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Yosef's Changing Fortunes

Rav Michael Hattin




It came to pass after two years had elapsed that Pharaoh dreamt, and behold he was standing on the banks of the Nile…


So begins this week's Parasha, with a report of Pharaoh's unsettling dreams.  Just last week, we began the account of Yosef, the saga of the arrogant, immature but unusually gifted youth who was favored by his father and correspondingly despised by his brothers.  Down to Egypt they had sold him, concealing the evidence of their crime by wreaking their vengeance upon Yosef's despised mantel of many colors.  To their aged father they had presented its bloodstained tatters, steeling their hate-filled hearts to his anguished sobs even as Ya'acov had collapsed in grief and refused to be comforted.  The guilt for their crime, however, could not be so effortlessly expunged without a trace, and many years later would return to accuse them.


While Ya'acov mourned and the brothers returned to their pastoral routines, Yosef began his meteoric rise.  Purchased by a certain Potiphar, the Chief of Pharaoh's Guard, the ambitious and talented Hebrew lad quickly rose through the ranks, and soon became overseer of the household.  His master left everything to able Yosef's care, and Yosef never disappointed, for "God was with him" (39:2).  It seemed as if nothing could possibly derail Yosef's single-minded drive towards success, to the achievement of the very dreams of glory whose glowing embers he had lovingly guarded in his mind since the day that he had been traumatically wrenched from his aged father's embrace. 




Suddenly, however, in a proverbial instant, all of Yosef's efforts and aspirations were dashed to pieces.  With the false accusation of Potiphar's wife unexpectedly leveled against him, Yosef's loyalty and fidelity to Potiphar were now reinterpreted by the palace wags as nothing more than self-serving opportunism and conceit.  Like a shooting star tracing its bright but downward arc across the heavens, only to inevitably fade into the black vault and disappear, Yosef and his dreams were abruptly overturned.  Without warning, his fine linen mantle of overseer, torn from him by the wife of Potiphar's covetous hands, was exchanged for the dismal garb of the prisoner.


In prison, however, Yosef again began to rise.  Showered with the same Divine blessing that invariably impressed even his most vociferous of detractors, Yosef soon became overseer again, this time of the lowly denizens of Pharaoh's dungeon!  But even in its dank confines, possibilities for advancement lurked, for occasionally even formerly mighty ministers might make its rounds to serve their sentences and then return to Pharaoh's service in accordance with the monarch's mercurial whims.  Appointed to serve its latest arrivals, the baker and the butler who had offended the royal sensibilities, Yosef quickly won their favor.  Eventually, the inevitable morning dawned, as the two ministers rose from a fitful sleep that had been filled with inexplicable phantoms of the night.  Calming their feverish minds, slowing their racing hearts, Yosef spelled out the import of their dreams: life for the butler, painful and ignominious death for the baker.  "Remember me with you!" pleaded Yosef, "act with compassion upon your release and mention me to Pharaoh, so that he might release me from this pit!" (40:14).  But the butler forgot.


Two years elapsed, until Pharaoh himself dreamed.  Seeing first cows and then sheaves, first fat and then lean, the god-king's peaceful slumber was disturbed.  Arising in the morning, he excitedly sought the advice of his advisors and wise men, his magicians and ministers, but none could seize hold of the fleeting nighttime specters and interpret them to his satisfaction.  Suddenly, the butler recalled his pledge: "My sin I declare this day!" he blurted, as the memories of Yosef, inexplicably banished from his consciousness since the day of his predicted release, suddenly flooded back.  "…With us in prison was a Hebrew lad, a servant of the Chief of the Guard, and when we told him our dreams he interpreted them, each one in accordance with what befell him…" (41:12).





Unexpectedly, with all of the drama associated with only the most astonishing and unanticipated of moments, Yosef was released: "Pharaoh sent and fetched Yosef, who was quickly released from the dungeon.  He shaved and changed his garments and stood in Pharaoh's presence" (41:14).  Miraculously able to interpret Pharaoh's dreams, Yosef, now thirty years old, was again catapulted forwards, this time (unbelievably) to the position of Viceroy.  Amazed by Yosef's intuition, no doubt impressed with the now effortlessly recalled gushing reports of his earlier administrative accomplishments, Pharaoh wisely decided that the interpreter of the dreams was also the best candidate for their able implementation:


After the Lord has informed you of all this, there is none more wise or capable than you.  You shall oversee my house, and in accordance with your orders all of my people shall be sustained, for only the throne shall outrank you…Pharaoh removed his ring from his hand and placed it upon the hand of Yosef.  He clothed him with garments of fine linen and placed a golden necklace upon his neck…(41:39-42).


