“Two Long Years in Joseph’s Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, opens two years after Joseph had successfully interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s chief butler and chief baker. The butler was restored to his butlership, but the baker was hanged.

It is now Pharaoh’s turn to dream, not one, but two dreams. In his first dream, seven fat cows are devoured by seven thin cows. In the second dream, seven fat sheaves of wheat are eaten by seven thin sheaves of wheat. Although the wise men and sorcerers of Egypt tried to interpret the dreams, none could elucidate them for Pharaoh, and his spirit was greatly agitated. Upon the recommendation of the chief butler, Joseph is then rushed from prison to Pharaoh’s palace to decipher the mysterious dreams.

The commentators are puzzled by the delay of two years from the time that Joseph interpreted the butler and baker’s dreams until he was brought to Pharaoh. We recall that at the end of last week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, Joseph predicts that Pharaoh will forgive the butler and restore him to his butlership. Joseph then plaintively requests of the butler to please remember him. Scripture records Joseph’s request, Genesis 40:14-15,”Kee im z’char’tah’nee eet’cha, ka’ah’sher yee’tahv lach, v’ah’see’tah nah ee’mah’dee cha’sed, v’hiz’kar’tah’nee el Par’oh, v’ho’tzay’tah’nee min ha’bayit ha’zeh,” [When you will be restored to serve as cup-bearer,] “if you would remember me with yourself, when he [Pharaoh] benefits you, and you will please do me a kindness and mention me to Pharaoh, then you would get me out of this house [prison]. For indeed I was kidnaped from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have not done anything for them to have put me in the pit.”

In Genesis 40:23, the Bible states that when the butler was restored to his service and once again placed the cup in Pharaoh’s palm, “V’lo za’char sar ha’mash’kim et Yosef, va’yish’ka’chay’hoo,” yet, the Chief Butler did not remember Joseph, and he forgot him. Rashi explains that the reason that the butler not only failed to remember Joseph on the day he was restored to serve the King, but also forgot Joseph afterwards, was because Joseph depended on the butler to remember him. Therefore, says Rashi, Joseph was punished to remain in prison two additional years. A man of faith, says Rashi, should have placed his reliance in G-d, and not turned to the arrogant Egyptians for help.

The commentators explain that Heaven had already decreed that Joseph should be imprisoned for ten years as a punishment for the great discomfort and upset that he caused his brothers and his family. Joseph was to serve one year in prison for the pain that he caused each of his ten brothers. The Midrash notes that two additional years were added to Joseph’s sentence for the “faithless” two words that Joseph said to the butler, “z’char’tah’nee,” remember me, and “v’hiz’kar’tah’nee,” mention me. For each one of those superfluous words that Joseph uttered, Joseph paid with a year of his freedom.

The rabbis of the Midrash explain that the two years added to Joseph’s sentence were actually beneficial to Joseph, because they eventually enabled him to appear before Pharaoh as a person of stature, rather than merely a freed prisoner. Joseph understood that the Al-mighty conducts the world on a measure-for-measure basis. Since it was due to a dream that Joseph was sold as a slave, Joseph understood, from early on, that his release, rescue and freedom would come by way of a dream as well. Consequently, when Joseph heard the dreams of the butler and the baker, he assumed that these were the dreams that would lead to his release and freedom. He, therefore, asked the butler to remember him and to make mention of him to Pharaoh.

However, the time was not yet ripe. Had the butler mentioned Joseph to Pharaoh when the butler was restored to his position, Joseph might have been released, but, there would have been no reason for Pharaoh to elevate Joseph to an exalted position in Egypt. Joseph would have been indebted to Pharaoh for releasing him, but Pharaoh would not have been in Joseph’s debt, since he had not yet interpreted Pharaoh’s dream.

Therefore, the Al-mighty said to Himself, it is preferable that Joseph remain in prison and wait for the dream of Pharaoh, a dream that would lead to Joseph’s elevation. But since the time of feast and famine had not yet arrived in the world, it needed to wait two more years.

Another reason for the delay in Joseph’s release, was that Jacob, Joseph’s elderly father, had a old debt to pay. Jacob had spent 22 years away from his own father, Isaac, when he fled from Esau. Jacob was now fated to similarly suffer a separation of 22 years from his own beloved son, Joseph. Only with the additional two years in prison do the total number of years (with a few extra months here and there), that Joseph is separated from his father, add up to 22 years. 10 years in prison, two additional years until Joseph is summoned to Pharaoh, seven years of feast and two years of famine, after which Jacob comes down to Egypt and is reunited with Joseph. The two year delay, is obviously a critical factor in making it possible for all the necessary pieces of the story to come together.

It is no coincidence, that each year, the story of Joseph is read during the festival of Chanukah. Parashat Mikeitz is generally read on the Sabbath of Chanukah, and there is always a significant connection between the parasha and Chanukah. In Pharaoh’s dream, the thin, weak and emaciated cows devour the fat and healthy cows. In Pharaoh’s second dream, the thin and beaten sheaves of wheat eat the strong, full and healthy stalks. On Chanukah we celebrate the Divine miracle of the delivery of the powerful and numerically superior armies of the Syrian-Greeks into the hands of the weak and few Maccabees.

The powerful parallel between the weekly Torah portion and the story of Chanukah, is a confirmation of the rabbinic dictum, that the deeds of the fathers are signposts to the children. Jews, must always be attuned to history, and learn from history’s precedents.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah began on Saturday night, December 8th, 2012 and continues for eight additional days, through Sunday evening, December 16th, 2012.  Click here for the Jewish Treats Complete Guide to Chanukah,