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December 1, 2010

Perfect timing

Parashat Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)

http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/perfect_timing_20101201

Two years have passed since the incarcerated Joseph correctly divined the wine steward’s dream in prison, predicting that Pharaoh would pardon the steward and return him to his station. All Joseph had asked, in return, was that this chief sommelier remember him to Pharaoh upon his release.

The wine steward never made any promises to help Joseph, and when he was released, the Torah tells us, the wine steward not only failed to remember Joseph but actively forgot him. It’s only after Pharaoh becomes obsessed with two quirky dreams about thin and fat stalks and cows that the chief sommelier, perhaps seeking personal advantage, chimes in to recommend the incarcerated Hebrew dream-diviner.

God brings people into our lives, all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. And sometimes we neglect to realize that He also is bringing us into their lives. People come in and out for a reason, sometimes only for a minute, a passing dream.

Back in the 1960s, all the graduating eighth-graders at Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Rambam were given “autograph books,” and we all perfunctorily signed each other’s books with mundane comments. Apparently, I was the only kid who ever asked Troy the Janitor to write something in an autograph book. He was moved and struggled mightily to pen something. As he wrote, he said each word out loud. He barely knew me, but he gave me a blessing that deeply touched and inspired me.

Why did the wine steward come into Joseph’s life? Perhaps Joseph needed to sip yet another dose of chastening humility and to encounter another dose of disappointment and failure.

Joseph had been too brash all his young life. Maybe it was because his mother had died prematurely and his father’s focus was diverted among four sets of children. No parent emerged to teach him common sense: You don’t tell your siblings that you keep dreaming they are bowing to you. You don’t tell them that their sheaves bow to you, that they are stars in the sky bowing to you. And maybe you share your striped coat with your brothers and stop “telling on them.”

Even after Shimon and Levi cast Joseph into a pit, leading to his Egyptian slavery, he was soon back on top, named chief aide to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s adviser. It seemed nothing could keep him down. He was a tzadik, so righteous that he resisted Potiphar’s wife (even as the shalshelet cantillation note suggests that he had to wrestle with the temptation), but he apparently needed another round of humility from God to perfect his maturing soul.

Circumstances sent Joseph to prison, where he met the wine steward. Between Joseph’s correct prognostication and his overwhelming charisma, he may have figured that, once again, he would rise rapidly. And then the steward forgot him. Maybe Joseph needed that last jolt of humility to prepare him for his life’s greatest task.

It is not hard to understand the wine steward. He had been locked up because, in the ultimate bottle shock, a fly had ended up in Pharaoh’s goblet. No less than Joseph, the steward probably figured that he also did not belong in prison. Upon being freed, the steward predictably would have resisted asking Pharaoh a favor like: “Hey, I have a buddy in prison. Would you mind letting my pal out, too?” Two years later, when Pharaoh really needed a dream diviner, the steward then perceived that, by suggesting Joseph as royal interpreter, he might score points with Pharaoh. However, the steward had waited too long. He disappears.

Joseph comes before Pharaoh at the perfect moment, though. Had he arrived when he had hoped, he would have been lounging around the palace uselessly for the next two years, living off Pharaoh without earning his keep, maybe getting into more trouble. Instead, he arrived at precisely the moment when a good first impression could elevate him to viceroy status.

Nine years later — after seven years of plenty and two years of a famine abruptly abbreviated by his father Jacob’s arrival in the land — Joseph begins the longest reign in Jewish history. He directs the development and evolution of a 70-member family into a nation of millions, isolated in Goshen away from alien Egyptian influences. Joseph will devote the next 71 years of his life to leading and overseeing the Jewish people’s emergence as a nation, ready to endure any challenge, any setback or humiliation, even slavery, en route to its ultimate journey to greatness at Mount Sinai.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com

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