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Thursday, 22 December, 2016 - 6:15 pm

"I never knew what real happiness was until I got married; and then it was too late."

–Mr. Goldberg.

This week's Torah portion, Vayeshev, relates the story of Joseph. At the tender age of 17, Joseph, the beloved child of our Patriarch Jacob, was snatched by his own brothers and cast into a pit. Then they took him out of the pit and sold him into slavery. In his new master's home in Egypt, he was accused of seduction and attempted rape and thrown in a dungeon, where he spent the next 12 years of his life, from age 18 until 30. There, he became a servant to two of Pharaoh's ministers, his chief butler and baker, who had sinned against Pharaoh and were also cast into the dungeon.

Then the Torah relates the following scene:

Now both of them [the butler and baker] dreamed a dream, each one his dream on the same night, each man according to the interpretation of his dream, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison. And Joseph came to them in the morning, and he saw them and behold, they were depressed.

And he asked them, "Why are your faces sad today?"

And they said to him, "We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter for it." Joseph said to them, "Don't interpretations belong to G-d? Tell [them] to me now." So the chief cupbearer related his dream to Joseph…

Joseph explained to them the meaning behind their dreams. Two years later, Pharaoh dreamed and wanted an interpreter. His chief butler suggested asking Joseph, who was at once summoned to the king. Joseph interpreted Pharaoh's dreams as a prediction that seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine. He said that a system had to be put into place to allocate food from the years of plenty to sustain the country during the pending famine. Pharaoh appointed the Hebrew prisoner to be Egypt's prime minister and in charge of preparing for the famine. Joseph created a brilliant system of allocation and saved the entire population during a devastating famine. Ultimately, his own Jewish family was also saved from starvation because of his wisdom and leadership.

This story evokes several questions:

Firstly, Joseph noticed that Pharaoh's two ministers, the chief butler and baker, looked sad, and he asked why. How strange! They were both lingering in a horrible prison, a hellish Egyptian dungeon! Why should they not be sad?

A patient vacations in the Caribbean islands and sends a postcard to his psychoanalyst: “I am here in the Caribbean's, and I am having a great time. I wish you were here to tell me why.” Yet in prison, no one cares who you are and how you feel. This is the natural place for sadness.

Secondly, why would Joseph be bothered by their mood at all? They were not his family or friends, or even of his tribe. They were Egyptian gentiles, ministers of Pharaoh. Did he really care about their despondency?

Joseph lived a life replete with pain and abuse. At the age of eight he was orphaned when his mother, Rachel, died while giving birth to his baby brother, Benjamin.

When Joseph was a teen, his brothers kidnapped him, threw him in a pit and sold him into slavery to Arab merchants on their way to Egypt. Once there, he was enslaved by an Egyptian officer.

The Midrash relates how Joseph, en route to Egypt, wept uncontrollably, and was whipped by the Arabs. When they passed Bethlehem, where Rachel was buried nine years earlier, Joseph ran and threw himself down on her grave. "Mother, mother," Joseph cried, "why did you abandon me; mother, mother, please rise from your sleep and see my pain."

In Egypt, he was falsely accused of attempting to violate his master's wife. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. From ages 18 to 30, Joseph lived in a dungeon without a single visitor or friend in the world.

One can only imagine how much bitterness and resentment such a person would ordinarily harbor in his heart. We would expect such a person—whose entire life and future was robbed from him for no reason whatsoever—to be angry and bitter; to be harsh, unpleasant and cynical; to resent the entire world, especially ministers of Pharaoh’s palace. Joseph was the ultimate victim who had the full right to be enraged and depressed.

Yet, while lingering in a cell, not knowing if and when he would ever go free, this young prisoner noticed two senior ministers in Egyptian royalty looking dejected. Another Jew might have responded: Good! May this be the fate of them all. Yet, Joseph wanted to know, “Why is your face sad today?” Why in the world are you unhappy and not celebrating life?

Was Joseph in absolute denial?!

The Torah tells us this episode because it teaches us volumes about what it means to be a Jew. Despite all his horribly agonizing experiences, Joseph did not lose his inner sense of happiness and joy. For him, joy was not about having everything you want at every moment; life is filled with too many disappointments to define joy in such narrow terms. If joy depends on having whatever you want, how many people can ever be really joyous? For Joseph, joy was about finding meaning in every experience and using it as an opportunity to grow closer to G-d and to truth. Joy was about finding G-d in every moment, thus realizing that this was part of life's journey and mission. Joseph taught humanity how to create music out of broken chords.

