Parshat Vayeishev concludes with a puzzling statement: “Yet the chief butler did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.”1 How can this be? A person’s memory can be good or bad, but it seems unlikely that a person like Joseph and an experience such as the one the chief butler had in prison could have been forgotten so quickly. What happened to the chief butler? Why did he have to wait until – as Parshat Mikeitz begins – “the end of two full years”?2

On the simplest level, even if the chief butler had wanted to take action on Joseph’s behalf, the right opportunity to do so would have been elusive. It takes time for such an opportunity to present itself, for the king to seek the butler’s counsel. In the meantime, it is not necessarily surprising that the butler forgot about the matter.

Nechemiah 2 relates a story about another butler – Nechemiah himself – who finds himself in a similar situation. Nechemiah had heard long before that Jerusalem lay in ruins, and while he wants to do something to help improve the situation, it is not within his power to do so. Nechemiah does not turn to the king and request to be sent to Jerusalem, because such a blunt request made at the wrong time may not only be rejected, but may jeopardize his relationship with the king as well. As in the case of Pharaoh’s butler, the problem is one of timing. There, too, the moment arrives when “I did not meet with disfavor before him”3 – the king is in a good mood; he is amenable to conversation – and it is then that Nechemiah can make the offer, with the chance that it will actually be accepted.

What underlies these two stories is that things can take time to crystallize, to unfold. The essence of the matter is that everything that occurs has a predestined time, a particular point when it is supposed to happen. This notion, found both in Rashi and in the Midrash, is an important key to understanding how things develop, not only in Tanach but in other areas as well.

Thus, the moment of “at the end of two full years” depends on two factors: when one would expect an event to occur based on the natural development of things, and when the event is destined to occur. The first factor refers to the complex and multifaceted process of causality; every event has a unique way of unfolding, a system characterized by cause and effect. The second factor represents a different kind of reckoning, which likewise plays a role in determining the nature of events. We are speaking of the intent of an event, its inner purpose. These two factors do not contradict each other but work in tandem.

In Joseph’s case, it took two years and an opportunity until the chief butler opened his mouth. In the grand scheme, all the chief butler must do is open his mouth in order to get the process of Joseph’s rise to greatness underway. The chief butler certainly did not intend for Joseph to reach the high station that he eventually achieved; that was not the intention of anyone who was involved in the story. Yet the butler’s words to Pharaoh suddenly give Joseph an opportunity to get out of prison and begin advancing to a higher status.

This is where the chief butler’s role in Joseph’s ascension comes to an end. From this point on, the story can progress in many different ways. After Joseph interprets his dream, Pharaoh could have easily said to him, “You are the best dream interpreter that I have, and as a reward I am entering you into the ranks of the magicians.” In order for the narrative to avoid the random whims of causality, to move further on its destined course, it needs a push in the right direction.

From the standpoint of inner causality, Joseph’s departure from prison occurred at a predetermined date and time. When this moment arrives, all sorts of things begin to transpire that cause this departure to actually come about. “At the end (miketz) of two full years” – the event that propels Joseph at the age of thirty to the height of his greatness is his “fixed time” (ketz), which is independent of the series of events that preceded it. It was just as likely for Joseph to have fallen into a pit before meeting with his brothers. In that scenario, he would have stood there screaming until those same Midianites would have found him and brought him to Egypt, and he would have come to “the end of two full years” via a different route.

In order to reach this ketz, events are pushed forward so as to occur at a certain, designated time: “And it came to pass at the end of two full years that Pharaoh dreamed.” The time assigned for this event to occur has come. Pharaoh experiences his dream, and a process begins to unfold.

“Let me know, O God, my end”

Within time, there are often markers or signs that point to events that must occur. This is true in the life of the individual, and it is true as well in the life of a community or a nation: Events occur in a certain preordained order. These markers are the fixed times at which each event must come about. That is to say, there is a course of events that advances with the assistance of a variety of mechanisms, a series of causes and effects that operate on one side of causality. Then, a heavenly decree determines the exact moment that the event must come into effect, and with that, it occurs.

The verse, “Let me know, O God, my end, and the measure of my days, what it is,”4 speaks of a predetermined measure to a person’s life. Our sages, both in the Talmud and in the Midrash, deal extensively with this subject. The basic assumption is that there is a ketz to every person’s life, even if certain events or deeds can change its precise duration, shortening or lengthening it. Even when Maimonides5 discusses the relationship between the events that a person experiences and his predetermined ketz, it is clear that some kind of ketz exists for every person. There is a ketz for a person’s greatness, a ketz for his death, and a ketz for every other significant lifetime event. As a rule, we are not privy to these fixed times. A person may sense that a significant event is approaching, but even then he does not truly know when it will transpire.

One aspect of fixed times is that even when we know when an event will occur, we cannot always be certain. The Talmud tells of various cases where, because of a person’s behavior, a certain number of years was added or subtracted from their predetermined allotment of years. For example, several years were added to the life of Benjamin the Righteous because he supported a poor woman.6 Similarly, Rabbi Akiva’s daughter was destined to die at her wedding, but as a result of a charitable deed that she performed, she was allowed to live beyond her wedding day.7

Apparently, no ketz remains absolutely fixed to its exact date, irrespective of other factors. Even when a fixed date for a particular event is decreed from on high, as we find in various prophecies, these dates can shift as well. For the individual as well, there are dynamic factors in life that can alter his fate in one way or another. This idea is found frequently in Tanach, as it says of the redemption, “In its time, I will hasten it.”8 We see from this example that even when an event is assigned a specific time, like the redemption, it is always possible for this time to be moved forward.

