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Posted on June 7, 2002 (5777) By Rabbi Yissocher Frand | Series: | Level:

These divrei Torah were adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Tapes on the weekly Torah portion: Tape # 77, Prohibitions During Times of Crises. Good Shabbos!

The Two Year Prison Extension: Theory of Relativity

Our Parsha begins with the words, “And it was two years later, and Pharaoh dreamt that he was standing by the Nile” [Bereishis 41:1]. The obvious question is: what happened during this two year interval? At the end of last week’s Parsha, Rash”i quotes a Medrash that tells us what happened during this period.

Rash”i says that because Yosef put his trust in the Butler, by asking the Butler to put in a good word for him with Pharaoh, Yosef was punished. For the two words he spoke — “u’zchartani, v’hotzaisani” (and remember me and take me out), Yosef’s stay in jail was extended for two more years.

Rash”i alludes to a very enigmatic Medrash [M. Rabbah] at the beginning of this week’s Parsha. The Medrash says: “‘Happy is the man who places his trust in G-d…’ [Tehillim 40:5] — this refers to Yosef; ‘…and turned not to the arrogant and to strayers after falsehood’ [ibid.] — whose sentence in jail was extended for two years because of the two words he said to the butler.”

This Medrash contains an internal contradiction. At first it singles out Yosef as the prime example of a person who places his trust in G-d. Then it turns around and says, because he asked the butler to put in a good word for him and did not trust G-d sufficiently, he was punished with two extra years in jail.

Which way is it? Is Yosef the “Truster” par excellence, or is Yosef a person who puts his trust in people?

There are two basic approaches used to answer this question. Rav Eliyahu Lopian, the Beis HaLevi, and many others use the approach that Bitachon [trust] is a relative concept. It depends on a person’s level.

For instance, the Ramba”n states in Parshas Bechukosai that the Talmudic teaching [Brochos 60a] which tells us that it is permitted to seek medical treatment, and for doctors to practice medicine, based on the verse “and he shall surely heal” [Shemos 21:19], is only a permission for “everyday people.” However, those individuals who live on such an exalted level that they put all their trust in G-d, should not go to doctors. They can (and perhaps should) rely on miracles. {Certainly, the Ramba”n says, a normal person who conducts himself in all matters “based on the laws of nature,” must use a doctor.}

Similarly, we find in Brochos [35b] a disagreement between Rav Shimon bar Yochai and Rav Yishmael regarding how a person should balance his obligation to learn Torah with his need to support himself and his family. Rav Yishmael says that a person should work, and set aside regular times for learning Torah. Rav Shimeon bar Yochai says no: a person should sit and learn, and G-d will send him a livelihood. The Talmud says that many people followed the teaching of Rav Yishmael and were successful, and many people followed the teaching of Rav Shimeon bar Yochai and were unsuccessful. The level of Rav Shimeon bar Yochai was not appropriate for the masses. There are individuals who are on that level, and for them G-d will send them their livelihood – but this is not to be common practice.

Bitachon, say Rav Eliyahu Lopian, is a relative concept that depends on the level of the individual. If one clings to G-d, does everything for the Sake of Heaven, and is perfectly righteous, then it is true that G-d will provide for him. G-d will take care of his sicknesses, and He will feed and sustain him. The person will not have to make any human effort.

However, if one is a normal human being, not only is he allowed to make an effort (hishtadlus) for his living and his health, but he is obligated to make that effort.

This is the interpretation of the Medrash. “‘Happy is the one who places his trust in Hashem’ — this refers to Yosef.” Yosef was of such a stature that he put his entire trust in G-d. He was a Tzadik, who was a pillar of the world. Therefore, commensurate with the type of person he was, he was obligated not to make an effort. He should have remained at his level of trusting in G-d alone and not seeking human intervention (by the butler). For Yosef to step down from this level was in fact a sin, says Rav Eliyahu Lopian, and so he was punished with two extra years in jail.

The Two Year Prison Extension: Theory of Cause and Effect

There are, however, those who understand that the two year prison extension was not a punishment. Yosef did no sin in asking for the butler’s intervention. The other approach to the above-quoted Medrash is that what we have here can be called ‘the natural consequences of a person’s actions.’

This means as follows: there was absolutely nothing wrong with Yosef exerting effort by seeking human intervention to gain freedom. The two extra years in prison were not a punishment. They were, however, the natural consequence of his actions.

If one wants to conduct himself with G-d in a manner that rises above nature (l’maale m’derech haTeva), and this is how the person always conducts himself with G-d, then G-d will respond to him in the same way. But if one lives his life according to the way of nature, then G-d’s response to him will also be according to the way of nature.

The Baal Shem Tov offers a beautiful parable to illustrate this concept. It says in Tehillim [121:5] “G-d is your shadow next to your right hand.” The Baal Shem Tov explains the metaphor. When one raises his hand, one’s shadow raises its hand. When one jumps, the shadow jumps. When one goes fast, the shadow goes fast. The relationship a person has with G-d is like that of a shadow. However one conducts him/herself with Him is reciprocal. That is how G-d will conduct Himself with the person.

If one conducts himself in such a manner that he places all his trust in G-d, there will be a reciprocal relationship — that trust will be well placed. But if one conducts himself through “normal channels,” the conduct of normal human beings, then that is how G-d will conduct Himself with the person.

The reason Yosef had to spend the extra two years in jail was not a punishment. Rather, by virtue of the fact that Yosef went through the channels of normal human beings, and asked the Butler to intervene for him with Pharaoh, G-d allowed nature to take its course. It is quite natural that if one asks a person to do a favor, the person forgets about the favor and remembers two years later.

