Not only did Joseph save the Egyptians from the seven years of famine, by arranging for grain to be stored during the previous years, but he also provided for his family during that time, as Sidra Vayigash tells us, despite the harm that his brothers had earlier sought to do him. Because of this, the entire Jewish nation is called by his name in one of the Psalms. The Rebbe investigates the underlying meaning of this appellation, and of a Midrash which makes three requests to G‑d to treat Israel in the way that Joseph treated his brothers.

1. Joseph the Provider

“And Joseph supported his Father and his brothers and all his Father’s household, according to their little ones.”1

Amongst the many things that the Torah tells us about the relations between Joseph and his brothers, it specifically mentions that he sustained them and their families: And there is no detail of the stories of the Torah which does not have a profound meaning for us, waiting to be uncovered.

This particular act of Joseph’s is so esteemed that because of it, the entire Jewish nation is called, in perpetuity, by his name, as we find in the Psalms: “He (G‑d) leads Joseph like a flock.”2 His act, as it were, is a permanent heritage to us.

2. The Comment of The Midrash

There is a Midrashic commentary on this verse from the Psalms,3 to the effect that G‑d not only leads His people (who are called “Joseph”) but that He does so in the manner of Joseph: “Just as he stored food from the years of plenty as provision for the period of famine, so may G‑d store up blessings for us from this world to enjoy in the world to come.

“Just as Joseph provided for each according to his deeds, so may G‑d sustain us according to our deeds.

“Rabbi Menachem said in the name of Rabbi Abin: Just as Joseph’s brothers acted badly towards him, but he repaid them with good, so we act badly towards You (G‑d)—and may You bestow good on us in return.”

Now, this Midrash is puzzling in a number of ways:

(i) When Joseph laid up food from the years of plenty, had he not done so, it would have gone to waste. But what analogy is there with our good deeds in this world? They will not go to waste, so why need they be “stored up” for the future life?

(ii) How can we compare this world to the time of plenty, and the next to the years of famine, when we are told that this world is only a “vestibule” leading to the “hall” of the world to come?4

(iii) Joseph’s virtue was that he bestowed good on those who had done bad to him. How can the Midrash state, therefore, that he “provided for each according to his deeds” (and not “according to his needs”)?

(iv) Why, in any case, did the Midrash need to request that G‑d sustain us according to our deeds: For this is no more than the strict requirements of the law, and we did not need to infer it from the conduct of Joseph?

3. The Blessings of This World and the Next

We can understand the first request of the Midrash, that G‑d stores blessings for us from the “years of plenty” of this world to enjoy in the “years of famine” of the world to come, once we realize that the nature of our reward in the world to come is a revelation of what our acts have achieved in this world—an outflowing of G‑d’s essential presence. The world to come is thus, as it were, a “time of famine”—in it we are sustained by a flow of spiritual life that we brought about in the “time of plenty,” in this world. And though we find it written in the Mishnah that “an hour of blissfulness of spirit in the world to come is better than all the life of this world,”5 this is only from the point of view of man, who finds his reward in the future life. From the point of view of G‑d and of the Divine purpose of human existence, “an hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than all the life in the world to come.” Only here can we fulfill our task, and create the spiritual pleasures that will be revealed to us in the world to come.

Now, if we were to follow the logic of the strict requirements of the law, it could be said that many of the occasions when we obey G‑d’s will, we do so for ulterior motives. We do not align ourselves with the essence of the commandment, which seeks no other reward than the act itself. Therefore, though “the essential thing is the act,”6 and though such acts do indeed bring about an outflowing of G‑d’s essence, surely they should not be rewarded in the world to come by a revelation of that essence?

So, when we ask (in the second request of the Midrash): “Sustain us according to our deeds (and not according to our motives)” we are not merely asking G‑d to follow the strict requirement of the law. Instead we are asking that He look only at our outward acts, and not to judge us by the shortcomings of our motives. And in terms of acts, “even the sinners of Israel are as full of good deeds as a pomegranate (with seed).”7

And indeed, this is what Joseph himself did, when he said to his brothers:8 “You intended evil against me; but G‑d meant it for good, to act, as it is this day, to save many people alive.” Although they intended to harm Joseph by selling him into slavery, it transpired that their act brought Joseph to a position where he was able to save many lives by his prudential policy of storing food for the imminent famine. And Joseph judged them on their action (which turned out well), not their intention.

We can take the argument a stage further. The advocate of strict adherence to the law might concede that even though a man does good for ulterior motives, in the subconscious depths of his soul he desires closeness to G‑d for its own sake, and should be rewarded for it. But surely when he sins he can have no such holy desires, however subconscious; for the soul in its unfelt depths dissociates itself from the sin.9 How then can G‑d allow us retroactively to transform our sins into merits10 by the act of repentance, when our sins have no saving grace?

This is the extra act of mercy for which the Midrash, in the name of Rabbi Menachem, asks as its third request: “Just as Joseph bestowed good on those who had harmed him, so we acted badly toward You: May You bestow good on us in return.” May You judge us, in other words, in the light of the ultimate good (our act of repentance) as if it had been our original intention, at the moment when we sinned, only to bring about good.

4. The Meaning of Joseph

Why is it on the strength of Joseph’s conduct that we make these three requests of G‑d? The difference between Jacob and Joseph11 is that while Jacob lived on the highest plane of spiritual existence, Joseph translated this spiritual reality into material terms. In the individual, this is the power that allows the perception of G‑d’s essence to enter the dimensions of the human mind, emotions—and actions even into actions done from ulterior motives.

Because the depths of the Jewish soul can make themselves be felt in this world (the capacity which derives from Joseph), he is able to bring into the world the outflowing of G‑d’s essence in the world to come.

And thus his innermost intentions—which are pure even though his conscious motives are not—have a tangible reality even in this world: So that G‑d may bestow good on him even when his acts have been bad.

This is Joseph’s heritage to every Jew. In his act of feeding his family in a time of famine, despite all their wrongs towards him, he has given us the power to reach beyond the surface of our fellow Jew, with all its superficial failings, and to penetrate to the core of his being and respond to its fundamental holiness. And when we treat another Jew in this way, we arouse that core of holiness in him, and in ourselves as well, so that in time it breaks through its coverings, and the essence of our soul stands revealed.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. V pp. 239-50 (adapted))