These are the main events in the riveting story of Yosef's rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall, and final triumphant rise once again.  In his father's house he had been chosen but by his brothers' animosity he had been deposed, in Potiphar's employ he had achieved success but by his master's wife's revenge he had been unjustly unseated from his perch, even in the prison he had won admirers but by the butler's inexplicably deficient memory he had been condemned to an inexplicably prolonged incarceration.  Ultimately, in a climactic conclusion to the narrative, Pharaoh himself had released him and elevated him to preeminence, his star now shining with a brilliant luster that would wane no more.  From this point onwards, in fact, the focus of the narratives subtly shifts to the story of Yosef's brothers, forced by famine to descend to Egypt, there to face the phantoms of their past that had no doubt haunted their nights as well.





If we were to search for a literary motif that informs the entire story of Yosef up until this point, it is no doubt the theme of haste.  How quickly do this man's fortunes seem to be transformed!  Not only does he experience an unusual amount of turbulence during the course of his short thirty years, but also every pivotal moment in his life, whether good or bad, unfolds with astonishing speed as success inexplicably turns to failure and then back to success once again.  Now the intervening intervals may of course be lengthy, but there are no gradual transformations in Yosef's life.  In what seems like a only a moment he achieves greatness and power to take the place of poverty and utter vulnerability; another fleeting moment passes and he is cast down low and undone. 


Significantly, every one of these turning points is literarily linked with a donning or removal of a mantle, and in particular with the mantle of an overseer of one sort or another.  Thus, to be specific, when Yosef is chosen by his father to govern the brothers, he is invested in that august office (for which he is scarcely mature) with the donning of the coat of many colors.  This beautiful cloak, of good quality but provincial weave, is immediately stripped off of him when he is unexpectedly attacked by his brothers, thus signifying his first and most painful fall.  In Potiphar's employ, he is again clothed with the insignia of overseer as he rises to power, but the master's wife seizes the garment when her attempts at seduction fail, thus unleashing the inevitable process of Yosef's speedy decline.  How tellingly does the Torah indicate that "she kept the garment next to her until (Yosef's) master returned" (39:16), thus recalling the initial presentation – also as evidence of downfall – of the coat of many colors to Ya'acov so many years earlier. 


In prison, Yosef is again clothed, but this time in the rags of an inmate.  After the memory of the butler is unexpectedly jogged, Yosef is summarily stripped of these tatters, to be first clothed in fresh garments when he initially appears in Pharaoh's presence (41:14), and later to be immediately covered with "garments of the finest linen and a necklace of gold" (41:42) when he assumes the position of viceroy.  The question is therefore twofold: what is the significance of the recurring theme of urgency and speed in the story of Yosef, and why is that transformative haste invariably linked with the donning or removal of external garb?





Let us begin with the second query first.  In the Torah, as it is to this today, the clothing of an individual describes his or her station.  A person's wealth, their occupation or role is symbolized or suggested by the clothing that they wear.  It is not that one's clothing indicates anything at all about a person's character or innate qualities.  As we all know, this is most certainly not the case any more than a precious veneer can tell us anything about the base material concealed below its thin surface.  Rather, the importance of clothing is that it serves as the most obvious representation of either our aspirations or else our achievements.


Thus, to take a glaring example, the Kohen Gadol or High Priest is dressed in precious garments of scarlet, crimson, purple and fine linen.  Threads of gold are skillfully woven into the fabric and precious stones and metals adorn it.  The High Priest is like a monarch (see the commentary of the Ramban, Shemot 28:2), a king of the spirit who dedicates his life to the people of Israel and to the God that they serve.  Thus it is that his royal clothing is everywhere marked with the names of the tribes as well as of God.  This is not to say that the Kohen Gadol truly embodies those exalted principles – only God can peer into the deepest recesses of the human heart – but only that such should be his aspirations.


