This weeks parshah begins with yet another setback for Yosef: “Mikeitz she’nus’ayim yomim… - at the conclusion of two years…”. What is this referring to? Rashi at the end of last week’s parshah explains that after Yosef interpreted the dream of the sar ha’mashkim, and the sar ha’mashkim was then freed from jail to serve the king once again, Yosef was confident that he would finally be saved. After all, Yosef had asked the sar ha’mashkim, who he had just helped, to ask the king to free him from jail. However, because he put his trust in man, and Yosef was on such a high spiritual-level that doing so was beneath him, he was punished with yet another 2 long-years stuck in an Egyptian dungeon (and spent a total of 12 whole years in prison).
It seems that every time that Yosef had a success in life, it was quickly followed by a traumatic defeat, time after time (see footnote below for a large list of such events*). Yet, despite all of this, Yosef stayed strong, and the Torah even attests that Hashem’s name was constantly on his lips (see Rashi 39:3. See also 41:16,25,28,32,38 &39).
How was it possible for Yosef to stay so strong despite experiencing one crushing defeat after another, that would have left most people feeling like they were proverbially drowning? Additionally, is there anything relatable that we can learn from him so that we too can do the same, when we each experience life‘s inevitable defeats from time to time and feel like we too are drowning?
In the 1950’s, Dr. Curt Richter, a Harvard graduate and a professor at Johns Hopkins, did a famous and gruesome psychology experiment. This experiment, though cruel and unacceptable, demonstrated the power of hope and resilience in overcoming difficult situations.
Dr. Curt Richter placed mice in a pool of water to test how long they could tread water. On average, they'd give up and sink after about 15 minutes.
Dr. Richter then repeated the experiment with a new group of mice, but this time, right before the mice gave up due to exhaustion, the researchers would pluck them out, dry them off, let them rest for a few minutes - and then put them back in for a second round.
In this second try - how long do you think they lasted? Remember - they had just swam until failure only a few short minutes ago...
How long do you think? Another 15 minutes? 10 minutes? 5 minutes? No! 60 hours! That's not an error. That's right! 60 hours of swimming.
The conclusion drawn was that since the mice now knew that they could eventually be rescued, they were now able to push their bodies way past what they previously thought possible. “After elimination of hopelessness,” wrote Dr. Richter, “the mice could swim exponentially longer and outperform all expectations.”
There are obviously many differences between humans and mice. But one similarity stands out: focusing on the knowledge that we can be saved, can truly make us exponentially stronger not just on a mental level, but on a physical level as well.
There were probably many things that kept Yosef going and which prevented him from “drowning” in his setbacks and challenges. While we can’t know for sure, it is quite likely that Yosef took note of the powerful fact that Hashem had already saved him throughout his life, time and time again in the past – and staying focused on this is one of the factors that gave him the strength that he exhibited to keep on going, as each future challenge surfaced. One thing is for sure – we can all gain incredibly if we all chose to do the same.
We’ve all recognized, at least at some point or another in our own personal lives, that we have been openly saved and assisted by hashgacha pratiyos from Hashem. Whenever we are faced with a setback or challenge, let us focus on the fact that just like Hashem has helped us in the past, He is just as involved and can save us and grant us success in all areas – today**.
This concept is especially prevalent during Chanukah. On Chanukah, one of the things that we are celebrating & acknowledging is the fact that just like Hashem saved us and was in full control back then during the neis of Chanukah, this reminds us that so too He is actively involved today and can easily save us & help us succeed in every way.
After all, the point of a neis is to simply remind us that Hashem truly ALWAYS runs the world and is always in full-control of everything – even when he does not cause a neis (see Ramban at end of parshas Bo). We similarly celebrate & acknowledge this fact each Pesach***.
May we all take tremendous chizzuk from focusing on this fact - and keep swimming strongly throughout life, despite all challenges, & never feel like we are ever drowning.
*- Early on in his life, Yosef only had a wholesome family for a few years, and then, he is faced with challenge, as his dear mother Rachel passed away in labor with his brother. Then, he attains success: enjoying being his father‘s favorite son, being granted the colorful “kesonas passim”, being taught special Torah that his father only taught him, etc. - important successes in his life. However, shortly thereafter, he is again faced with severe challenge: his brothers hated him and decided to sell him as a slave to Egypt, the country renown as being the place from where a slave never escaped. And yet again, he has a victory - he is elevated to run the entire household of his master with full autonomy, and everything that Yosef touched Hashem blessed, which was something that his owner recognized and respected. Things were going relatively well once again. And then, there was yet another crushing defeat: Yosef HaTzadik was accused of the most heinous of acts of immorality, despite the fact that not only did he not commit it, he had valiantly fought it off. After being thrown into prison, Hashem helped Yosef once more succeed and rise in power - and he once more was given full autonomy. Not only that, when members of the king’s inner circle were sent to prison and Yosef interpreted their dreams, Yosef befriended them and asked that when they would be released and have the king’s ear once more, they should put in a good word for Yosef and have him released. Yosef was probably confident that he would be saved any day, but, he suffered yet another painful setback, and a whole two years spent in a horrible dungeon went by, as the sa’ar ha’mashkim had forgotten Yosef. Yosef HaTzadik had to spend a total of 12 long years in prison. And then, another victory: Yosef is swiftly released from prison and brought to the king himself. At this point, many people would be bitter or broken. But not Yosef. He continuously mentioned & acknowledged Hashem’s presence and Divine Power.
**- And if He doesn’t, although we don’t understand it, it too is a result of His mercy, His being in absolute control, and ultimately for our benefit.
**- My father often quotes the following, from the sefer Ma’aseh Nissim:
Each Pesach, what are we celebrating? That we were in galus and freed? But, we are STILL in galus! Should someone who was released from prison, and then later thrown into another prison and is BACK in a cell, really be expected to feel joy when celebrating the anniversary of being freed from the first prison? Yes, he should feel grateful, but now that he is back in prison, most of us wouldn’t feel much joy from having once, long ago, been saved if we are now trapped forever back in a cell.
The Sefer Ma’aseh Nissim answers that, actually, yes, it is a reason to celebrate and feel real joy. For we were shown that Hashem is capable of freeing us. And just like He freed us once before, He can and will free us once again.
Let us be motivated by this fact and let us draw on the inner strength that this knowledge affords.