Joseph descended into a pit and ascended from a different pit. What did he learn in between?
Table for Five: Miketz
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
So Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and they rushed him from the dungeon, and he had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and then he appeared before Pharaoh.
Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Scholar In Residence, JMI/AISH
Mark Twain once said that “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Over the years, Twain’s words have been used to emphasize just how important dress is to the psyche of people. My question is, REALLY? Are our psyches so impressionable and so easily manipulated that the threads we wear have a profound effect on our self-worth? More importantly, does our clothing project anything of substance about our truest selves?
If there’s one character in the Torah whose life is a strong refutation of this maxim, it’s Joseph. His life was the quintessential riches to rags to riches story. One moment Yosef was gifted a brilliant multi-colored coat from his father, the next he was being sold into slavery. One moment Yosef was languishing in Egypt and the next he was being rushed to an audience with Pharoah. Talk about pivoting! To the trained eye, it’s clear that despite a gut-wrenching betrayal and despite circumstances that could have demoralized him, Joseph’s faith never wavered. Instead of painfully ruminating on the clothes he once wore versus the dehumanizing rags he now donned, Joseph remained eternally optimistic and ever loyal to his divine calling.
Joseph’s humility, humanity and honor were not in the least bit influenced by the clothes he wore or the positions he held. His psyche and essential identity were derived from the higher purpose he pursued wherever he found himself. Clothes don’t make the man/woman. The values they wear, do.
Aliza Lipkin, Writer and educator, Maaleh Adumim, Israel
It’s perplexing that this week’s Parsha refers to the dungeon Joseph was released from as bor (pit) when in the previous Parsha it is called Beit Hatzohar (prison) no less than eight times.
The word bor (pit) harkens back to when Joseph’s brothers cast him into a bor (pit) due to their jealousy after he relayed his dreams foretelling that they will bow to him in the future. The use of the word bor indicates a connection between the stories. Perhaps it is to indicate that the period of time from when Joseph was thrown into the pit until he was released by Pharaoh was to achieve one purpose. It was Joseph’s hubris that led him to brag about his dreams causing the brothers jealousy and hatred which led to their actions. Joseph was then humbled repeatedly as he was nearly murdered by his brothers, sexually harassed, jailed by his employer, and left forgotten and alone in prison. This array of travails helped him achieve the humility and gratitude to Hashem necessary to fulfil his mission in Egypt and actualize his dreams.
Sometimes in life, we are stuck in painful situations that keep us from our aspirations. Joseph’s story gives us the fortitude to take each difficulty as an opportunity to grow in character and humbly acknowledge that it is God Who created and runs the world. It is He who endows us with our talents and abilities and it is to Him we owe all our success.
Rabbi Natan Halevy, Kahal Joseph Congregation
The Torah teaches that the winemaker denigrated Yosef to Pharoah. Nevertheless, Hashem placed the favor of Yosef in Pharaoh’s heart, thereby hastening his redemption. Pharoah only related part of his dreams to Yosef, nevertheless he was able to interpret them perfectly.
Pharaoh was testing Yosef’s ability and he passed with flying colors.
One of the strongest messages in Judaism is to never lose hope. Yosef’s story illustrates how easily a situation can change in this world. From being in a distressed situation, Yosef came to a place of expansion. From being despised and in darkness, he came to light. From the depths, he was uplifted. The salvation of Hashem arrives in a moment. The suffering Yosef experienced led to his rise.
This is a powerful lesson: we mustn’t be discouraged by challenging and painful situations. Hashem made a covenant with the salt that was always used to prepare the meat, and for other purposes in the Temple. Hashem promises us that there is a covenant with suffering. Like salt, suffering empowers and strengthens us. We don’t need to seek suffering, as life is full of challenges. A positive attitude through life’s challenges enables us to overcome these difficulties and reach higher levels of spirituality.
This is one of the lessons we learn from Yosef: never give up. Always have a positive attitude and maintain hope for the future. Simultaneously, by working on ourselves and refining our characters, learning, and growing, we prepare ourselves for the elevation when the opportunity arrives.
Rabbi Mari Chernow, Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel of Hollywood
Twenty-three days felt like forever to go without a shower. I was on a backpacking course after college. Its triumphs and challenges (including no shower) were lifechanging. Through a great many enduring lessons, it influenced my life, my leadership, and my deep love of God’s green earth.
Rick was our instructor. He dispensed wisdom on wide-ranging topics such as how to dry wool socks and how to make decisions as a diverse group of wilderness travelers. Rick’s long hair was much longer than mine at the time. I remember a nugget he shared one day, “When you’d give anything for a shower, give your hair and teeth and extra brush. It will change everything.”
Joseph didn’t have much time. Pharaoh sent for him with royal urgency. Yet, he knew that he had to transform. From passive to active. From prisoner to trusted advisor. From self-oriented individual to national leader.
Small acts of personal grooming do not necessarily precipitate change. However, they can signal – to ourselves and to others – meaningful growth. In the right moment, as Rick taught us, they can change everything.
What did fresh clothes and a haircut mean for Joseph? Self-care? Dignity? A newfound balance of humility and courage? His life would turn on this meeting with Pharaoh. It had turned once before on a beautiful coat. It was time to shed the appearance of the favored boy, the servant, the victim, and the prisoner. He was a new man, prepared to save a nation. And himself.
Chana Margulies, Author of “Jumping in Puddles,” chanamargulies.org
Kabbalistically speaking, Yosef represents Zer Anpin, the six emotive attributes of the sefirot.
Hair is a symbol of arrogance. It is directly connected to its source, yet doesn’t feel connected. That is why haircuts don’t cause pain. Hair symbolizes tzimtzum, a constriction of G-dly energy that causes creations’ sense of self-reliance, unaware of the G-dly energy animating it.
Yosef is preparing to meet the king, an expression of the sefira of Malchut. He cuts his hair, wanting to feel directly enlivened by his source. This new humility empowers him to approach the king as a humble servant of Hashem, instead of a dream-interpreting, self-made hotshot.
Being Zer Anpin, he desires to go upwards and merge into the higher sefirot. But to actualize his potential, he needs to descend into Malchut. Cutting his hair–feeling closer to his source–empowers him to step into his life’s mission.
Yosef teaches how connecting to our source is the first step towards material success. Mitzvahs are the wifi password. Divinity is what we want to download. Being the CEO of the universe, Hashem has all the connections. When we connect, all doors open. Yosef teaches us that the path to success is not taking credit for our gifts. Rather, we feel how it all flows through us, and then we can face the king and step into our power–our unique life’s mission. True humility isn’t about being hidden, it’s about stepping into our power, and knowing the source of all power is Hashem.
With thanks to Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Aliza Lipkin, Rabbi Natan Halevy, Rabbi Mari Chernow and Chana Margulies
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