Chapter 37

3 Joseph…was his most studious son, who absorbed all Israel had learned from Shem and Ever and had in turn taught him…Israel made him a fine woolen robe: By filling him with knowledge of the Torah, Jacob immunized Joseph against all of the trials he would eventually face. As Rashi comments,1 the word for "fine woolen" (pasim), describing Joseph's robe, is an acronym for these trials—Potiphar, Sochrim (merchants), Ishmaelites, and Midianites. Allegorically, then, Jacob cloaked Joseph in a "robe" of Torah knowledge that protected him from his trials.2

7-9 There we were, binding sheaves in the midst of the field… I had another dream...the sun, the moon and eleven stars prostrating themselves to me: Joseph's two dreams seem to convey the same idea. The only critical difference between the two dreams was that Jacob and Bilhah appeared in the second but not in the first. If so, the first dream seems unnecessary. True, Pharaoh also had two basically identical dreams, but in his case the repetition indicated that their fulfillment would be swift in coming.3 Joseph's dreams, in contrast, were not fulfilled until many years later.

In fact, however, Joseph's two dreams symbolize two distinct stages in the relationship between each generation and its leaders.

Sheaves of grain are made up of individual stalks, which grow discretely from one another, each in its own groove. Binding them into sheaves symbolizes the soul's task in this world. The soul originates in the heavenly spheres, where God's oneness—the fact that He is the only true existence—is apparent. But then the soul descends into "the midst of the field," i.e., the physical world, the realm of Esau, who is called "man of the field."4 This world is one of multiplicity, where the concealment of God's oneness allows for the illusion of separateness from Him. The Divine soul must vest itself in a body and animating soul, which possess a false sense of independence from God and are oblivious to the Divine soul's connection to God.

The Divine soul's first task is to subdue the animating soul's egotism and sense of separateness from God. It must then "gather up" all of the animating soul's "stalks," its various capacities and talents, and "bind them into a sheaf," i.e., unite them in the work of holiness. Once we have become a "sheaf," we must seek guidance and inspiration from "Joseph," the spiritual head of the generation.

Eventually, the soul reaches an even higher level, symbolized by Joseph's second dream. In this dream, the soul has is no longer out in the field, dealing with stalks of separateness. Even while garbed in an earthly body, it has transcended earthly consciousness; it has returned to its original heavenly consciousness and is now likened to a celestial being, a "star." Yet even on this level, we should not rely on our own achievements for inspiration; this will only lead to stagnation and complacency. Rather, we must still continue to turn to "Joseph" to receive insight and inspiration.5


[1] Joseph disagreed with Leah's sons concerning their family's legal status vis-a-vis the commandments. Leah's sons argued that because God had promised to make their family into the Jewish people, they could already conduct themselves as full-fledged Jews. Joseph argued that since the Torah had not yet been formally given, they still held the legal status of non-Jews,6 who are only obligated to fulfill the seven Noahide laws.7 They could voluntarily undertake to observe the commandments as Jews, but only as a stringency, and never as a leniency.

One instance in which the Torah's law for non-Jews is more stringent than its law for Jews is with regard to flesh cut off a living animal. A Jew is required to slaughter an animal in accordance with specific ritual guidelines (shechitah) before eating it,8 but once the animal has been slaughtered in this way, it is considered dead, and meat can be cut off it even if the carcass is still moving (although it must not be actually eaten until the carcass has stopped moving9). A non-Jew, on the other hand, is not required to ritually slaughter the animal, but because of this, he is not allowed to consider the animal dead until it has stopped moving completely; before this, he many not cut off any meat from its carcass.10

Joseph observed Leah's sons cutting meat off an animal they had ritually slaughtered while its carcass was still moving (eating such meat is considered healthful11). Since he considered them bound by the more stringent Noahide law, he reported to his father that they had transgressed the Torah's prohibition against eating flesh cut from a living animal.

[2] He incriminated them with transgressing the Torah's prohibition against eating flesh torn from a living animal: Joseph disagreed with Leah's sons over their family's legal status vis-a-vis God's commandments. Leah's sons argued that because God had promised to make their family into the Jewish people, they could already conduct themselves as full-fledged Jews. Joseph argued that since the Torah had not yet been formally given, they still had the legal status of non-Jews, who are obligated to fulfill the seven Noahide laws.12 They could voluntarily undertake to observe the commandments as Jews, but only as a stringency, and never as a leniency.

One instance in which the Torah's Noahide law is more stringent than its Jewish law is that with regard to flesh cut off a living animal. A Jew is required to slaughter an animal according to specific ritual guidelines (shechitah) before eating it,13 but once the animal has been slaughtered in this way, it is considered dead, and meat can be cut off it even if the carcass is still moving (although it must not be actually eaten until the carcass has stopped moving14). A non-Jew, on the other hand, is not required to slaughter the animal in any specific way, but because of this, he is not allowed to consider the animal dead until it has stopped moving completely; before this, he many not cut off any meat from it.15

Joseph observed Leah's sons cutting meat off a carcass they had ritually slaughtered while the carcass was still moving (such meat is considered healthful16). Since he considered them bound by the more stringent Noahide law, reported to his father that they had transgressed the Torah's prohibition against eating flesh cut from a living animal.17


[2] The following isthe descendants of Jacob…Joseph was 17: Joseph embodied the sefirah of yesod, whose function is to facilitate transmission.

