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Dec 14 2012

Where We Must Work

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In this week’s reading, the time for Yosef’s redemption finally arrives. Pharoah has dreams, his sommelier (wine butler) suddenly remembers Yosef, and Yosef is hastily pulled from jail, given a haircut, and sent to interpret the dreams of Pharoah.

Two weeks ago, I spoke about the need to make our own efforts, while knowing that in the end it is G-d who determines the results. But I closed with a question: what was wrong with Joseph’s efforts? Why was he punished for asking the sommelier to remember him?

It’s clear that that is what happened. Last week’s reading concludes with the verse, “and the sommelier did not remember Yosef, and he forgot him.” Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki explains that he did not remember him that day, and forgot him afterwards — because Yosef had placed his trust in the sommelier rather than G-d. That is a startling indictment of the only one of Yaakov’s sons who was the forefather of two tribes. For someone of his exalted standard, we are told, what Yosef did was wrong. But why — what was wrong with trying?

I saw an interesting explanation attributed to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a world-renowned religious leader who passed away barely 25 years ago. He said that Yosef’s high standard was very much part of the issue. Yosef, being who he was, should have recognized immediately that the peculiar circumstance of his being imprisoned together with Pharoah’s personal sommelier and baker, and them having dreams, and him knowing exactly what to tell them — all of that was clearly not coincidence. It should have been obvious to him that G-d’s Plan was already in motion. As we see this week, he was rushed from prison to tell Pharoah that fat cows mean times of plenty, and starving cows mean times of starvation, and was instantly appointed second in command over the whole country. With “20/20 hindsight” it’s obvious that this was all planned out — and enough signs were there that Yosef should have seen it coming.

But we, alas, are not Yosef. Very rarely could we be confident that we are in a situation where our efforts aren’t needed, before the gift of hindsight. We always have to do our best. When should we be idle? When we have done everything humanly possible.

And among the fascinating comments which I received, I would like to respond to the one from Esty who said it is difficult to understand how much effort a person needs to put in, especially in terms of self growth. To her I would say, this is the area where our efforts are actually most crucial! The Talmud says that everything is in the hands of Heaven — except fear of Heaven. This is the exception to the rule that we make our effort, but G-d determines whether there will be success. In this particular area, when we make an effort, G-d will give us success. “Open for me an opening like the eye of a needle, and I will open it for you the size of a hall.” There is truly no limit to the effort a person should put in, when it comes to self-growth towards G-d.

We are now in the closing days of Chanukah, when the miracle of the burning oil testified to the miracle of the recapture and rededication of the Holy Temple. This is when G-d brought extra light to the world, and as the verse says — “the Commandment is a candle, and the Torah is the light.” This is an ideal time for us to increase our efforts to attach ourselves to G-d and Torah.

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