How unfortunate when man must put his fate in the hands of other men.
“And the warden had placed all the prisoners in the dungeon under Yosef’s charge. Yosef took care of everything that had to be done” (Breisheet 39:22). In the depths of the prison dungeon Yosef had risen to the top. He correctly interpreted the dreams of the butler and the baker. All that Joseph asked was to “do me a favour and say something about me to Pharaoh. Perhaps you will be able to get me out of this place” (Breisheet 40:14). Yet the combination of the lust for political power and human nature combined to ensure that “the chief steward did not remember Joseph. He forgot all about him” (Breisheet 40:23). The butler like so many of those who go from ‘rags to riches’ wanted no reminders of his past and conveniently forgot to carry out the basic obligation of gratitude. It was only a bit of political opportunism that refreshed his memory.
“And it came to pass, at the end of two full years that Pharaoh dreamt” (Breisheet 41:1). Pharaoh is bothered by his strange dreams about corn and cows. Sensing an opportunity for advancement the butler suggests that perhaps “a young man, a Hebrew and a slave” might be able to help. And help he does. Fittingly the butler is repaid measure for measure for his forgetfulness and then some. Pharaoh forgets about the butler not only for two years but permanently. He is given no reward for his suggestion, a suggestion that ultimately led to the saving of the Egyptian Empire.
Yet our Rabbis (see Rashi 40:23) tell us that Yosef was punished for placing his faith in the butler instead of placing his trust in G-d. Due to this lack of faith Yosef languished an extra two years in prison. This seems like quite a strange assessment of Yosef’s actions. Surely using any and all means at our disposal is what man is obliged to do. In fact our Rabbis teach us that ein somchim al hanes, we are not allowed to rely on miracles. Surely one who declines medical treatment and instead relies on prayer and G-d’s benevolence would be committing a grave sin indeed. What then was wrong with Yosef asking the butler to intervene on his behalf?
It was not that asking the butler for a favour was unbecoming for Yosef. His mistake was in relying exclusively on the butler. In contradistinction to his ancestors who would pray in their time of need, there is no mention of prayer by Yosef while in prison. In fact the name of G-d appears but once while he was imprisoned. The Egyptian milieu was exerting a corrupting influence on Yosef. He would have two long years to re-evaluate his values and direction in life. And when he was summoned to interpret Pharaoh’s dream he had learned his lesson. “Yosef answered Pharaoh, it is not by my own power. But G-d may provide an answer concerning Pharaoh’s fortune” (Breisheet 41:16). Four more times does Joseph invoke G-d’s name in talking to the most powerful person in the world. This made such an impression that even Pharaoh exclaimed “can there be another person who has G-d’s spirit in him as this man does?”
It is instructive to compare Pharaoh’s treatment of the butler with the treatment given by Achashverus to Mordechai (many are the paralles between the Yosef story and the Megillah). When Achashverus, who also had difficulty sleeping, realized that Mordechai had made the suggestion that saved his life he quickly elevated him to power. Strong political leaders know opportunism when they see them and recognize sincere efforts to help.
It took Yosef until the age of thirty to realize that we are just messengers carrying out G-d’s will. When one does this properly it cannot fail to impress people, even the Pharaohs of this world.