In the intellectual realm, for example, yesod refers to the ability to articulate wisdom and pass it on to a recipient. Although the wise understand certain concepts perfectly well in their own minds, they don't necessarily have the words to articulate these concepts to others of lesser intellectual capacity. Without yesod, the wisdom of the wise remains locked within their own minds.

Yesod serves the emotions in a similar way. For example, the emotion of kindness is, in and of itself, entirely abstract, lacking any plan of how to act kindly to someone. Yesod is the conduit that enables the transmission of abstract kindness to the recipient.

Hence, Joseph, as the embodiment of yesod, "was the one who sold produce to all the people of the area,"18 which can also be translated as "was the one who provided (or rationed) produce for all the people of the land." Allegorically, this means that yesod is the conduit of all "produce" from the higher worlds to the lower worlds.

As we have seen,19 Jacob's thrust was to extend Divine consciousness into the material realm. Yet, like the other patriarchs, Jacob operated within the sublime consciousness of Atzilut. He did not truly descend into the consciousness of the lower worlds. It was Joseph who descended into the consciousness of the worlds below Atzilut in order to carry on Jacob's legacy—his "descendants"—and bring it to the next level. This is the allegorical meaning of the phrase the descendants of Jacob…Joseph.

Jacob's descent to Charan thus differed significantly from Joseph's descent in several ways: (a) Joseph became a servant in Egypt, whereas Jacob served only as an employee of Laban; (b) Joseph worked for complete strangers, whereas Jacob worked for a relative; and (c) Joseph's work required him to be immersed in the mundane affairs of Egypt, whereas Jacob worked as shepherd, detached from society.20

Yesod operates as a funnel because of its generosity of spirit and goodness. The numerical value of the word for "good" (tov) is 17. Thus, the phrase "Joseph was seventeen" allegorically means that he was the embodiment of goodness and generosity, the trademark of yesod.21

[4] So they hated him: Clothing, as opposed to food, serves us from the outside; we do not internalize it. Metaphorically, then, clothing represents spirituality that remains transcendent from us because of its inherent loftiness (makif).

The fact that Jacob gave Joseph a "robe" means that he imparted to him insights of such transcendence that they cannot be internalized. Of all the brothers, only Joseph was spiritually advanced enough to receive such lofty insights; his brothers were therefore jealous of him. This spiritual jealousy devolved into petty jealousy, which led to their hatred of Joseph.22

13 Your brothers are pasturing in Shechem. Come, I will send you to check up on them: Why would Jacob, who loved Joseph more than all of his children, send him alone to his brothers who hated him? The Zohar23 explains that because the brothers were completely righteous, Jacob did not believe they would harm Joseph, and indeed, he was correct. Despite their hatred, they would not have sold Joseph; rather, it was God who prodded the brothers to sell him, so as to begin the fulfillment of His covenant with Abraham.

The Midrash states that a literal fulfillment of this covenant would have meant that Jacob and his family would have been taken down in chains. Instead, God sent Joseph down to Egypt first, thereby ensuring that Jacob and his family would go down to Egypt in a respectable way, by the invitation of Pharaoh.24

There was a further reason why God wanted Joseph to descend to Egypt specifically in the way he did: By casting Joseph into the pit and then selling him as a master sells his slave, the brothers took "possession" of Joseph. Once he became the "property" of the brothers, he could not subsequently be "acquired" by Egypt. Even after the brothers sold Joseph, their original "possession" of him remained primary. Consequently, when the Jewish people later followed Joseph to Egypt, they never became completely subjugated to Egypt, as other slaves did. On the contrary, Egypt was legally enslaved to the Jewish people! When Joseph became officially responsible for the welfare of Egypt, this in effect made all its citizens his property.25 Thus, as heirs of the tribes, who "owned" Joseph, the Jewish people owned all that Joseph owned, including the Egyptians.26


To imbue Joseph's sale with this immunizing effect, God arranged for it to occur in the presence of ten of Joseph's brothers,27 who constituted a quorum of ten, a "congregation," which elicits the Divine presence.28 Because the Divine presence attended the sale, it was infused with an energy that transcends the finite world, therefore enabling Joseph (and later, the Jewish people) to transcend Egypt and the spiritual darkness of their exile.

Accordingly, when Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers, he said, "It is not you who sent me here but God, and he made me a father to Pharaoh…."29 Joseph meant that the spiritual power invested in him through his sale, which protected him from subjugation to Egypt, came not from the tribes themselves, but from "God"—i.e., from the Divine power that was channeled through the brothers' quorum.


Joseph's experience vividly demonstrates that everything that happens to us is orchestrated by God for our benefit.30 As in the case of Joseph, his humiliating sale as a slave in the end worked to his favor.

