At the end of Parshas Vayeishev, Yosef is sent to jail by Potiphar and finds himself with the recently imprisoned royal chief butler and baker.


Breishis 40:6-7
וַיָּבֹא אֲלֵיהֶם יוֹסֵף בַּבֹּקֶר וַיַּרְא אֹתָם וְהִנָּם זֹעֲפִים
וַיִּשְׁאַל אֶת סְרִיסֵי פַרְעֹה אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ בְמִשְׁמַר בֵּית אֲדֹנָיו לֵאמֹר מַדּוּעַ פְּנֵיכֶם רָעִים הַיּוֹם
And Joseph came in to them in the morning, and saw them, and, behold, they were sad.
And he asked Pharaoh’s officers that were with him in the ward of his master’s house, saying: ‘Why do your faces look sad today?’
The mephorshim note a number of praiseworthy aspects about Yosef’s behavior in his encounter with the officers of Paraoh while imprisoned.

The Ramban and Ohr HaChaim both note the bravery of Yosef in approaching these two high ranking officers and asking them about their moods. Here is Yosef, a young slave, asking officers from Paraoh’s palace why they were sad. The question itself is somewhat puzzling; after all, they were in prison, which isn’t the most uplifting of places. The question almost seems rhetorical. Yosef, however, attune to their disposition, recognizes that something is particularly awry with these men, which he would discover is the product of their dreams from the previous night.

The Lebavitcher Rebbe (in a sicha given in 1974, summarized from Yiddish to Hebrew by Rav Yaakov Levi Ginsberg) points out, that perhaps even more impressive than Yosef’s courage, is that fact that Yosef even paid the slightest bit of attention to them and their degree of sadness. After all, Yoseph had suffered immense pain already in his life: He lost his mother at a young age, he was sold as a slave by his own brothers, hauled down to Egypt away from his beloved father, and imprisoned for a sin he had not committed. We would expect that such a person would be wallowing in his own pain, too consumed by personal sadness/frustration to be cognizant of another person’s pain.

And yet, Yosef is acutely aware of the pain of his cell-mates. Despite his own hardships, he remains attentive and sensitive to others, and inquires if there is any manner – just the slightest chance – that he can implement his G-d-given gifts to help another human being.

The Lebavitcher Rebbe explains that Yosef HaTzaddik possessed the quality of knowing that every individual’s personal mission, and the greatest happiness one can achieve, is to utilize the skills given to us by Hashem to improve the world and the lives of people around us; to wholeheartedly engage in the unique shlichus for which we were created. Yosef’s focus in life was unwavering, regardless of whether he was  in a palace or a jail cell. He remained fixated on furthering his mission in life (which is how he thwarted Mrs. Potiphar’s advances), and ultimately, through Yad Hashem, his question of ‘why are you upset’ leads to his ascension to mishneh la’melech. 

It is essential to note that his goal, however, was not to become second in command to Paraoh nor was it to be rewarded. In fact, we see that the first thing that happens after Yosef helps the Sar Hamashkim is that he forgets Yosef!
That being said, while it is true that Yosef did not help the officers with the intention of being rewarded, we do see that Yosef is nevertheless rewarded. If you ask a young child, the Rebbe says, what was Yosef’s reward for inquiring about the officers’ well-being, he will say that Yosef’s dream-interpreting skills were eventually brought to light by the Sar Hamashkim, requested by Paraoh, favored by Paraoh, which launched him to second in command. The real reward, however, is not the riches, the title, the Tzafnat Paneach nickname, or the finest horses and camels Egypt had to offer. Instead, Yosef’s most cherished reward was the opportunity he was given to use his skills to advise Paraoh on how to save the world from famine. He helps one person in jail, and that leads to helping feed and sustain the entire world during the ensuing famine. Such is the ripple effect that can result from a small act of kindness.

In the small confines of an Egyptian dungeon, Yosef notices someone in pain, gathers the courage to inquire, and uses the gifts of sensitivity and interpretive skill to eventually fulfill his Divine mission/shlichus in the most expansive manner possible.

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