Pedro, the security guard at a major food plant, welcomed the sound of jangling keys, as it signaled lockup time at the plant, the end of a long and tiring workday.

“Everybody out?” the manager asked.

“Nope, the rabbi is still inside somewhere.”

By “the rabbi,” Pedro meant David, a religious Jew—albeit far from a rabbi—who wore a kippah and beard, hence his nickname.

The manager went off to search for David, but shortly later he returned alone.

“Sir, I am positive he’s in there somewhere,” Pedro replied with conviction“No sign of David. 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,” Pedro replied with conviction. Looking none too pleased, the manager went off looking for David for the second time. After a few minutes he was back, but no David. With as much calm as he could muster, he said, “Pedro, you must be mistaken. I have searched the facility twice. There’s no way I’m going back to search again.”

Meanwhile, not a hundred feet away, in a walk-in freezer locked from the outside, David lay semiconscious, literally freezing to death. His muted calls for help began to slur until they faded completely. “So this is what it feels like to die . . . ,” he mused. Barely coherent, he managed to mutter 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 manager yelled, his tone leaving no room for arguments. And yet Pedro persisted, “Sir, allow me to check myself, maybe the rabbi is in some type of trouble . . .”

At the mention of the word “trouble,” the manager jumped and dashed towards the freezers . . .

The next day, the manager asked Pedro: “I’m really curious. How did you know that David was still inside the plant?”

“It’s really very simple,” Pedro answered. “Every single morning without fail, I am greeted with a solitary ‘good morning.’ It’s the rabbi who greets me this way. Every evening, upon leaving, he wishes me a hearty ‘good night.’ Yesterday morning I received my usual cheery ‘good morning,’ but I still hadn’t received my usual ‘good night’ . . .”

In The Elements of Style, a classic by William Strunk, heralded as a writer’s guide that “should be the daily companion of anyone who writes,” the author makes the case for concise writing:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires…that every word tell.”

There is no better model of this complex art mastered than the Torah.

The need for precision is especially essential to the Torah, whose mission statement—as its name, from the Hebrew word hora’ah, “instruction,” suggests—is to instruct. As befits an instruction manual whose chief objective is clarity, its structure, style and wording are crisp and succinct.

The need for precision is especially essential to the Torah, whose mission statement is to instructWherever in Torah this principle doesn’t seem to operate, a deeper reading is required.

One such example is the fortieth chapter of Genesis, which tells the elaborate tale of two dreams dreamt by Pharaoh’s imprisoned ex-butler and -baker, as well as their respective interpretations and outcomes.

While it’s true that this chapter adds flow to the story—without it we could only speculate as to how Joseph, a lowly inmate, managed to grab the attention and ear of a mighty king in need of a dream decoder—the particulars of this episode are seemingly superfluous.

A concise telling might have been: “And it came to pass that the king’s jailed ministers each dreamt a dream which Joseph accurately deciphered. His interpretation was fulfilled when Pharaoh’s ex-butler was freed and restored to power. He was later recommended to Pharaoh as an interpreter of dreams. “

This version would both satisfy our curiosity and keep the story running, while adhering to the “short and snappy” principle. No?

A Redeeming Approach

Arguably, Joseph is the biblical character to suffer most throughout his formative years and beyond.

Frequently the subject of jealousy and hate, Joseph’s early memories could not have been pretty. Abuse and misery were the story of his life, which featured betrayal, too, as a recurring theme.

Here is how his biography would have read, up to the point of his incarceration:

Joseph son of Jacob: At a young age he lost his mother. To make up for his loss, his father favored him from among his sons. The plan backfired; he was hated by his brothers. At 17 he was uprooted from home and sold into slavery by his own brothers. Picked up by Potiphar, an Egyptian officer, he quickly ascended the ladder of success, ultimately assuming responsibility over his master’s estate. At some point he caught the attention of his boss’s wife, who tried to seduce him. After he repeatedly refused her attempts, she accused him of attempted rape, and he became the butt of a national scandal. By a miracle, his life was spared and he was thrown into prison, left to languish there for the rest of his life.

At this point, he had every right to be a bitter man. He could have withdrawn into himself, as many prisoners do, allowing thoughts of anger and victimization to consume him. Those thoughts would have been justified, for he was truly the victim of false charges. In all but a moment, the ladder he had climbed so fast and high had toppled over.

At this point, he had every right to be a bitter man. He could have withdrawn into himself, as many prisoners doHis dreams of being reunited with his family seemed to be crushed forever. With time on his hands, he could have recalled his youth and his loving father, and wallowed in self-pity. He could have relentlessly nursed his old wounds, whiling away his time by fantasizing about taking sweet revenge upon his enemies.

A boy of noble background, he might have resented and looked down upon his prison-mates, who were common criminals—in addition to being lewd Egyptian idol-worshippers.

And he certainly should have despised the prison wardens who represented, and were employed by, a judicial system that ignored justice. The one that had found him guilty of attempted rape, when in fact he was the victim of precisely that.

As such, we might be startled to read that “the prison warden placed all inmates that were in the prison in Joseph’s custody, and everything that was done there, he would do.”