In the same vein, the ketz of the Exodus from Egypt and the ketz of the Babylonian exile were not fixed absolutely. It says in Jeremiah9 that the Babylonian exile must last seventy years. But in reality, attempts to establish an accurate chronology seem to indicate that fewer than seventy years transpired between the destruction of the First Temple and the construction of the Second Temple. Our sages10 offer three possible explanations in an attempt to reconcile the number found in Jeremiah with the actual chronology. Whatever the case may be, it seems clear that the length of the exile did not necessarily amount to the seemingly preordained seventy years.

The ketz of the Egyptian exile also seems to change. The Torah says, “They will serve them, and they will oppress them – four hundred years.”11 For this exile as well, it must be that “In its time, I will hasten it” applies. When the words of the Covenant between the Pieces are compared to the time the People of Israel actually spent in Egypt, it turns out that the Egyptian exile lasted for less than half of the period that it was supposed to last. In order to reconcile this reality with the verse, our sages12 derive from the beginning of the verse – “your offspring will be a stranger” – that the years are counted not from the time of the Covenant between the Pieces, but from the birth of Isaac. Even then, when the two chronologies do match up approximately, it is a difficult interpretation to accept.

Each of these is an example of a ketz that, despite its fixed nature, also included ups and downs.

Whenever we speak of designated times for redemption, it should be understood that while the time exists, it does not necessarily hinge on a specific date. There are many historical examples of this. Even Maimonides, who was certainly not the type to engage in calculations of the time of redemption, records one ketz. In his Epistle to Yemen, he writes that although we know that our sages have said, and for good reason, “May those who calculate the end come to grief,”13 a tradition has been passed down to him from his ancestors as to when the time of redemption will be. He says that the redemption will occur in approximately four hundred years, a prospect that displeases Maimonides, as it means that he and his contemporaries will not live to see it.

How events unfold

Just as there are junctions in the road, there are also junctures in time. In order to reach one’s destination, it may be that one must pass a particular junction. However, there is not always only one way to reach that junction; it may be that one can reach it in several different ways. Similarly, one ultimately arrives at a predestined juncture in time, but what exactly will happen at that time and, more significantly, which developments will lead to that juncture, is yet undetermined.

When Jacob blesses his sons before his death and speaks with them about “what will befall you in the end of days,”14 this is the kind of statement that, whether in its plain or its midrashic sense, certainly does not refer to a specific predetermined date. Nevertheless, Jacob is clearly speaking about specific events that are destined to occur and which will arrive, sooner or later, at their appropriate times. His blessing includes a prophecy about the Kingdom of Judah and a prophecy about Samson. The two events are not of the same era and do not refer to the same ketz. However, in both cases it is understood that before the final ketz arrives, a series of events have to occur, though not necessarily all at the same time or in a specific way. Samson’s exploits are bound to occur as a result of Jacob’s blessing; but at least some of the developments of Samson’s narrative appear to be the results of his own, frequently misguided freedom of choice.

Moses’ blessing leaves a similar impression: To reach the ketz, certain events must occur, but each of these necessary events can come about in very different ways.

There is a tradition that every year that is predicted to be the ketz, the year of the redemption, is a dangerous and problematic year. Such a year can truly be the time that the Messiah is destined to arrive, but this is not guaranteed to be true. Hence, it is a time that is marked by anxiety, when we are especially encouraged to engage in Torah study and good deeds. Maimonides’ tradition, for example, was based on the verse, “In this (hazot) year of jubilee you shall return each man to his ancestral heritage,”15 where the numerical value of the word “hazot” alludes to the year 5408. In precisely that year there were major pogroms against the Jews of Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania, known as the Chmielnicki Massacres.

The times of the ketz are sensitive periods for the Jewish people. Just as the physical world contains plateaus and mountains, the same is true in the realm of time. When one walks on flat land, it may seem that all is well, but when one encounters a mountain, it is impossible to ignore it, even if it can ultimately be overcome – and the same can be said of the events in the life of a person or in the history of a nation. Occasionally, we encounter signs that indicate that, as we proclaim in the Musaf service on Rosh Hashana, “today the world is pregnant.” This “pregnancy” can result in the birth of a Jacob, but it can also result in the birth of an Esau. Whatever the nature of this momentous “birth” – whether it heralds salvation and consolation or, Heaven forbid, the opposite – it is always a time of upheaval.

The ketz of the Messiah is a time of tremendous change throughout the world. Hence, any potential preordained time for this is a si­gnificant point, a deep fissure in the sequence of time, foreshadowing that certain important events are about to happen. How they will happen and what their nature will be apparently depends on other factors.

Our sages say that the Messiah may come in stillness and quiet, but may also come in storm and tempest.16 Here, too, the destination is known, but the way there is not set. If one follows the good and straight path, he will not have to experience tribulations; but if he does not follow the proper path, God will appoint over him “a king whose decrees are as harsh as Haman’s.” When the time of the redemption comes, the world will undergo change. If one allows the change to come quietly, it will be quiet; if not, its arrival will be accompanied by loud noise and great anger.

According to our sages, “It would have been fitting for Jacob our patriarch to go down to Egypt in iron chains, only that his merit saved him,17 and God brought it about that he traveled to Egypt of his own volition. The People of Israel had to end up in Egypt; they could not escape this fate. But the route to Egypt was never set in stone: If not for Jacob’s merit, he and his family could have been brought there against their will. In the end, though the final destination remained the same – enslavement in Egypt – Jacob was able to improve his lot for the duration of the journey.

“And it came to pass, at the end of two full years” signals that the time has come for something to occur. The “how” of the matter is trivial – Pharaoh has a dream, the chief butler happens to be present, other events align, and ultimately, they all cross the threshold simultaneously, reaching their ketz at precisely the right time.