Perhaps the first expression of this idea is also the earliest mention of clothing in the Torah.  After Adam and Chava ate from the Tree of Knowledge and were banished from the Garden, the Torah tells us that "God Lord made garments of skin for Adam and for his wife, and He clothed them" (Bereishit 3:21).  Not only were these garments powerful expressions of Divine concern even in the aftermath of their abrogation of His command, but also pronouncements of their change in status.  Now they were truly human, no longer naked like the beasts of the field, for by the exercise of their moral will they had not only brought disaster upon themselves but, more importantly, had also introduced to the world the awesome consequences of human choice.  Could it not also be the case that when young Ya'acov dons the cloak of his brother Esav at mother Rivka's behest (Bereishit 27:15), he not only attempts to hoodwink his blind father by disguising himself as his momentarily older twin, but also to anticipate the patriarchal blessing by ceremoniously taking upon himself the mantle and the mission of the firstborn?  As Israel stands at Sinai and prepares to receive the Torah, to consequently don the mantle of "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (see Shemot 19:1-5), is it not appropriate that they are also enjoined to mark the transition by "washing their clothes" (Shemot 19:10)?  Is it not more than ceremonial purification that lies at the core of Sefer VaYikra's repeated refrain that one who was ritually unfit due to any number of possible "tum'a" circumstances must wear "laundered clothes" (see VaYikra Chapter 11 et al) when they return to a state of purity?


Certainly, with respect to Yosef, the expression of altered status is undeniable.  When Yosef rises, he is invariably enwrapped; when he falls, he is without fail divested.  And the Torah reinforces this linkage from the very first mention of the coat of many colors until the final donning of the robes of viceroy some thirteen years later.  





But what about the theme of haste, the literary corollary to Yosef's wild swings of fortune and changes of garb?  Here, the Seforno (15th century, Italy) provides a most plausible interpretation:


The text says that Yosef was "hastily summoned from the pit" to appear before Pharaoh, after the manner of all expressions of God's salvation which occur suddenly…Was this not the way of the Exodus when our ancestors were thrust out of bondage before their dough had time to rise?  Indeed, this shall be the model for the future redemption as well, as the verse states 'for suddenly the Master whom you are seeking shall return to His sanctuary' (Malakhi 3:1). 


In other words, Seforno understands that an abrupt change of fortune is the hallmark of Divine involvement in our lives.  Of course it is the case that God is constantly involved, but how easily we tend to overlook that fact until a situation is suddenly and unexpectedly altered or reversed.   The story of Yosef more than any other account in the book of Bereishit is thus a study in Divine involvement, of the painful but at the same time invigorating spiritual process by which human beings come to first recognize, then to accept, and finally, after many false starts and setbacks, to embrace God's destiny.  Yosef's immature dreams of grandeur are dashed by the brothers, his stellar rise in Potiphar's house is suddenly arrested.  Even his torturous attempts to climb out of the dungeon into which he had been unceremoniously cast are abruptly terminated by the butler's forgetfulness.  But as the recognition slowly and inexorably dawns upon him that God has chosen him for a task, that his innate talents and abilities are not simply tickets to personal attainment but rather instruments for the salvation of others and of his own spiritual self, it is at those moments of self-revelation that his misfortunes are suddenly transformed into successes, and it is precisely then that he is clothed in the garments of his mission. 


The cycle repeats itself a number of times as Yosef gropes for this higher truth, but each repetition represents an incremental advance along the path of his enlightenment.  Finally standing before Pharaoh, all of his pretensions now stripped away by successive trials, Yosef is at that moment utterly aware, for perhaps the first time in his life, that "it is not through my powers, for only the Lord shall answer for Pharaoh's peace" (41:16).  It is precisely then that Yosef is prepared to assume the role of Viceroy, to save his family from the scourge of famine by securing for them grain, while simultaneously preserving their progeny from spiritual demise through the lofty example of his life's choices.  It is at that moment that "Pharaoh removed his ring from his hand and placed it upon the hand of Yosef.  He clothed him with garments of fine linen and placed a golden necklace upon his neck…"(41:42).


Shabbat Shalom


For further study: consider that the Exodus from Egypt, singled out by the Seforno above as the national example of Divine involvement through the motif of haste, also involved an implied change of garments.  Both in the initial encounter between God and Moshe at the burning bush as well as in the actual narratives of Sefer Shemot that describe the event, we are told that Israel ventures forth from bondage with not only vessels of gold and silver, but also with "garments" provided to them by their former overlords (see Shemot 3:22 and 12:35-36).  Might these garments not signify more than simply parting gifts from their terrified hosts?  Might they not also be the tangible expression of the passage from servitude to freedom, from the meaningless toil of making breaks to the exalted mission of fulfilling God's will?  Like Yosef (whose own fortunes seem to uncannily anticipate those of his descendents), there are of course many more stages of development before Israel is truly prepared to embrace their destiny, but their Exodus from bondage represents the first halting steps.

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