Yosef : Is there Effortless Faith?

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley











By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



Our parasha begins two years after the end of Parashat Vayeishev.  Yosef continues to languish in prison, forgotten by the butler whom he had assisted.  The scene shifts to the palace, where disturbing dreams interrupt the sleep of Pharaoh.  Deeply troubled, Pharaoh turns to his trusted advisors for interpretation, but to no avail.  The butler, finally remembering Yosef, mentions a Hebrew lad that he once met while in prison.  At the king’s command, the servants hurry Yosef out of prison to the palace.  Confronting the Egyptian king at last, Yosef calmly assures him that the solution to his dreams will come from Hashem.  He proceeds to explain that Pharaoh’s dreams are no less then a Divine vision, foretelling seven years of amazing plenty to be followed by seven years of excruciating famine.  Yosef suggests that Pharaoh appoint a wise man to supervise the gathering of the grain during the years of prosperity to cope with the upcoming disaster.  Impressed, Pharaoh gives the task to Yosef, appointing him viceroy over the land.  As both Yosef and we expected, his dreams of greatness are finally coming to fruition.


One aspect of Yosef’s behavior troubles the Rabbis.  In last week’s study, we suggested a potential reason why Yosef, of all people, received the moniker “Tzaddik – the righteous one.” But the Rabbis were not above criticizing the behavior of the forefathers when necessary. At the end of last week’s parasha, we read, "and the chief butler did not remember Yosef, and he forgot him" (40:23).  Rashi comments that "since Yosef placed his faith in him [the butler] to remember him [Yosef] to Pharaoh, he was destined to be incarcerated for two years." Rashi’s comment is based on the midrash (Bereshit Rabba 69:3): “‘Happy is the man who trusts in Hashem.’ This is Yosef. “And who does not turn to the haughty” - because Yosef spoke to the butler, two years were added on.”  The Targum Yerushalmi elaborates in this vein:


Yosef abandoned the heavenly kindness that accompanied him from the house of his father, and placed his trust in the chief steward, in created flesh, flesh that tastes of death, and he didn't remember the passage that states and explains, “Cursed shall be the man who relies upon flesh and makes flesh his stronghold and blessed shall be the man that places his trust in Hashem and God will be his stronghold.” On account of this, the chief butler did not remember Yosef and he forgot him until his time came to be redeemed.


Both the Targum Yerushalmi and Rashi refer to Yosef's previous entreaty to the chief butler:


If you will only remember me when things are good with you and you will show kindness to me and you will make mention of me to Pharaoh and bring me out of this house. For I was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews; and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon. (40:14,15)

            According to this approach, it was apparently sinful that Yosef, after interpreting the dreams of the chief baker and chief butler, should plead with the chief butler to remember him to Pharaoh. This is perplexing, to say the least.  What did Yosef do wrong? We are not supposed to rely on miracles. Since when is it anathema to ask another human being for help when in need? Doesn't the Torah teach us that we should make use of all available means to bring about beneficial results?  Previously, we saw that Yaakov Avinu engaged in multiple preparations before his confrontation with his brother Eisav.  He sent elaborate gifts; he split the camp for military purposes.  Only then did he turn in supplication and prayer to Hashem – a fact noted approvingly by Rashi.    Why, then, should Yosef be condemned for using, it would seem, the most natural method of securing his freedom via the chief butler?  How was Yosef to know that the chief wine steward was not the rope Hashem was throwing to him to remove him from the dungeon?  In a time of no direct communication, was Yosef expected to wait for a heavenly voice to determine when and how he would be released?


We can discern two trends in rabbinic thought in dealing with this issue.  The question that the Rabbis raise regarding Yosef’s behavior affects not only the specific case at hand, as a matter of commentary on the Torah.  This question of the apparent conflict between having faith – bitachon - and one’s own efforts to influence results – hishtadlut - and the resulting balance between them is one that we confront daily.[1]


The first approach to explaining the rabbinic criticism of Yosef is that the requirements for righteous people differ from those demanded of the average individual.  The average person must use every human means possible (hishtadlut) to save himself from a difficult situation.  For a tzaddik such as Yosef, however, this is considered a lacking in his reliance upon Hashem (bitachon).[2]  In the words of the Chassidic commentary the Netivot Shalom:


… When [a Jew] trusts in Hashem, all the gates are open to him… If he reaches the highest level of bitachon, he requires no hishtadlut; if not, he still requires some hishtadlut, all according to the level of each individual.  (Commentary ad. loc.)


With this dialectical approach as a guideline, the Rabbeinu Bachye outlines and analyzes what he considers to be the continuum of degrees of faith, from the lowest, which leaves a person no choice but to rely almost entirely on his own efforts, to the highest, in which a person who trusts in Hashem will allow events to unfold as they will.  Therefore, he concludes, when Yosef entreats the butler ”remember me,” this was a flaw in his faith, as it appeared that he was trying to dictate to Hashem how he was to be rescued. 

