Why1 was Yosef the Righteous2 punished for placing his trust in the royal butler?3

Yosef was distinguished by a quality in which he was superior to the Patriarchs and to his brothers: the Divinity that shone within him was of a level that transcends worldliness. And for that reason, G‑d related to him in a manner that transcended the natural world — namely, at the level of Divinity that is called Sovev Kol Almin.

This also explains4 why Yosef was punished5 for having asked the Chief Butler to mention him to Pharaoh, for not having completely trusted that G‑d alone would redeem him from prison — and for this he was punished by having to remain there for an additional two years.

The question has been asked: What exactly was Yosef’s sin? After all, it is well known that one should fashion a keli — a vessel or a conduit on the natural plane — as a receptor for G‑d’s blessings. Moreover, fashioning a natural vessel does not conflict with one’s trust in G‑d. In this spirit, there is a verse that speaks of making a livelihood: “And the L‑rd your G‑d will bless you in all that you do.”6 This means that one ought to make a natural vessel through which to receive G‑d’s blessings, and to rely on Him to dispatch His blessing via that vessel.

This approach we find exemplified by Yaakov Avinu when he was afraid of Eisav, “lest he come and smite me, mothers and children alike.”7 Side by side with his prayers and his trust in G‑d, he prepared natural vessels — by offering Eisav a gift and by being ready for battle with him — through which his salvation should come. Why, then, was Yosef punished for preparing a vessel, a natural means, through which he could be released from the dungeon?

The answer lies in the spiritual rung that he had attained. As mentioned above, Yosef accessed the level of Divinity which is called Sovev, and which transcends the level of Divinity that is the source of created beings. Living at that level, he ought not have needed preparations and vessels on the natural plane. What was expected of him was a loftier level of trust, a trust that can dispense with mediation by the workings of nature.

The Alter Rebbe perceives an allusion to this supernatural level of trust in a verse whose plain meaning8 is, “Better to rely on G‑d9 than to trust in man.”10 In a mystical mode of interpretation,11 the Alter Rebbe teaches:12 “Better to rely on Havayah [i.e., on the Four-Letter Name of G‑d that signifies the transcendent level of Divinity known as Sovev] than to trust in Adam [in allusion to Adam HaElyon (lit., ‘the Supernal Man’), a Name for G‑d which in the Kabbalah signifies the immanent level of Divinity known as Memaleh].”13