The Key To Confession: No Buts

It says in the Parsha that Yosef told his brothers “If you are truthful people, one of your brothers must remain here as a prisoner…” To which the brothers respond among themselves, “Indeed (Aval) we are guilty concerning our brother, inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has come upon us.” [Bereishis 42:19-21]

The usage of the word ‘Aval,’ over here, is somewhat troubling. Literally the verse means “But, we are guilty.” How does ‘but’ fit in here? Rash”i quotes the Targum that, over here, the word ‘Aval’ does not mean ‘but’, rather it means ‘Indeed.’ Rash”i then cites a Medrash Rabbah that the interpretation is in fact ‘but.’ If so, our original question returns, how does ‘but’ fit in this context?

We see that there are a number of connections between Yom Kippur and the sale of Yosef. On Yom Kippur we read the narrative of the Ten Martyrs, who were an atonement for the sale of Yosef. Furthermore, according to Kabbalah, the reason we do not wear shoes on Yom Kippur is that Yosef’s brothers (according to the Medrash) took the money they received from the sale of Yosef and bought shoes. Finally, the Ramba”m in Hilchos Teshuva [2:8] defines the essence of Confession (Vidui) on Yom Kippur as the recital of the formula “But we and our fathers have sinned” (Aval anachnu v’avoseinu chatanu). These are almost the same words that we have in our Parsha “But, we our guilty” (Aval ashemim anachnu).

We see that there is a link between the confession that we say on Yom Kippur and the confession of Yosef’s brothers. Beyond that, there is a link between the whole incident of the sale of Yosef and the service of Yom Kippur.

I saw a commentary who explained this homiletically as follows: The brothers are saying “Our sin was ‘aval’ — the word ‘but.'” They said, “We weren’t maliciously trying to hurt Yosef.” They felt that it was self-defense. They thought Yosef was trying to kill them. They had all sorts of calculations. Their crime was not one of malice, but of rationalization.

“But… he’s trying to get us.” “But… father loves him more.” But… if we don’t do something, this will be the end of us.” “Our sin,” the brothers said, “stems from the fact that we said ‘but.'” By saying ‘but,’ one can rationalize anything.

Rav Yitzchak Breuer says that there are three types of senses. There is the animalistic feeling that a person has, there is the human feeling that a person has, and there is a prophetic or profound feeling that a person can have. If a person only has the first two senses, he can take those urges and rationalize that anything is not only permissible but that it is a mitzvah. A person needs, not only the human feeling, but he also needs the prophetic vision to know whether this is really what G-d wants of him.

This was the sin of the Yosef’s brothers. ‘But, we have sinned.’ Our sin came about because we did everything through rationalization. We rationalized our jealousy and our hatred and the hidden feelings we had toward him. We went ahead and put it in the guise of a mitzvah.

This is what we try to do on Yom Kippur. We state that we are not people that are maliciously bad. We are not wicked or intentionally evil. What then is the nature of our sin?

“Aval, it’s too difficult to learn every night. But, it’s too difficult to give maa’ser. “But, but, but, but…” Ours are sins of ‘but.’ That is why we read the incident of the Ten Martyrs. That is why we take off our shoes. To remind ourselves that they sold him and took the money to buy shoes… because with ‘aval’ one can rationalize anything. We take off our shoes to remind ourselves what can happen when one lets rationalizations take over.

Therefore, this is the text of our Confession — but, we and our fathers have sinned. We say ‘but’ too often. We rationalize everything. This is the tikun we seek on Yom Kippur.


Bitachon — trust (in G-d)
Parnasah — means of (earning a) living
Tzadik — Righteous person
mussar classic — literature focusing on perfecting human ethical and spiritual behaviour
mitzvah — a Divine command
ma’aser — (giving) a tenth (of one’s earnings to Charity)
tikun — correction; improvement

Personalities & Sources:

Rav Eliyahu Lopian (1872-1970) author of Lev Eliyahu, a modern mussar classic. Kelm, Etz Chaim Yeshiva (London), Kefar Hasidim (Israel).
Beis HaLevi — Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik (1820-1892); Rosh Yeshiva in Volozhin, Rav in Slutzk and Brisk.
Ramba”n — Rav Moshe ben Nachman (1194-1270), Gerona, Spain and Israel.
Baal Shem Tov — Rav Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), founder of the modern Chassidic movement, Mezhibuzh.
Rash”i — Rav Shlomo ben Yitzchak (1040-1105); Troyes and Worms, France.
Targum — Authorized Aramaic translation of Torah by proselyte Onkelos (around 90 C.E.)
Ramba”m — Rav Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204), Spain and Egypt.
Rav Yitzchak Breuer — (1883-1946) Frankfurt, one of founders of Agudas Yisrael.

Transcribed by David Twersky; Seattle, Washington.
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, Maryland.

This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Torah Tapes on the weekly Torah portion (#77). The corresponding halachic portion for this tape is: Prohibitions During Times of Crises. The other halachic portions for Miketz from the Commuter Chavrusah Series are:

  • Tape # 035 – Chanukah Issues
  • Tape # 126 – Dreams in Halacha and Hashkafa
  • Tape # 173 – Dreams in Halacha II
  • Tape # 219 – Chanukah Issues II
  • Tape # 263 – Women and Chanukah Licht
  • Tape # 309 – “Lo Sechanaim” Giving Gifts to Non-Jews
  • Tape # 353 – Chanukah and Hidur Mitzvah

Tapes or a complete catalogue can be ordered from:

Yad Yechiel Institute
PO Box 511
Owings Mills, MD 21117-0511
Call (410) 358-0416 for further information.

Also Available: Mesorah / Artscroll has published a collection of Rabbi Frand’s essays. The book is entitled:

Rabbi Yissocher Frand: In Print
and is available through your local Hebrew book store or from Judaica Express, 1-800-2-BOOKS-1.