The story of Joseph is perhaps the most dramatic in all the Torah. A literal rags-to-riches story, it makes the ones of fiction seem uninspired. While still a young child, Joseph tragically loses his mother, Rachel, while she was giving birth to his younger brother, Benjamin. His older half-siblings — rather than taking Joseph under their wings, showing extra compassion for their orphaned young brother — reject him instead. They curiously turn on him with prejudice and jealousy and conspire to get rid of him. They eventually kidnap him, then sell him to slave traders who bring him to Egypt.
Abandoned by his brothers to a horrific fate of a life in slavery and perhaps worse, Joseph spends over a dozen years in an Egyptian dungeon, framed for a crime for which he was falsely accused. Yet while we would expect to find a depressed and angry individual, to whom life had been so cruel, Joseph remarkably shows tremendous resilience, fortitude and optimism. Indeed his cheerful disposition endears him to his prison masters, and to his fellow prisoners as well.
That is why a seemingly insignificant detail of Joseph’s story may hold the key not only for his own happiness; very likely, it saved not only Joseph himself but all of civilization.
As the Torah relates, Joseph is making his rounds one morning in the jail when he sees two unhappy and grumpy people. In his usual cheerful demeanor, he asks them how they are doing and questions why they are so sad.
They respond that they were both, until recently, very important people: Pharaoh’s executive sommelier and pastry chef, respectively. However, because of an unfortunate event, they were both fired and imprisoned. To make matters worse, they both had startling dreams the night before, which they were certain held the key to their fate, but they were unable to decipher them.
As we kn ow by now in the story, Joseph is a master dream interpreter. It’s actually what got him into trouble with his family to begin with. But he patiently listens to their stories and gives them inspired interpretations. For the beverage executive, it’s a happy dream; for the baker, not so good. All Joseph asks in return is that they put in a good word for him to their boss, saying that he is an innocent Jew who did no wrong.
After the beverage executive gets his old job back, he promptly forgets all about his promise to Joseph. But a couple of years later, when Pharaoh has two disturbing dreams and none of his advisers can help him, the beverage chief recalls how was helped by this brilliant dream interpreter who could certainly help Pharaoh as well and begrudgingly fulfills his promise to Joseph. Joseph is finally brought up from the dungeon, and he so impresses Pharaoh not only with his accurate interpretation, but he also advises him to implement a strategy to save the population from starvation. Pharaoh immediately appoints him as second in command to the throne, and the rest is history.
The detail in the story, one that is often lost, is why Joseph was surprised to see two unhappy people in a prison. What reason would a prisoner have to be jolly in an Egyptian dungeon? And yet he goes over to them and inquires, why aren’t you guys happy? How can I help? His generosity of spirit and his refusal to acknowledge that his present situation is anything but God’s plan for him at the moment informs him that, even in prison, he is an emissary of God. His mission is to bring kindness and sunshine, to smile and ask how he can help someone in distress, even when he himself shares in the same predicament.
The Talmud (Berachot 17a) relates that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, who was the leader of the Jewish community, would always make sure to greet every passerby, Jew and gentile alike, with a smile and hello, and never wait to be greeted first.
We never know what a simple good morning can do for a passerby, or even a friend and colleague. We may think it’s just a simple gesture, but it can change a person’s day and perhaps his or her life.
Consider how different the ending would be if Joseph had just kept his head down and minded his own business immersed in his own tsuris.
Jewish, and indeed world history was forever changed, because Joseph decided to focus on someone else rather than on himself. He succeeded in not only saving himself but the world.
All because of one “Good morning.”
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.