It is therefore foolish and unproductive to become angry at the messengers of ostensible harm, who, though guilty for their evil act, could not do anything to us that God did not so will. Joseph thus repaid his brothers' evil with kindness,31 even continuing to love them despite their hatred.32

18 They conspired against him to put him to death: According to many commentators, the brothers felt that the Torah's laws required them to kill Joseph.33 The Biblical commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, for example, writes that the brothers thought Joseph wanted to cause Jacob to curse them or cause God to punish them so that they would die and he alone would carry on Jacob's dynasty. They therefore considered him a mortal threat and believed they were required to destroy him before he destroyed them.34

Yet, although the brothers studied the Torah and tried to live by it, in this case, they applied its teachings erroneously. This was they studied the Torah without proper humility—at least by the standards of their righteousness.35 This prevented them from truly connecting with the Author of the Torah and absorbing its wisdom.

Water is a metaphor for the humility required in studying the Torah. As the Talmud states, the Torah is compared to water because "just as water seeks its lowest level, so does the Torah only endure within one who is humble."36 The brothers were lacking this "water" and therefore misinterpreted the Torah.

Their lack of humility is alluded to the in verse regarding the pit into which they threw Joseph: "The pit was empty in that there was no water in it." The pit alludes to the brothers, who were empty of the "water"-aspect of the Torah.37


[17] The man answered, "…they were seeking some legal pretext to kill you!" Despite this warning, Joseph…followed his brothers: This follows the interpretation of Rashi. Nachmanides, however, takes issue with this interpretation, stating that Joseph would certainly not have followed his brothers if he knew they were planning to kill him. Nachmanides therefore states that the angel only alluded to the brothers' malicious intentions and that Joseph did not perceive the hidden meaning of his words.

This debate between Rashi and Nachmanides can be explained as hinging upon the question of whether martyrdom is permitted for the sake of precepts other than the three cardinal sins (idolatry, murder, and adultery).38 Rashi evidently considers it permitted and praiseworthy, explaining that Joseph risked his life in order to honor his parents. Nachmanides evidently considers it forbidden, therefore maintaining that Joseph was not aware of the danger.

Even so, Rashi's view remains problematic: Jacob had asked Joseph to bring back tidings from the brothers, which Joseph would be unable to do if he were killed. Why, then, would he risk his life to obey his father if he would not be able fulfill his father's mission by doing so?

Rabbi Yosef Chaviva (author of Nimukei Yosef) states that "a prominent person, who is pious and God-fearing, who sees that his generation regularly flouts a particular precept, is allowed to sanctify the Name and sacrifice his life to fulfill that precept, even if it is a minor one, so that the people will learn from his example."39 In such a case, the purpose of martyrdom is not for the performance of that particular commandment at that particular time, but for the lesson that it will teach others.

Joseph found himself in just such a situation. He saw that his brothers regularly flouted the commandment to honor one's father: Simeon and Levi embarrassed their father with their actions in Shechem, Reuben interfered with his father's personal matters, and the brothers dishonored their father by questioning his love for Joseph.

Joseph therefore felt that he should risk his life to honor his father—even though he would most likely be unable to fulfill the actual errand his father had sent him on—thereby teaching his brothers the importance of this commandment.

As it turned out, Joseph's act did end up underscoring the extent of the obligation to honor one's parents: His ill-fated mission led to his separation from his father for twenty-two years, which was a punishment for Jacob's failure to honor his parents during the years Jacob was in Charan.40

[24] Reuben reasoned that Joseph's chances were better with the snakes and scorpions: Reuben knew that God grants a certain degree of autonomy to human beings, allowing them to act in opposition to His will. Thus, Reuben reasoned, he and his brothers could well kill Joseph unjustifiably, whereas snakes and scorpions, who are subject to God's will, would not kill Joseph if he was guiltless.41

True, everything that happens is ultimately Divine providence,42 so if God really did not want Joseph to be killed, He would somehow prevent the brothers from killing him. But Reuben knew that when a person is in danger and only a miracle can save him, the Heavenly Court bases their decision as to whether is to be saved on his accrued merits. The greater the danger, the greater the miracle required; the greater the miracle required, the more merits required to deserve it. Since Joseph was in more danger in his brother's hands than he would be in the pit, Reuben reasoned his chances were better there.43

Even if we grant that there is a possibility that a person can survive being cast into a pit of snakes and scorpions, the probability of this occurring is so small that it is negligible. For that reason, Jewish law permits a woman to remarry if reliable witnesses testify that her husband fell into such a pit, even though they did not actually see him dead.

However, probability is admitted as a legal determinant only in the Torah's Jewish law, not in Noahide law. Therefore, since Joseph had the legal status of a non-Jew—as did all his family before the Torah was formally given—the minuteness of the probability of his survival did not legally negate its possibility. It was still possible that he could survive, and Reuben therefore knew that Joseph at least had a chance in the pit.