This appointment was born of the affection he was shown by warden and prisoner alike. Because he hated neither of them, and treated them with concern and goodwill. His cheery spirits were infectious as he went about his work, and his unique communication skills bettered the relationship between the inmates and their supervisors.

Instead of folding his arms in protest, he rolled up his sleeves to contribute. He would make the best of his situation, and that of anyone he encountered. His gloomy past behind him, he worked hard toward a bright future.

This was not the shrewd behavior of a desperate man trying to earn his freedom, or of a social climber bent on pleasing his superiors. This was the genuine and generous behavior of a man who never lost touch with his humanity. His acts of goodness and kindness, which lit up that hellhole and the lives of its inhabitants, were a testament to his inextinguishable love for G‑d and mankind.

A Fateful Day

“And it happened that the king’s cupbearer and baker transgressed against their master, the king of Egypt. Pharaoh was enraged at his two courtiers, and he placed them into the prison where Joseph was confined. The chamberlain of the butchers appointed Joseph to them, and he attended them.” (Genesis 40:1–4)

These men were probably friendly with Potiphar before their demotion, possibly belonging to the very same golf club. Not only did they represent the type of people who had ruined Joseph’s life, Potiphar might even have consulted them before pressing false charges against Joseph. And, along with all of Egypt’s gossipy elite, they certainly knew that Joseph was guiltless, yet they stood by silently as he was convicted.

Anyone else in his sandals would surely have terrorized these men, taking pleasure in watching them sufferJoseph had every reason to hate them, every excuse to enjoy their disgrace and downfall as they had probably enjoyed his.

Anyone else in his sandals, and possessing his advantageous position, would surely have terrorized these selfish men, taking great pleasure in watching them suffer.

Others, perhaps, but not Joseph.

“Joseph came to them in the morning. He saw them and behold they were aggrieved. He asked, ‘Why are your faces downcast today?’” (Ibid., verses 6–7)

At first glance, the question seems preposterous. Due to their minor mistakes in the palace, they had incurred Pharaoh’s wrath, costing them their exalted position, much humiliation, and imprisonment. In a moment they’d been brought from riches to rags. If that wasn’t enough of a reason to fret, they were facing possible capital punishment.

A second glance, however, brings us closer to the true depth of his question and gives us insight into his compassionate heart.

Listen carefully to Joseph’s words.

He didn’t ask, “Why are your faces downcast?”

The answer to that question he already knew from his own heartbreaking life experiences.

Rather, he asked, “Why are your faces downcast today?” implying that he discerned in them today a deeper sadness than the one he had detected in them the day before.

So in tune was he with others that he recognized in them even the slightest change of condition from one day to the next.

And he’d hit the spot. The previous night, “the two of them dreamt a dream.” They remembered their dreams, but the interpretation eluded them. They had no way of decoding what they believed to have been a glimpse into their future and fate. We can only imagine their profound frustration.

But Joseph didn’t have to imagine it, for it clutched at his tender heart. Hypersensitive to others—when he might have been so towards himself—he never ceased to reach out to those hurting and in need.

Ultimately, it was this genuine act of brotherhood that brought salvation to an entire world.

For it was his taking note of their distress that stirred him to respond. And it was his response that resulted in his decoding their dreams.

It was this decoding that later brought him to be mentioned to Pharaoh when he sought an interpreter of dreams. And it was his being mentioned that led him to assist the king with the interpretation.

What might have happened had Joseph not noticed another person’s pain?It was his interpretation that notified Pharaoh of an impending world famine; it was this knowledge that motivated him to fill Egypt’s storehouses.

And it was the filling of Egypt’s storehouses that brought sustenance to a world on the verge of starvation.

What might have happened had Joseph not noticed another person’s pain?

What’s in It for Me?

Joseph represents the abused child, spouse, student or employee. He speaks for the slave, the captive, the wrongly convicted prisoner. He personifies all races discriminated against, and all oppressed religions. He is the voice of those who suffer, those born into hunger, sickness, poverty, illiteracy, child exploitation and lawlessness. For those who were never given a chance.

But as much as he speaks for them, he speaks to them.

Gently and in a nonjudgmental way, he says:

The urge to sulk, to retreat into ourselves, to blame, to become desensitized to others, can be overpowering. The allure of cynicism, pessimism, suspicion, and scorn can be equally compelling.

We tell ourselves that our suffering at the hands of uncaring people, or life’s painful twists, earned us the right to be bitter and removed. Why should we respond with a warm smile, word or deed?

Why should we notice others when we are never noticed?

Says Joseph from experience: For no other reason than that is how an entire world is changed.

. . . More for Me

People tend to ask themselves: Do I really matter?

True, in my little sphere of influence I am a contributor, but in the bigger scheme of things—on a national or even global level—does little me truly make a difference? Do the good deeds that I do amount to much; do they really make a difference?

Your act of kindness not only makes a difference, it could make the differenceTeaches Maimonides: The fate of the world is on a balanced scale, weighted equally by good and evil. It takes one small “insignificant” act of good, performed by one small “insignificant” person, to tip the scale towards good, bringing redemption to the world.

Your act of kindness not only makes a difference, it could make the difference.

A little bit of light dispels lots of darkness.1

So, let’s join hearts, minds and hands in making a world of difference!2