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yesh omrim

a blog that reclines to the left


...until Ben Zoma explained it to me

23 December 2003

According to a well-known midrash, when Joseph asks the cup-bearer to put in a good word for him to Pharoah (Genesis 40:14–15, in last week’s parsha), Joseph was exhibiting insufficient faith, and as punishment, God kept him in prison another two years.

For a very long time, this midrash bothered me. When we’re in trouble, does God really want us to sit on our butts and wait for divine intervention to save us? Indeed, citations to this midrash are often accompanied by a hand-waving qualification that of course, someone on Joseph’s level should have known better than to ask a mere mortal to help him get out of prison, but we poor schmucks should not rely on miracles.

Then I noticed the distinction between Joseph’s interpretation of his fellow prisoners’ dreams (40:12–19) and his interpretation of Pharoah’s dream (41:25–32). When talking to Pharoah, Joseph makes it clear that God is the agent here, using the dreams to tell Pharoah what He will do. By contrast, Joseph tells the baker and cup-bearer, “Don’t interpretations belong to God?” to get them to describe their dreams, but after that, he doesn’t mention God at all.

Furthermore, as a rational strategy for getting sprung, Joseph’s plea makes no sense. “I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews”—why should Pharoah care? “I didn’t do anything to be put in this pit”—how many prisoners will actually admit to being guilty? Joseph isn’t trying to get Alan Dershowitz to help him appeal his verdict; he’s unburdening his feelings on the cup-bearer, and his predominant feeling is I don’t belong here.

When we are in trouble, we can, and should, use every practical and moral means at our disposal to improve our condition. But our efforts should not make us forget that God is in control of the world.