Thus, at least in this instance, Reuben assented to Joseph's position in his argument with Leah's sons44—that Jacob's clan had the legal status of non-Jews until the Torah was formally given at Mount Sinai.45

28 The brothers…sold Joseph…for twenty pieces of silver: The Talmud understands these pieces to be coins valued at five gerah; twenty such coins thus equal 100 gerah, which is the equivalent of five shekels. Because the brothers sold Joseph, Rachel's firstborn, the Jewish people would in the future be commanded to redeem each of their firstborn.46 And since they sold him for five shekels, their firstborn would have to be redeemed for the same price.47

Additionally, says the Talmud, if we divide the 20 coins by the ten brothers involved in the sale, each brother contributed two coins, which is equal to ten gerah or half a shekel. The Jewish people were therefore required to donate a half shekel every year to the Temple48 as atonement for the sale of Joseph.49

(In fact, since Benjamin, Joseph, and Reuben did not participate in the sale, that leaves only nine brothers. However, Reuben can be counted as one of the participants even though he was not present, since the brothers assumed he would agree to the sale and therefore left him his share of two silver pieces50—although he may very well not have taken them. Alternatively, Joseph can be considered the tenth party to the sale, since he provoked the brothers' hatred, which led them to sell him.51)

These two commandments—redemption of the firstborn and the half shekel—correspond to the twin effects of Joseph's sale, on him and on his brothers. Redeeming the firstborn commemorates what occurred to Joseph. It is therefore costs five shekels, corresponding to the five shekels for which he was sold. The commandment of the half shekel, in contrast, atones for the sin of the brothers. It therefore costs a half shekel, corresponding to the half shekel each of them received for the sale.

The sale's effect on Joseph was ultimately positive. As we have seen,52 becoming the "property" of his brothers in the Holy Land prevented him from becoming the "property" of Egypt, which in turn enabled all the Jews to spiritually transcend Egyptian sovereignty.

Corresponding to this aspect of the sale is the commandment to redeem our firstborn, who similarly "belong" to God until redeemed. The message of the commandment is that in fact everything we have belongs to God,53 just as Joseph "belonged" to his brothers, to the realm of holiness.

In contrast, the sale's effect on the brothers was the spiritual blemish caused by their hatred and jealousy. To rectify this blemish we were given the commandment of the half shekel, which was used to pay for communal sacrifices, and therefore underscored the power of community.

The half shekel thereby rectifies the external narrative of Joseph's sale, a tale of sinful hate, by revealing its inner narrative, the tale of Joseph's integrity being preserved the power of community: As we have seen,54 it was the power of "community"—the quorum of ten brothers during the sale—that imbued the sale with Godly transcendence, thereby enabling Joseph to remain transcendent from Egypt.

Additionally, the half shekel symbolized that individually we are all "half," i.e., incomplete, and that we can only become whole by uniting with others. This sentiment encourages unity and love among our people and therefore undoes the sin of selling Joseph, which was caused by hatred and jealousy.55


[34] God arranged for Jacob to atone for not having honored his parents: Although the patriarchs kept all the commandments of the Torah, they were only required to keep the seven Noahide laws, which do not include the obligation to honor one's parents. Why, then, was Jacob held accountable for failing to honor his parents?

One of the seven Noahide commandments is the obligation to establish courts. According to Nachmanidies,56 this commandment is not limited to the narrow definition of simply establishing courts to enforce the other six commandments. Rather, it means that Noahides are obligated to adjudicate all matters that pertain to social justice and the peaceful coexistence of humankind.

As such, honoring parents is a subcategory of the obligation to establish courts, since it is a fundamental human obligation, integral to maintaining social order. Furthermore, as the Talmud states, honoring our parents is akin to returning a loan, since we thereby repay them for all the struggles they endured while raising us.57 Jacob was therefore punished for failing to fully honor and care for his parents, because this duty was included in the Noahide laws.58

Chapter 38

15-16 When Judah saw her, he took her for a prostitute…He turned aside to her: The Midrash describes the incident of Judah and Tamar as follows: "[The progenitors of] the tribes were busy with the sale of Joseph; Joseph was busy mourning over his separation from his father; Reuben was busy with his penitence; Jacob was busy mourning over Joseph; Judah was busy getting married—and God was busy creating the light of the Messiah."59 Since Joseph was descending to Egypt, beginning the process of exile, God wanted to preempt the exile with the potential for redemption, to "prepare the cure prior to the onset of the illness."

Thus, the Midrash continues, although the righteous Judah wanted to continue past Tamar, God sent an angel of lust to steer him to her. The angel said to Judah: "Where are you going? From where will kings arise? From where will the redeemers arise?" He thus turned toward her against his will.60

The Midrash notes the Torah's use of the phrase, "he turned aside (ויט) to her," instead of the more common, "he went (וילך) to her." This same idiom is used to describe how Balaam's donkey "turned aside" off the road, against its will, because an angel blocked its path.61 The use of this idiom thus clearly implies that Judah "turned aside" to Tamar against his will.62

Posing as a prostitute was similarly out of character for Tamar, for she was a paragon of modesty; indeed, it was in virtue of this quality that God chose her to be the mother of the Davidic dynasty.63 Nevertheless, when she realized that all other options had been closed, she selflessly acted contrary to her nature, for the sake of drawing forth the soul of the Messiah.

