The Gemara in Masekhet Rosh Hashanah (11a) tells that it was on Rosh Hashanah when Yosef was released from the Egyptian dungeon and brought before Pharaoh. Yosef had been imprisoned on false charges of attempting to rape his master’s wife, and after languishing in prison for twelve years, he was released through a most unlikely sequence of events. Pharaoh dreamt an unusual dream, and his cup-bearer recommended that the king consult with Yosef – who had successfully interpreted the cup-bearer’s dream when he sat in prison. Yosef was brought before Pharaoh, and his interpretation so impressed the king that he promptly named Yosef his vizier – instantly transforming Yosef from an unknown prisoner to the second most powerful man in the Egyptian Empire.
What is the significance of the fact that this miracle occurred on Rosh Hashanah?
One possibility is that the Gemara here underscores the theme of renewal, that on Rosh Hashanah we are given the opportunity – and presented with the challenge – to create ourselves and our lives anew. Just as Yosef’s life was suddenly transformed on Rosh Hashanah, so are we able to change ourselves, our conduct, our beings, and our world, through the process of introspection and reaffirming our commitment to live the way God wants us to live. In a similar vein, the Chiddushei Ha-Rim taught that Rosh Hashanah empowers us to “free” ourselves from the “chains” that “imprison” us. We oftentimes feel trapped by certain negative habits, tendencies and routines, and the occasion of Rosh Hashanah brings a special power to extricate ourselves from these unwanted bonds so we can become the people whom we truly wish to become.
Another possibility is that Chazal here seek to demonstrate the gravity of the judgment on Rosh Hashanah. As we know from text of the Zikhronot section of the musaf service on Rosh Hashanah, on this day God decrees the fate of entire countries – whether they will prosper and flourish, or whether they will be struck by catastrophe. A drastic example of how nations’ fate hang in the balance on Rosh Hashanah is the story of Pharaoh’s dream, which he beheld on the night of Rosh Hashanah. It was this vision which effectively saved Egypt – and the entire region – from starvation. God decreed that a devastating famine would strike the region seven years later – but He also put into place the system that would rescue the region from widespread, deadly starvation, sending Pharaoh a dream that led to Yosef’s prediction and program of saving grain in anticipation of the drought. The future of the empire and the region was being determined that day, and God mercifully chose to rescue the region from what would have been a catastrophic condition.
Returning to Yosef’s personal transformation, we might also point to the fact that Yosef’s life mission began on that day. As he languished in the dungeon, falsely accused of a severe crime, it appeared that Yosef would never be heard of again, that he would spend the rest of his life sitting idly, in obscurity, unable to make any contribution to the world. All of Yosef’s extraordinary potential – his intelligence, insight, charisma and piety – seemed to be going to waste, withering in a dark, dreary prison cell. Suddenly, Yosef was lifted from the dungeon and thrust into a position in the capacity of which he saved untold numbers of lives. By teaching us that this transformation occurred on Rosh Hashanah, Chazal perhaps seek to challenge us to do what we can to leave our own personal “prisons,” to see if maybe we have voluntarily confined ourselves to the comfort of obscurity and inactivity. Whether out of misplaced humility, low self-esteem, or simple laziness, we might – knowingly or unknowingly – be “imprisoning” our potential, denying the world the valuable resources that we can offer. Rosh Hashanah, the day when Yosef left the obscurity of prison to the palace of the world’s largest empire, is the day when we are called upon to leave our own self-made “prisons” and make the decision to enter whichever “palaces” in which we can help, give, and make the most significant contribution to the world that we can make.