The Torah portion Vayeishev relates at length1 about Yosef’s trials and tribulations in Egypt, first being forced into slavery and then incarcerated in an Egyptian prison. In both instances G‑d was with Yosef, blessing him with good fortune.

The Torah, however, clearly distinguishes between his good fortune as a slave and his good fortune as a prisoner: With regard to the former, the verse states:2 “and G‑d made it so that all he did was favored with good fortune — matzliach — in his hand.” With regard to Yosef’s fortunes as a prisoner, the verse merely states:3 “and that which he did, G‑d favored with good fortune,” deleting the term “in his hand.”

Why do the verses differ?

The Tzemach Tzedek explains4 that the word matzliach means good fortune — something granted as a gift from above, independent of a person’s own labor.5

There are, however, two kinds of “luck”: One is realized within and through a man’s actions. For example, a person who succeeds at whatever he does owes his continued success to G‑d’s ongoing gift.

There is, however, an even greater kind of luck, wherein the reward for a person’s labor is so out of proportion to the effort expended that one can immediately perceive G‑d’s hand at work.

Herein lies the difference between Yosef’s two kinds of luck: During the time that he was a slave, the verse states:6 “G‑d was with Yosef, and he was a man of good fortune” ; the success was ascribed to Yosef. When Yosef was jailed, however, the verse states: “and that which he did G‑d favored with good fortune” ; whenever Yosef would do something, his success was so astounding that G‑d’s hand was immediately discernible.

Why was it that when Yosef was merely a slave his luck was of a lower order, yet when he underwent the further degradation of becoming a prisoner his luck became greater?

The prerequisite for supernatural success is self-abnegation, as the verse states:7 “To this one I will look — to one who is poor and of crushed spirit.” The less cognizant a person is of his own ego, the more G‑d will be with him, and the more will G‑d’s might be perceived in his actions.

Herein lies the basic difference between slavery and incarceration. While a slave is wholly subjugated to his master, he still retains a sense of dignity and self; he is able to accomplish meaningful work, and so on.

A prisoner, however, is nothing more than a number, and cannot develop or even employ his talents; a prisoner loses all sense of self-esteem.

Yosef’s slavery enabled him to achieve an appropriately profound state of humility. In turn, “G‑d was with Yosef and he was a man of good fortune… and G‑d made it so that all he did was favored with good fortune in his hand.”

Nonetheless, since Yosef the slave still retained a sense of self, his success was limited to such divine good fortune as was clothed in, and thus necessarily bounded by, “his hand” and actions.

Yosef’s incarceration, however, created a state of utter nullification before G‑d, to the degree that he lost all feeling of personal ego. The success he then enjoyed was therefore entirely superhuman — “and that which he would do G‑d would favor with good fortune.”

Yes, Yosef’s success even now remained based upon his actions, but since Yosef exhibited total self-abnegation, his actions in no way impeded his luck. Thus, the rewards were no longer limited by the hand of a limited being, but were divinely boundless.

Compiled from Likkutei Sichos , Vol. XXV, pp. 213-216.