Tamar's selflessness underscores the necessity for self-sacrifice and selflessness in our efforts to hasten the dawning of the Messianic age.64


In order to understand why it was necessary for the light of the Messiah to enter the world through such a seemingly scandalous route, we need to recall that God created evil in order for there to be free choice; thus, in order for free choice to exist, the forces of evil and the forces of good have to be perfectly balanced at any given time. (It is for this reason we are taught that the greater a person is—that is, the greater his spiritual potential—the greater is his evil inclination. Were his spiritual greatness to outweigh his evil inclination, he would have no free choice.)

When the messianic line was about to enter the world, the forces of evil argued that the balance was about to be tipped against them. Therefore, the union that would bear the ancestor of the Messiah had to occur in a way that the forces of evil would consider beneficial to them. Just as in military strategy, an army sometimes feigns retreat in order to draw the enemy into a vulnerable position, the forces of holiness here yielded a seeming victory to the forces of evil in the form of this quasi-sinful act in order to gain the upper hand.65

28-30 Judah named him Peretz…. Judah named him Zerach…. Achan: In the Kabbalistic work Sefer HaBahir, Zerach ("shining") is associated with the sun, which shines constantly, and Peretz ("breaking through") is associated with the moon, which experiences periods of "brokenness" and rebirth.66

Metaphorically, the sun represents the completely righteous, whose light shines consistently, without interruption or fluctuation. The moon represents the penitents, who have done wrong but change their ways and return to God. Much like the moon, penitents are in a perpetual process of rise and fall, diminished light and increased light.

Yet because of their challenges, the penitents reach a higher spiritual level and achieve what the consistently righteous cannot.67 Thus, Peretz, who is associated with the moon and is therefore the archetype of repentance, precedes Zerach and is the firstborn, since the accomplishments of the penitents surpass those of the consistently righteous.

The fact that Zerach stretched his hand out first represents the notion that we must aspire to be completely righteous. But because Achan would eventually emerge from him, Zerach needed the revelation of the phenomenon of repentance to precede his own birth, thereby providing Achan the means with which to rectify his misdeed. 68


[11] He presumed that something about Tamar had caused her husbands…to die prematurely: Judah made his presumption about Tamar after only two of her husbands had died. In contrast, the Torah rules that is an ox presumed to gore chronically and its owner completely liable for its actions only after it has gored three times.69 Why the difference?

In Judah's case, the danger that Tamar presumably posed was not contingent upon anything she might do or not do. Simply marrying her was presumed to be the cause of her first two husbands' deaths. In contrast, although we can similarly deduce that an ox that has gored twice is liable to gore again, nevertheless, its subsequent goring will not happen by itself; the ox has to choose to gore. Therefore, the Torah requires a third episode to create a legally binding presumption.70

[26] Judah then married her: The announcement that Er and Onan died because of their own sins rid Tamar of the status of a woman who is intrinsically dangerous to marry, thereby allowing Judah to marry her. However, he still could not let Sheilah marry her, since Sheilah had to operate under the presumption that there might be something about his family that caused them to die while married to her, inasmuch as this had happened to his two brothers.71

Nonetheless, Tamar was Judah's daughter-in-law, and the Torah forbids a person to marry his daughter-in-law.72 True, the Torah had not yet been officially given, but, as we know, that the patriarchs kept the Torah voluntarily even before it was given, and Jacob's brother presumably did the same when there was no reason not to.73 In this case, however, it can be argued that for several reasons the prohibition did not apply to Judah and Tamar,74 and even had it applied, Judah may have felt it was better to transgress a future law, which he was not obligated to keep, than abandon Tamar.75

Chapter 39

1 Joseph had been taken down to Egypt: Egypt was a place where Godliness was drastically concealed. It was therefore unlikely that the Jewish people could survive the Egyptian exile spiritually intact. They would find it nearly impossible to fulfill the purpose of their exile, which was to elevate the sparks of holiness that were embedded within Egypt. And in fact, they were nearly at the point of no return when God saved them from Egypt.76

God therefore arranged for Joseph to descend to Egypt first and weaken the evil of Egypt through his rise to greatness there. Because of Joseph's accomplishments, even later generations of Egyptians who lived after his time did not have the strength to overpower and contaminate the Jewish people. On the contrary, the Jewish people flourished there and remained separate from the Egyptian culture.77

Through his holy work, Joseph elevated many of the holy sparks embedded in Egypt. He thereby enabled the Jewish people to complete their task relatively quickly. They remained in Egypt for only 210 years, 190 years less than the full 400 years stipulated in God's covenant with Abraham. Furthermore, through his holy work, Joseph was able to limit the bitterest form of enslavement to only 86 years.78


Joseph was unique in his capacity to be involved in mundane life and at the same time maintain his lofty sense of Divine consciousness. Thus, even while Joseph was a slave for Potiphar, engaged in worldly projects, Potiphar was able to see that God was with Joseph, granting him success in all he did. Even in a world where Potiphar was Joseph's master—an environment of extreme spiritual exile—that very master was able to see that God was with Joseph. The same thing happened when Joseph was in prison.

