And Yosef came to them in the morning, and he saw them and behold, they were troubled. And he asked Pharaoh’s chamberlains who were with him in the prison of his master’s house, saying, “Why are your faces sad today?” And they said to him, “We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter for it.” Yosef said to them, “Don’t interpretations belong to G-d? Please tell me now.” (Breishis 40:7-8)
Many years ago, I was invited to visit and speak to a group of Jewish prisoners. This was a new type of audience for me and so I thought long and hard about what I should and shouldn’t say. I was wondering to myself, “What would they like most?” The answer, of course, was, “To get out of jail.” Now I wasn’t coming there to hatch a plot for them to escape or to frustrate them with conversations about fantastically impossible things. So, I asked myself, “Who in the Torah was ever in jail and how did they get out?” Yosef HaTzadik immediately jumped onto the screen of my consciousness and I started to comb carefully through the Torah’s description of his time in jail. I made an amazing discovery!
When I finally came to meet these unfortunate gentlemen locked in that situation, I was shocked at how much they seemed like you and me. It was sad. This is what bad choosing can cause. I asked them, “Who here would like to get out of prison?” They all chimed in unanimously, “Me!” I asked them if there was anybody in the Torah who was ever in prison.
When they let me know that Yosef was a prisoner, I asked them, “How did he get out?” One fellow immediately told how Yosef interpreted the dream of the butler and when Pharaoh had a troubling dream and he needed someone to interpret it. He recalled his experience with Yosef in prison as a dream interpreter and he was summoned before Pharaoh to interpret his dream and that was his ticket to freedom. Everyone was nodding in agreement but I told him blankly, “That’s not how Yosef got out of jail.” Another fellow told over the same narrative emphatically but with some different details and when he concluded, I told him the same thing, “That’s not how he got out of jail.”
A few more attempts to explain the same story were met with the same response, “That’s not how he got out of jail.” They were getting agitated and so to calm their nerves and pique their interest I told them, “The problem with you guys is that you saw the movie, but you didn’t read the book.”
I took out a Chumash and I started to read and translate slowly, how the butler and the baker of Pharaoh ended up in jail. Then we came to the important point. It says, “And Yosef came to them in the morning…” I explained that if anybody on the planet had a good reason to sleep late, stay under the covers, and be depressed, it was Yosef. He was cast away as a young man by his family to a foreign land with contrary values. He worked his way to the top and was then falsely accused of having done what he refused to do. So, he was thrown into jail. Now, in a prison in a foreign land, the present is gloomy and the future is even more bleak. If he would have curled up into a fetal position and retreated from life no one could blame him, but no! What did he do? He got up in the morning to visit these other prisoners.
Maybe he came to them to be cheered up and hear some good news. Maybe that was his motivation. It seems not. When he sees their troubled and sad faces he could have justifiably turned around and returned to his bunk, telling himself, “I’ve got my own problems. I don’t need to be dragged down by needy people.” Again, that’s not what happened. Instead, he said four words that changed the world. He asked them, “Lama Pneichem Ra-im HaYom?” – “Why are your faces so down today?” Then they told him about their troubling dreams and he invited them to share their dreams with him.” The rest is history!
In fact, Yosef was never in prison. Sure, his feet and his body were there, locked into that limited and limiting space, but he was busy serving others. He made the best of every situation by not wallowing in self-pity. He was busy helping and being useful to other people wherever he was. Though, technically he was in jail, but from a deeper perspective, he was never in prison even while he was in prison, and that’s how he got out of jail.