Monday, December 10, 2012

Miketz: At the end of two years from when?

Summary: And, did Yosef do right to ask the butler for help? I believe these two questions are related, and it is no accident that the midrash which has it as two years from his asking considers his request wrong. Plus, how to understand it as Yosef acting properly.

Post: Parashat Miketz begins:

1. It came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh was dreaming, and behold, he was standing by the Nile. א. וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ שְׁנָתַיִם יָמִים וּפַרְעֹה חֹלֵם וְהִנֵּה עֹמֵד עַל הַיְאֹר:

Miketz means at the end of some period. But what period? When did the two year period begin? As Ibn Ezra notes,

ויהי מקץ -לא פירוש הכתוב י זה החשבון. 
וכן: ויהי מקץ ארבעים שנה. 
וכן: ובעוד שישים וחמש שנה.
ויהי בשלשים שנה.
ויתכן להיות שזה החשבון ליציאת שר המשקים מבית הסהר, או לשבת יוסף שם.

this could either be from the time he first entered prison or from his conversation with the royal butler. We are not informed which.

I think that we can relate this ambiguity to another question, as to whether Yosef was right to ask the butler to remember him to Pharaoh. according to a midrash, he should not have asked, but should have instead relied on Hashem. As punishment, the butler did not remember him and indeed forgot him, and Yosef had to wait an additional two years in prison as a result. Clearly, this midrash interprets Miketz as at the end of two years from Yosef' s request, which was the last mentioned event.

On the other hand, we can say that there was no problem with Yosef making this request of the butler.There was a Divine plan in action, specified at the brit bein habetarim, but implemented via seemingly natural causes.Thus Yosef's being sent to his brothers was part of the Emek Chevron, as he was meant to be sold into servitude.

So too how he was purchased by Potiphar, how he attracted Potiphar' s wife, how he was imprisoned, how he came to the attention of the jailer, how the baker and butler were imprisoned with him, how they had parallel dreams, and how he interrupted them correctly.

I don't think that Yosef can then be called for working within the natural system. Just like the person caught in a flood, who keeps refusing help... a boat, a helicopter, and so on, because God would save him him.When he finally drowns, he complains to God, how come he wasn't saved. "What do you mean?" asks God, "I sent you a car, I sent you a boat, I sent you a helicopter!" Yosef might have thought that this was how he was to be saved.

If so, the wait in prison could not be punishment, and so we would not be as likely to say that the two years began from the time he asked for assistance from the royal butler.

Rather, the Divine plan was proceeding like clockwork. And the next stage was to take place at the two year mark.

Why would the butler forget Yosef, if this were not punishment? Because to be saved at that point was not part of the Divine plan. Had the butler interceded on Yosef's behalf, what would have happened? Yosef would have been freed from prison, and would owe the butler greatly for his release. He would be a commoner, and either would settle in as a housekeeper / servant or else maybe even find his way back to Canaan.

Instead, Yosef stayed in prison and was there just when Pharaoh needed him. His freedom was barely thanks to the butler, who had gone back on his word in the interim and had indeed forgotten Yosef. He was freed from prison because Pharaoh needed him, and so was catapulted to glory and greatness, to second-in-command to Pharaoh, from the depths of the pit. Still, this earlier stage in which he interpreted the dream of the butler was necessary as setup for the later redemption to glory, for otherwise, there would have been no one to recommend Yosef to Pharaoh. And again, as a stage, the idea that the full redemption would not occur until the next tick of the clock works well with the two years being measured from his entrance into prison.

Of course, either understanding of whether Yosef did wrong or right can work with either interpretation of Miketz. What I refer to here is which interpretation works best with which.


Matthew Miller said...

Take a look at the Ralbag's 7th lesson from last week's parsha....he says that it was, indeed, a good thing for Yosef to ask to get out.

Joe in Australia said...

If the baker and butler were imprisoned for a year before having their dreams, and they were released on Pharaoh's birthday three days later, then they were originally imprisoned three days before Pharaoh's birthday. If we assume that Pharaoh customarily released prisoners on his birthday then a period of "two years" starting with Joseph's imprisonment would end three days before Pharaoh's next birthday. Why do we need to know that the butler forgot Joseph? Wouldn't it be reasonable to suppose that Joseph would have been naturally released on Pharaoh's birthday, if he hadn't already been freed?


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