The Midrash79 thus relates the word that means "taken down" (הורד) to the verse that describes both the rule of Solomon and the rule of the Messiah—"He will rule (וירד) from sea to sea."80 Since the Midrash relates the very word for "descent" to Joseph's rule, it follows that his "rule" began in some sense immediately upon his descent, even before he became viceroy of Egypt. Even within his descent to Egypt—as a servant and then as a prisoner—Joseph was able to "rule over" Egypt, i.e., reveal God's presence within Egypt.

The Midrash thus offers a complementary interpretation of the verse "Joseph had been taken down to Egypt," namely, that "the Divine presence descended with him."81

(Abraham and Sarah's descent to Egypt had also brought God's presence there, but in a more general, overall way, rather than in a way that effected real change.82)


Joseph had been taken "down" not only physically but spiritually as well. He went from the lofty spiritual environment of his father's home in the Holy Land to hedonistic Egypt. He went from studying the Torah with his father to being a slave for an Egyptian master.

Joseph's descent echoes the descent of the soul from the holiness of heaven to the mundaneness of earthly existence. Such a descent constitutes a drastic plunge, even in times of Godly revelation in the world, such as when the Temples stood. It is even more drastic in times of exile, especially in the final days of exile, when the spiritual darkness is greatest.83

But the Torah informs us that "Joseph had been taken down to Egypt" also means that "Joseph ruled over Egypt"—that through the soul's descent it gains the capacity to immediately become ruler over anything that conceals Godliness.84


The saga of Joseph's tribulations is the story of the Jew in exile. Joseph was torn away from his family and thrown into an alien world. Although Jacob had also left his family to live in Charan, Joseph's isolation was far more distressing and challenging. Firstly, Jacob was already a mature and wise adult, over the age of forty, when he went to Charan; Joseph, in contrast, was only seventeen years old. Secondly, Jacob was able to establish his own home, separate from Laban, where he could live a Godly life undisturbed. Joseph, in contrast, enjoyed no such luxury. He first lived as a slave and later as a prisoner. It was only many years after he arrived in Egypt that he married and established his own home.

In addition to his isolation, Joseph was dealt one blow after another. Although one would expect him to be bitter and unenthusiastic about working for Potiphar, Joseph worked diligently for him and brought his master great success. In addition, Joseph was loyal to Potiphar and refused under immense pressure to cohabit with his master's wife. Yet how did Potiphar repay his loyalty? By throwing Joseph in jail.

While in jail, Joseph had to serve the king's condemned servants, the cupbearer and the baker.85 Although they should have been serving him, since they had sinned against the king and he (supposedly) only against the king's servant, he ended up having to serve them! Furthermore, he knew that they thought of him as an immature child, a lowly slave, and a foreigner.86 Yet he reached out to help them. And what was his reward? To be immediately forgotten.

One would think that confronted by a world filled with falsehood and bereft of justice and fairness, Joseph would be inclined to escape from the world, to flee to the solitude of the desert or at least to seek revenge against his oppressors. Yet he did no such thing, remaining instead focused on doing his work faithfully, and thereby sanctifying God's name.87

How indeed was Joseph, a flesh and blood mortal, capable of such superhuman behavior? By studying Torah. Throughout his years in Egypt he constantly reviewed what he had studied with his father.88 He was therefore permeated with the spiritual fortitude to overcome every hardship.

Like Joseph, we too must learn to remain focused on our Divine mission—to bring light into the world—despite the disappointments and seeming injustices we often encounter.89

6 Joseph was well built and of fine appearance: Spiritually, this means that Joseph was perfect and beautiful in his fulfillment of the Torah's commandments. As we have seen,90 Joseph's Divine mission was to bring others closer to God, to perfect others. He was able to do so by virtue of his own spiritual perfection.

We, too, are all called upon to engage in the work of Joseph, to bring others closer to God. In order succeed as Joseph did, we must bear in mind the Talmudic adage, "Adorn yourself and then adorn others."91 Only when we are "well built and of fine appearance" in the spiritual sense are we best suited to influence others.

Of course, this does not mean we should wait until we achieve perfection before reaching out to others; perfection is relative, and compared to those who know less than we, we are "adorned" enough to inspire them. Nevertheless, we must also remember that if we neglect to correct our own flaws, others will take note, and they will then be less inclined to take our words to heart.