But it went much further. For Joseph, seeing two humans, two creations of G-d, Jewish or not, overtaken by misery, was intolerable. He instinctively asked them why they were depressed.

We live in a society today where we almost expect ourselves to be unhappy. If we notice someone too happy, we wonder what meds they are taking. Joseph taught us a different approach: Happiness is our natural state of being, and it is our duty in life. Every person deserves to be happy, to celebrate life, to dance away their days and nights! Just look at how happy children are naturally. Unhappiness is a distortion of humanity; it is a perversion of reality. We were meant to be happy. We were created by G-d with a purpose, and that must give us profound happiness. Even in prison, Joseph believed, we must be happy, and find our Divine mission in every situation. So, Joseph asked them, Why are your faces sad today?

Lest you think Joseph was simply a nice guy, trying to cheer up people in difficult circumstances, the Torah continues the narrative: As a result of his query, the two inmates shared their dreams, which he successfully interpreted. Years later, when Pharaoh had his mysterious dreams, Joseph was summoned to explain them, and then appointed viceroy of Egypt. He saved the world from a devastating famine. The interest he showed in the mood of his fellow prison inmates is what enabled him to save civilization!

The African security guard at a major slaughter house in Johannesburg welcomed the sound of jangling keys, as it signaled lockup time at the plant at the end of a long and tiring workday.

60 rabbis from Israel, who had come for several months to prepare kosher animals for consumption, exited the building. Soon, the meat would be frozen and sent to Israel. They would come in daily at dawn and engage in slaughtering until early afternoon, when they would return to their lodgings.

One day, as they were about to depart, the African guard told the head of the group that “One rabbi has not come out. What happened to him?”

The head of the group went off to search for the missing rabbi, but shortly after he returned alone.  “Sir, I am positive he’s in there somewhere,” the security guard said with conviction. “No sign of him,” replied the leader. “Are you absolutely sure he didn’t leave yet? Maybe you didn’t notice him slip by as he left for the day?”  “Sir, I am positive he’s in there somewhere,” the guard replied with conviction.

Looking none too pleased, the head of the group went back inside to find the missing “rabbi,” with no success. With as much calm as he could muster, he said, “Dear guard, you must be mistaken. I have searched the facility twice. There’s no way I’m going back to search again.”

Meanwhile, not 100 feet away, in a walk-in freezer locked from the outside, the missing rabbi lay semi-conscious, literally freezing to death. Towards the end of the day he had entered the freezer, the door had shut behind him, and he was locked in. The freezer noise was so loud that his banging and yelling was not heard. His muted calls for help began to slur until they faded completely. “So this is how it feels to die,” he mused. Barely coherent, he mumbled the Shema. He was ready to meet his Creator.

As if in a distant dream, he heard what seemed to be the sound of a screaming angel. “I’m locking up now,” the “head” yelled, his tone leaving no room for arguments. And yet the security guard persisted, “Sir, allow me to check myself, maybe the rabbi is in some type of trouble....”

At the mention of the word “trouble,” the leader jumped and dashed towards the freezers… and found the rabbi freezing to death. At the last moment, he was saved.

The leader asked the security guard, “I’m really curious. There are 60 rabbis who walk out of here every day. We all have beards and look more or less alike. How did you know that this particular one was still inside?”

“It’s really very simple,” the black guard answered. “Every single morning without fail, I am greeted with a solitary ‘good morning.’ From all of you guys, there is only one man who stops daily to say, 'Good morning, how are you? How is your family?' Every evening, upon leaving, he wishes me a hearty ‘good night.’ This morning I received my usual ‘good morning,’ but I still had not received my cheery ‘good night.’ I knew he was still inside!”

After reading this, take upon yourself a practical exercise: Every single day of your life, even when you feel down and about, try to emulate Joseph. Take 25 seconds of your time, approach one person in the world, and ask them with sincerity: "How are you? Are you happy? What is bothering you? How can I help you?" It can be your spouse, your child, your parent, a co-worker, an employee, a friend or a stranger on the street, or a homeless man or woman. Every day—just one sincere and real “good morning.”

One sincere "good morning" from a genuine human heart changes the world and saves lives.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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