In the stories of Yakov’s family and their descent to Egypt, Yosef features prominently. Yosef’s brothers hate him, orchestrating his disappearance. Yet, he somehow manages to rise to the rank of prime minister of Egypt, and in an ironic twist, winds up saving his family years later from a devastating famine in their homeland.
Our Sages herald Yosef as arguably the greatest of his generation, with certain characteristics and traits exceeding even those of his lauded ancestors.
What was so remarkable about Yosef, and what does his story have to teach us?
R’ Isaac Bernstein sharply observes that Yosef’s fortunes turn based on his focus. The first story, the story of his youth, starts with him on top, as his father’s favorite, and ends with him literally at the bottom, in a pit, and on the way to slavery. The second story, the story of his maturity and growth, begins with him in the bowels of a prison dungeon, yet he climbs his way to the heights of Egyptian aristocratic society. What changed was Yosef’s perspective.
In his youth, his falls stemmed from how he could only talk about his own dreams and ambitions; but in his maturity, his climb stemmed from his deep empathy and sensitivity, listening to the butler and baker, and eventually Pharaoh, keenly attuned to their dreams, hopes, and fears. Our fortunes change when we stop looking out for ourselves.
The Da’as Zkeinim observes that it’s not too remarkable for someone desperate to believe in God – who else is going to help? But far too often, and with uncomfortable regularity, those self-same people forget God the moment they get their blessings, because all too often, wealth and success are the death of spirituality, snuffed out under a tidal wave of materialism. The Torah begins the second story by testifying that God was with Yosef from the bottom through the top of his successes:
וְיוֹסֵף הוּרַד מִצְרָיְמָה וַיִּקְנֵהוּ פּוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים אִישׁ מִצְרִי מִיַּד הַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים אֲשֶׁר הוֹרִדֻהוּ שָׁמָּה׃ וַיְהִי ה אֶת־יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ וַיְהִי בְּבֵית אֲדֹנָיו הַמִּצְרִי׃ – When Yosef was taken down to Egypt, a certain Egyptian, Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. God was with Yosef, and he was a successful man, and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. (3:1,2)
It’s vital to pay attention to what the Torah classifies as “successful” – אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ – because this title belongs uniquely to Yosef – it is the only instance the Torah describes someone this way.
The story is abundantly clear that Yosef earns this label because he brings success to others; first, making Potiphar’s household successful, and then running the prison successfully, and eventually, the entire government. The Malbim notes that the word itself is the causative form of the word for success – מַצְלִיחַ – meaning Yosef was literally someone who caused success.
We would do well to adopt this as our working definition of what success looks like. All too often, it can feel like success inflates our egos; we should be mindful that Torah defines success quite the opposite of our egocentric definition: success is helping others improve their lives.
The common thread that runs through Yosef’s story is Yosef learning to help others with his God-given charisma, looks, and obvious talent. In the beginning, he thought it made him better than everybody, but as he grew up, he learned that it merely gave him a greater ability to help others.
R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that this was the symbolic significance of Yosef’s stripy cloak, bestowed by Yakov. Yakov saw in Yosef the ability to recognize and bring together people of different stripes and backgrounds.
It shouldn’t be so surprising that Yosef is heralded as the greatest of his generation. He stood up to tests his brothers could never imagine, and he rose to every challenge that came his way, and he did it with flair and aplomb.
But most importantly, from his shackles in the pits of a dungeon to the summits of high society, he never forgot that God was with him, and he never lost his sensitivity to others’ problems or his determined drive to help them.
Our fortunes turn the moment we stop looking out for ourselves.