We must therefore spare no effort to spiritually "beautify" ourselves, since neglecting to do so is detrimental not only ourselves but to everyone in our potential sphere of influence.92


[6] Joseph was well built and of fine appearance: As we have seen,93 the attribute of yesod, which Joseph personified, does not possess its own, unique content, but rather acts as a funnel, receiving the input of all the attributes above it and transmitting this content to the attribute beneath it, malchut. It blends the content it receives in perfect balance and then transmits this blended and balanced content. Joseph is therefore referred to as being "well built and of fine appearance," since true beauty is the perfectly balanced synthesis of different colors.94

7 With these noble intentions: This incident demonstrates that beneath the surface even of circumstances that seem antagonistic to holiness lies a holy purpose.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi offers the example of someone trying to bother us when we are immersed in prayer. In such a case, says Rabbi Shneur Zalman, we should not allow the nuisance to hamper our prayers. On the contrary, we should recognize that God has sent this nuisance as a messenger to stimulate us to pray even harder.95

The pest himself, like all of existence, is rooted ultimately in holiness, and is therefore motivated by a subconscious desire to serve holiness. It is only his conscious, evil self that distorts this desire and expresses it in a form that outwardly opposes holiness.

The same principle is true with regard to all the obstacles we encounter. We should neither be fooled nor discouraged by their antagonistic veneer but rather perceive their essence, i.e., that they are not obstacles to holiness but rather its servants. If we maintain this attitude, we can reveal the inner, holy essence of the obstacle, thereby removing its facade and enabling it to serve holiness manifestly.96

23 God granted him success in whatever he did: The Torah uses the same phrase to describe Joseph's success in the house of Potiphera,97 but with the addition of the words "[God granted him success] in his hand." These additional words imply that although Joseph's success came from God, the people around him perceived the prosperity he brought about as his own accomplishment and attributed it to his good luck. Conversely, when Joseph was in prison, it was clear to all that Joseph's success was God's doing.

While in Egypt, Joseph endured a number of humiliating experiences. When he first arrived, he was sold as a slave, deprived of his former identity and comforts. This served to evoke within him a sense of servitude and selflessness before God. Since humility makes a person worthy of receiving Divine blessings, Joseph was blessed with uncommon good fortune and an unusual knack for success and prosperity.

Yet, while servants may be bound to their masters, their service still promotes their sense of self, for they are used for productive work. Joseph's humility before God as a servant was thus incomplete. The Godly nature of his success was therefore not apparent, such that Potiphar would have attributed it to Joseph himself—"in his hand." It was only because Joseph constantly attributed his success to God that Potiphar did the same.

Joseph's humiliating experiences reached their ultimate low when he was imprisoned. A prisoner, unlike a servant, is viewed negatively, as an unwanted burden best kept confined and removed from society. Being a prisoner therefore served to evoke within Joseph a much deeper sense of selflessness and humility. He thereby became worthy to receive Godly blessings of a supra-natural order. It was then that Joseph's very success—independent of his constantly mentioning God—bespoke God's blessing, since it could not be attributed to Joseph's good luck alone.98

12 Just then he saw a vision of his father's face: As a servant, Joseph's was obviously at the mercy of his master's wife, since she had the ear of her husband. As the Midrash in fact relates, Potiphera's wife had threatened Joseph with all sorts of threats, including death, if he did not acquiesce to her demands.99

Since the Torah had not yet been given, Joseph—according to many opinions100—was not obligated to risk his life to refrain from this sin. This explains why it was only when he saw an image of his father's face that he understood he was obligated not to resist her temptations. Jacob's face, we are told, resembled Adam's face;101 this was because Jacob finished the process of rectifying Adam's sin, a process that had been begun by Abraham and Isaac.102 Knowing this, when he saw Jacob's face, Joseph was reminded of how our Divine mission is to rectify Adam's sin. As such, our individual sins are not only our own affair, for which there might be mitigating rationalizations; they affect the moral balance of all reality.

In our lives, too, we are sometimes confronted with temptation to commit a sin. We might try to convince ourselves that nobody will know about it, that we may be technically justified in giving in, that the sin is only temporary setback and that we can later repent, and so on. It may even seem that this temporary sin will enable us to better contribute to the cause of goodness in the future!

In such moments, we must, so to speak, envisage the image of our father Jacob, that is, remember that our actions are not merely the isolated deeds of individuals in isolated times and places. Our deeds have cosmic implications; they can harm or heal the entire world.103


[12] He saw a vision of his father's face… he fled, and went outside: Every physical phenomenon is a derivative of a far loftier Godly phenomenon. Thus, physical beauty derives from Divine beauty. Of course, physical beauty cannot compare to Divine beauty, and therefore, when they are contrasted, physical beauty is a veritable nonentity.

When Joseph was confronted by Potiphar's wife's beauty, he reminded himself of Divine beauty. He thus figuratively "fled and went outside" the physical realm, to a place where physical beauty is a nonentity.

This is alluded to by the fact that he saw a vision of his father's face, since Jacob, as we have seen, embodied the Divine attribute of beauty (tiferet).104

Chapter 40

2-3 The chief cupbearer and the chief baker: Allegorically, Egypt and Pharaoh represent the forces that prevent the insight of the mind from affecting the emotions of the heart. When we intellectually perceive Godliness, these forces keep this perception from reaching the heart and creating an emotional response of love and reverence for God. Pharaoh creates this disconnection by means of his three chiefs—the chief butcher, the chief cupbearer, and the chief baker—who represent indulgence in sensual and worldly pleasures, which distract a person from Godliness.

