A joke is told of a devout woman who refused to leave her flood-besieged home in the car, boat or helicopter that the authorities sent her way. She refused to accept human beneficence, and was content to put her trust in G‑d. When she did in fact die, she approached G‑d and demanded to know why He didn’t honor her faith. “I sent you a car, a boat, and even a helicopter,” G‑d responded. “What more could I do?”

When we fall on hard times and pray to G‑d for intervention, we are not meant to sit back and wait for salvation to arrive. The ethos of our tradition drives us to be proactive about finding solutions. We believe that we must meticulously seek out the hidden opportunities that G‑d has placed in our path.1 We believe that G‑d is prepared to bless our effort, but that we are first required to make that effort.

Where Joseph Went Wrong

In our Parshah we read that Joseph, Jacob’s eleventh son, was imprisoned alongside Pharaoh’s royal butler. Joseph befriended the butler and carefully followed his case. When the butler was exonerated, Joseph beseeched him to appeal to Pharaoh on his behalf. The Torah informs us that the butler forgot about Joseph, causing him to languish in prison for two more years.2 The Midrash explains that this was because Joseph should have placed his trust in G‑d, not the butler.3

Why was it wrong for Joseph to ask the butler for help? Was he not meant to seek out and take advantage of every opportunity placed in his path?

The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Blessed is the person who trusts in G‑d, and G‑d will be his security.”4 The Midrash explains that this verse refers to Joseph. Joseph fulfilled the first half of this verse, but not the second. He trusted G‑d to provide an opportunity for salvation. He believed that G‑d had placed the butler in his path. But once the butler arrived, Joseph looked to him for redemption. The butler became his security, not G‑d.

Joseph’s mistake was that he should have realized that he had no way of knowing if his attempt to have the butler intercede for him would bear fruit. For all he knew, G‑d might not have intended at all to bring about his salvation through the butler. He should have realized that while he was meant to pursue the avenue placed before him, he was not meant to rely on it for certain that this would be the avenue that G‑d will choose.

In point of fact, the butler did bring about Joseph’s salvation in the end. But Joseph may have been punished for taking it for granted. Instead of the butler bringing up Joseph’s case before Pharaoh immediately, he promptly forgot his promise, and Joseph languished an additional two years in prison before Pharaoh’s need for a dream interpreter reminded the butler of the imprisoned Hebrew slave.

A story is told of a yeshivah that was in dire need of funds. A student was sent out to collect money, but was unsuccessful in his attempts. Several days after his return, a wealthy contributor unexpectedly arrived at the yeshivah with a generous contribution. The rosh yeshivah (dean) thanked the young man who was sent on the fundraising rounds. The young man protested that he was not responsible for that contribution. The rabbi responded, “You made the effort, and because you did, G‑d saw fit to send His blessing through His own agent.”5

The wise men of Safed understood that even when we seize the initiative and succeed, we must search for G‑d’s covert hand that orchestrates and choreographs our success. The Palmach fought valiantly to secure the Jewish quarter of the city, but it was G‑d’s helping hand that enabled them to overcome the almost impossible logistics.

Joseph should have continued to trust in G‑d even as he negotiated with the butler. If the butler would succeed, gratitude would be due to G‑d. The butler was only a medium through which G‑d would deliver liberation.6

When It Doesn’t Work According to Plan

There are times when, trust as we might, salvation does not immediately appear. Take Joseph’s story as an example. After the butler forgot him, he once again placed his trust in G‑d, yet he languished in prison for two more years! It is easy to advocate trust in G‑d, but what are we to say when G‑d doesn’t come through?

The answer lies in the dynamics of Joseph’s story itself. What would have happened had Joseph been released in time? What would Joseph have done on the other side? He would have been known as an ex-convict, and would have struggled to find his place within Egyptian society.

As it happened, he waited two short years until Pharaoh had a dream that would require interpretation, and the butler remembered him for his uncanny interpreting abilities. Joseph was brought before Pharaoh and successfully interpreted the dream. Pharaoh was extremely impressed, and appointed him viceroy of Egypt. Had Joseph been released two years earlier, the butler would likely not have known where to find him, and a historic opportunity would have been lost.

One Story—Two Approaches

The same theme is reflected in Pharaoh’s dreams and in Joseph’s interpretation of them. Pharaoh dreamt of seven healthy and seven lean cows that arose from the Nile. In Joseph’s interpretation, the groups of seven cows represented cycles of seven years. Egypt would experience seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.

In his interpretation, Joseph continually stressed that the plenty and the famine would flow from G‑d. In the dream, there was a continual emphasis on the fact that the cows arose from the Nile. The Egyptians worshipped the Nile, because it was the source of their irrigation system. Joseph worshipped G‑d, because He is the source of all.7

When nature fails, we are disconcerted: why did it fail, and how can we correct it? When G‑d brings about a famine, we believe that it must be for a good reason. Joseph, with his repeated mention of G‑d as the source of the coming famine, sought to spare Pharaoh the agony he knew that the foreboding news would bring.

What good did the famine bring to Egypt? It established Egypt as the superpower of its time. People came from countries far and near to barter for Egyptian food. While other countries were decimated, Egypt flourished. Furthermore, Jacob and his family were attracted to Egypt as a result of the famine.8 When Jacob came to Egypt, the famine ended and the land prospered in ways hitherto unprecedented.9 Had the Egyptians not abused the Hebrews, they would have enjoyed the fruits of these blessings for many years.

In perfect hindsight, it is possible to see the famine in the light of the abundance it augured.