Imagine a counter-factual scenario in which Yosef did nothing. Yosef interpreted the dreams of the two dreamers who were with him in prison, and they were convinced that he was correct. Within a few days, reality would corroborate his interpretation.  The chief butler would have walked away dazzled by this young Hebrew who could foresee future events. Yosef would have left an indelible impression upon him. But Yosef asked him a favor.  When Yosef requested his assistance, the butler’s estimation of him was seriously compromised.  Baring his soul destroyed the idealized image the butler had of him. Instead, the butler saw a man in need of his favor.   This is clear from the report the chief butler subsequently gave of Yosef to Pharaoh two years later: "And there was there with us a young man, 'na’ar,' a Hebrew servant to the officer of the guard…" (41:12). The Rabbis point out that the chief butler was belittling Yosef with these introductory remarks. The term na’ar carries with it a connotation of foolishness.

However, not all thinkers view the relationship between faith (bitachon) and one’s own efforts to influence results (hishtadlut) as one of opposites.  One of the most systematic treatments of this topic can be found in the Chazon Ish’s Emuna U-Bitachon. While the Chazon Ish recognizes a range of levels of faith (a master of bitachon will turn to teshuva, whereas one of lesser faith will seek out natural means of salvation), he admits that some acts constitute permissible hishtadlut, whereas others are prohibited according to the principle of bitachon. Before engaging in any activity, we must judge if it is in accordance with bitachon. How does the Chazon Ish explain the midrash’s criticism of Yosef?  He explains that Yosef knew that his salvation was not dependent upon hishtadlut, but that all was from Hashem. Since one is enjoined to act and not to rely upon miracles, however, Yosef forced himself to ask the butler. But this specific act was inappropiate, since Yosef knew that the butler was a haughty individual and therefore could not realistically be expected to help him. Thus, his turning to the butler was not a serious act of hishtadlut, but rather an act of despair, in which one grabs at any ridiculous option for salvation instead of relying upon Hashem’s exclusive powers of salvation. This type of “hishtadlut,” according to the Chazon Ish, is prohibited.


According to this apprach, hishtadlut is required; we are not supposed to rely upon miracles. However, certain acts are so far-fetched that they are disqualified from the category of true hishtadlut.


In the last speech that he ever gave, R. Eliyahu Dessler provides his explanation of how one must balance personal efforts and exertions with his trust in Hashem.[3] If your faith is strong, you will be able to discern the spiritual trends that are active in the world, in what direction they are propelling the world, and you must direct your own efforts accordingly.  Yosef was not punished with an additional two years in prison because he asked the butler to help him; everyone is required to act to save himself, and Yosef was correct to approach the butler. His punishment came for a different reason – he placed all his hopes on the butler to save him.  During what was a momentary lapse, Yosef focused on the material means of deliverance and forgot that Hashem directs the world and the pathways of a person.


The issues raised here are weighty ones, subject to individual circumstances and situations.  We should best conclude with the words of King David, who as the ultimate man of faith, eloquently expressed the questions we’ve raised:


I have set Hashem before me always; because He is at my right hand I shall not falter. For this reason my heart does rejoice and my soul is elated, my flesh, too, rests in confidence: Because You will not abandon my soul to the grave, You will not allow Your devout one to witness destruction. You will make known to me the path of life, the fullness of joys in Your Presence, the delights that are in Your right hand for eternity. (Tehillim 16:8-11)


[1] This tension exists in several questions that appear to place value on human initiative.  Regarding seeking medical treatment, the clear normative view in Judaism is that of the Rambam (see Commentary to the Mishna, Pesachim 4:9), who absolutely insists upon the use of medicine and views treatment as a religious requirement.  However, a minority view is expressed by the Ramban in his commentary to Vayikra 26:11, who views medical practices as a bi-dieved, showing a of lack of bitachon. (See the commentary of the Taz to Yoreh De’ah 336, where he eviscerates this approach.)  See the fascinating Halachic discussions of R. Moshe Feinstein zt”l regarding whether or not buying insurance against future accidents reflects a lack of faith in Hashem’s ability to care for us in the future (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 2:111, 4:48). R. Feinstein says that insurance is in the same category as other business activities, which he sees as not only permissible, but also obligatory. He writes that not only is it prohibited to rely upon miracles, it is also prohibited to pray to Hashem for a miracle for parnasa, economic well-being. While one must believe that ultimately his parnasa comes from Hashem, not from his hishtadlut, he is absolutely required to work for a living through natural means. In relation to insurance, his bitachon is expressed in that he has faith that he will be able to keep up with the payments!  (On the interface of deveikut and hashgacha pratit, see also the Rambam’s comments in Moreh Nevuchim 3:51.)

[2] This approach is found in the Chassidic commentaries; see R. Tzaddok Ha-Kohen in Pri Tzaddik, Vaera 4, the Sfat Emet in several places, and the Piaseczner in Derech Ha-Melech, Miketz.  The Meor Vea-Shemesh goes even further and states that it seems as though Yosef relied exclusively upon the butler, not turning to Hashem at all! Mussar thinkers also adopted this approach. For a detailed Mussar treatment, see Madregat Ha-Adam of the Nevordeker, Ma’amar Darchei Ha-Bitachon. A full listing of sources can be found in Y. Nachshoni, Studies in the Weekly Parasha Vol. 1, p. 248.

[3] Michtav Mei-Eliyahu vol. 4, pp. 28-31