Through his interactions with these three chiefs, Joseph overcame their spiritual counterparts and elevated the sparks of holiness that resided within them. For example, while in the home of the chief butcher, Joseph overcame passion for physical pleasure and instead transformed it into passionate love for God.

By overcoming these obstacles to spiritual growth, Joseph enabled the Jewish people to do the same, both those who would be enslaved in Egypt and those who would suffer future exiles.105

6-7 He asked Pharaoh's courtiers…"Why are your faces so downcast today?": Joseph had suffered horrible humiliations—first sold as a slave and then imprisoned for a sin he had not committed. We would expect that he would have become absorbed in his own pain, angry at the world. We would never imagine that he would notice the pain of others, especially that of Pharaoh's courtiers, whose colleague had sent him to prison.

Yet Joseph did not become bitter. He remained sensitive to others and to his Divine mission in life. Not only did he perceive the anguish of the courtiers, he reached out to help them. It was surely obvious to him why imprisoned ministers would be depressed, and that their depression would deepen with each passing day. Yet he thoughtfully inquired after their wellbeing, even in the slight chance that there was something he could do to help them. To Joseph, the fact that God had orchestrated events in such a manner that he should notice a creature of God in need of help indicated that it was his duty to help that creature.

What was the result of this one, seemingly minor good deed? Joseph became the viceroy of Egypt and gained a position from which he ultimately saved the civilized world from famine.

We see here, once again, the unimaginable results one small deed can engender. Science has recognized that a minor occurrence in one corner of the world can have an enormous effect upon the entire world; the same is true of our spiritual activities and good deeds—one small deed can change the world.106

9 The cupbearer related his dream to Joseph: The courtiers must have known that only the great wizards of Egypt could interpret dreams. Nonetheless, they told their dreams to Joseph, even though they disdainfully viewed him as an immature child, a lowly slave, and a foreigner?107 More to the point, although Joseph knew what they thought of him, he did not hold it against them, and offered his help generously and sincerely.

Throughout history, we have experienced this same phenomenon. There are always those who disparage us and view us disdainfully, but in the end, they recognize that we can be of assistance to them. When they ask for our help, we, like Joseph, should be ready to forgive them and help them.108

10 And on the vine there were three branches: The sages offer several interpretations on the symbolism of the vine and its branches; according to one of these, the vine symbolized the Jewish people and the three branches symbolized the three patriarchs.109

As we have seen, Abraham personified kindness, Isaac personified discipline, and Jacob personified the study of the Torah.110 Thus, the vine and its three branches indicate that we must incorporate the unique and sometimes opposing attributes of kindness, discipline, and Torah study into our lives. Specifically, it is by consulting the Torah that we learn when to employ kindness and when to employ discipline.

For example, we might misuse kindness as overindulgent self-protection, preventing us from subjecting ourselves to any form of discomfort. In the morning, when it is time to pray or study the Torah, we might insist that we must be kind to ourselves and catch another hour of sleep.

The Torah, however, tells us that we are to reserve such kindness for others. To ourselves, we should generally direct our attribute of discipline.111 On the other hand, there are times when kindness is appropriate for ourselves112 and inappropriate for our dealings with others.113

To accurately determine whether to use the attribute of Abraham or that of Isaac, we must utilize the attribute of Jacob and consult the Torah.114

23 Joseph…but he erred in thinking that…he was dependent upon his advocacy rather than upon God's mercy: This same dynamic holds true during our exile. God sometimes wants us to seek favors of our host nations. Yet, we should not do so with the attitude that our fate is dependent upon their favor. Our fate is in God's hands, and our faith should be placed only in Him.115


From a different perspective, Joseph should not have tried to effectuate God's protection through natural means altogether. Although most of us are required to do live this way,116 certain extremely saintly individuals are meant to receive God's blessing directly, without recourse to natural means. Joseph was such an individual and was therefore wrong to attempt to work through the cupbearer. He was required to have a higher level of trust in God, relying upon Him directly, entirely, and exclusively.

Jacob, in contrast, was not on the same spiritual level as Joseph, and therefore was correct to have employed natural means—gifts and preparations for war—through which God could protect him from Esau.117

And he forgot about him: When young children who are accustomed to being rewarded for good behavior hear the story of Joseph in prison, they assume that Joseph must have been rewarded for helping the courtiers. But instead, they hear that was promptly forgotten! When they ask how this could be, they are told that this is not the end of the story; they will soon hear how Joseph rose to be viceroy of Egypt. But if this satisfies them, they are told further that in fact, it was not enough of a reward, since it only benefited him personally. Joseph's true reward came when he saved the entire world from hunger.

Similarly, we must learn to consider the greatest reward for our good deeds the positive impact they have on the world. When we have the opportunity to help someone materially, we should do so, for who knows? Perhaps through this we will be able to benefit the whole world materially. Spiritually as well, helping even one individual might in the end "feed" an entire, spiritually starved world with live-saving spiritual sustenance.118