fact that
I can interpret dreams correctly, which only can be done with G-d's help,
proves my innocence!' (After the fact, I noticed that "leimor" also appears
in the episode of Yosef and the wife of Potiphar, and Rashi makes reference
to the gemora itself there in 39:9.) Yosef's point was well-taken by
Paroah, which is why he felt confident raising Yosef to the position of
Viceroy of Egypt! A great answer, no?"
My jaw dropped open. Shivers went up and down my spine, as I pondered the
odds of such a possibility. (At that point in my life, I had not seen the
gemora in Sanhedrin, and even once I would years later, would I have made
the connection? Could I have, when the word "leimor" had not even caught my
attention?) Within seconds before arriving at my stop, I quickly explained
what had just happened, and the shocked expression on my face. The man
laughed, and finished by saying,
"To think! I came six thousand miles just to answer your question!"
I smiled warmly. We said good-bye to each other, and thanked one another
for what had obviously been very, very b'sheret. As I got off the bus with
a far better, more fascinating Chanukah d'var Torah than I had ever
bargained for, I looked heavenward and thanked G-d for what was the most
important message I could ever learn:
Answers are from G-d; it is only up to us to formulate the questions, and
to be available to receive that Holy, Hidden Light of creation, when G-d
decides to send it down to us.
Have a great Shabbos, and a light-revealing, freilechen Chanukah,