The chief wine steward observing how Pharaoh is plagued by disturbing dreams suddenly recalls how merely two years prior, while wallowing in prison for an offense he allegedly committed against the king, he too had a perplexing dream that his young fellow inmate, Yosef, accurately interpreted in portending his being restored to his former elevated position.
While recollecting his experience to Pharaoh and marveling over Yosef’s prowess as an interpreter of dreams, he nevertheless refers derogatorily to Yosef as the, נער עברי עבד, the ‘Hebrew slave lad’.
By calling Yosef a lad, although Yosef was already thirty years old, he intended to imply that Yosef was ignorant and primitive in his thinking, and unworthy of distinction. Yosef being labeled a Hebrew was intended to highlight his being an alien who spoke a ‘foreign’ language who didn’t fathom the nuances of their spoken communication or culture. His emphasis on his status as as a slave served as a not so subtle reminder to Pharaoh of Egyptian protocol that a slave was prohibited from serving in any formal capacity of authority. (רש"י)
Is this any way to treat the loyal cellmate who sympathetically lent his ear to the deposed steward’s plight, who offered him encouragement and a positive interpretation to his dream?
Why the denigration?
The steward was an opportunist who wasn’t interested in anything other than regaining his stature. Although certainly impressed with the Hebrew slave lad, he wasn’t interested in the pursuit of truth, only in expedience. Not only did he fear Yosef winning favor in the eyes of Pharaoh and possibly usurping him, he was more concerned that with a persona of the magnitude of Yosef, who was clearly cut from a different cloth than the rest of Egyptian society, a man who possessed character, morals and a passionate commitment to truth, might seek to revolutionize the comfortable status quo in Egypt to promote ethics and values that were so contrary to the hierarchical system of Egypt where everyone was ensconced in their safe spot in the greater pyramid of Egyptian society.
Truth comes with responsibility and at times a revocation of comforts for the sake of a higher and more noble goal. Why disturb the universe?
To stifle this dangerous possibility the chief steward first highlights Yosef’s primitivism, admitting that although he had a knack for interpreting dreams nevertheless he is but a ‘lad’, one who is unsophisticated in the ‘ways of the world’.
He alludes to his being party to the ‘Hebrews’, the descendants of Avraham, who were widely known for their ‘inspired’ thinking, and he sought to cast them as some fanatical and outdated religion that was unsuited to the ‘modern world’. These are a people, he intimates, who are no different than any of the other myriad of nations, and undeserving of being placed in the dangerous limelight.
Finally he then adds the fact that Yosef is but a slave, incapable of leadership, who could never assume an influential role amongst Egyptian society anyway.
Accepting the truth of a Creator who directs events and seeks our benefit by instructing us with guidelines for a happy life and expecting up to represent His will in all facets of life, can really complicate one’s life. Firstly it places upon oneself obligations and responsibilities. Secondly it compels one to seek and promote His will. Lastly it demands of us to remain forever conscious of that stature and privilege that is concomitant with responsibility.
Despite the stewards attempt to shun Yosef, Yosef becomes an inspiring leader who glorified the Name of G-d in all his pursuits, impacting the populace as only the bearer of the legacy of our illustrious forefathers could, instituting many beneficial rules and altering attitudes that were so foreign to Egyptian society, enabling them to survive the difficult famine that ensued.
The truth speaks for itself!
A most famous co-religionist of the past century made news once again this past week. Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds in history, the renowned physicist, who discovered the Theory of Relativity, had penned a letter to Eric Gutkind, a German Jewish philosopher who sought Einstein’s opinion on a religious book Gutkind wrote entitled, Choose Life, The Biblical Call to Revolt. In the now famous God letter, Einstein reveals his attitude about God. This letter sold for nearly three million dollars, coincidentally [?] during the week of Chanuka when the forces of Torah defeated the Greeks, the deniers of a transcendent world that exists beyond the boundaries of nature and science.
Einstein expresses three sentiments. He writes:
The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition.
Even the greatest mind fears the truth, because with that discovery comes responsibility and a change of life as one knows it. He attacks our Torah as the product of ‘childish’ minds, ‘primitive’ thinking, and the ‘product of human weakness’.
Doesn’t this echo the claim of the self-serving steward, that Yosef is but a נער, a foolish lad?
And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and whose thinking I have a deep affinity for, have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power.
Einstein once again, sees us as nothing different from other nations and almost fortunate to have been a עבד, ‘enslaved’, and fated to the ‘lack of power’ by fate that saved us from the pitfalls and follies of other powerful developing nations.
Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them. In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew.
Einstein cannot accept anything other than our being one culture among the many, without distinction or greater purpose. We are just ‘Hebrews’, a cholent, gefilte fish and latke eating nation with our own superstitions and culture, no different than the ancient Egyptians, undeserving of any chosen status.
We are indeed a nation comprised of many a נער, lad. We possess that youthful awe and marvel of discovery as we seek to endlessly expand our universe, broadening our service of G-d that prevents us from getting stale in our devotions and becoming complacent. It is the bountiful energy of youth that we implement in carrying out His will that defines us.
We are the chosen son, who gloats not in the privilege of that role but rises up time and again risking life and limb to carry that banner proudly. We are exalted in our appellation as עברים, Hebrews, eager to stand alone against the world if that’s what it takes.
We are a nation of עבדים, not in the sense of being shackled and unfree, but rather as devoted servants who commit to reflecting His will in every fiber of our being, happily branding ourselves in His image.
In the days of yore, the Greek nation sought to destroy us, rising up against עמך ישראל, Your people Israel, your chosen nation; להשכיחם תורתך, to make them forget Your Torah, the brilliant truth by which we live by and commit to, a wisdom which our enemies term foolish; ולהעבירם על חוקי רצונך, and compel them to stray from the statutes of Your will, unwilling to accept us as the worthy purveyors of His higher will on this earth, claiming we are inept and enslaved to mindless superstitions.
Its an old story, that repeats itself time and again.
And we continue to conquer those forces by emulating the remarkable ‘Hebrew slave lad’.
The Chashmonaim in their ‘youthful’ exuberance refused to be quieted, rising mightily with the zeal of a נער, a lad. Their awareness of their privileged role as the עם הנבחר, the ‘Hebrews’, the chosen nation, fueled their enthusiasm in conquering the enemy. Their commitment to Torah was undefeatable despite the many evil decrees foisted against them, remaining the עבדי השם, the loyal ‘servants’ of G-d, no matter the odds or consequence.
In our last galus, that of Edom, we face daunting challenges. The verse that describes the primordial darkness that hovered, על פני תהום, upon the surface of the deep, is an allusion to our present station in this last exile. The only way we can be victorious is by fully embracing our role as the נער עברי עבד, in the image of Yosef. The gematria of נער עברי עבד (678), adding the number of letters (10) and words (3), is numerically equivalent to על פני תהום (691)!
Eric Gutkind concludes his book with the following statement:
Jewish truth is guided by the credo that within Israel lies the maximal potentiality to replace irreality by a genuine reality. The soul of Israel does not believe in substitutes for truth or for righteousness. Israel’s soul is vibrating with the advent of the Messianic world to come. The new life is already close under the surface waiting to be released. A metamorphosis of mankind is very near.
May we each take a personal inventory in how much we match up to being a נער עברי עבד, a Hebrew slave lad, in carrying out our mission with youthful exuberance, unstinting devotion, and inspired pride as Jews with a mission. If we put ourselves to this task the footsteps of Moshiach will resound with utter clarity speedily in our days.
חנוכה שמח וחודש טוב,
צבי יהודה טייכמאן