Shabbat Parashat Vayeshev| 5764
A Dangerously High Profile
Yosef, in his role as dream analyst, hears parallel dreams and gives parallel but drastically different solutions for them. He tells both the sar hamashkim (royal butler) and the sar ha’ofim (royal baker) that in three days, Paroh will lift their heads (“yisa Paroh et roshecha”). First he tells the sar hamashkim the good news that this will be accompanied by a return to his elevated station. Yosef starts with same words for the sar ha’ofim but continues that his head would not just be lifted but would be lifted off of him, as he would be executed. What is the point of Yosef’s play on words, which must be more than a cynical use of language?
The midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 1:11) connects between the root, “yisa,” and the pasuk, “Raise the heads (s’oo et rosh) of the whole congregation of Bnei Yisrael” (Bamidbar 1:2). The midrash says that if the people merit it, they will attain greatness, but if they are not deserving, they will die, with the precedent being the lifting of our two Egyptian dignitaries’ heads. The message is deeper than the fact that “raising heads” can refer to being counted, being decapitated, or being remembered. A raised head is one which is noticed and reacted to by others. Is it good to stand out? It worked out fine for the sar hamashkim, who could have rotted away in jail, if not remembered. The sar ha’ofim was remembered in a way which caused his execution. Bnei Yisrael, as Hashem’s beloved nation, is counted and receives special attention. That attention can cause blessing or downfall, depending on their actions.
Along these lines, we can suggest an explanation for the criticism of Yosef for requesting the sar hamashkim’s help (see Rashi on Bereishit 40:23). Wasn’t it a natural request, what we call, hishtadlut? Yosef asked for his sentence to be revisited. Is that wise? Although it worked well for the sar hamashkim, it cost the sar ha’ofim his life. If Yosef was relying on Divine protection, then he should have let Hashem continue to have things unfold miraculously, and not take risks because of impatience in waiting for Divine intervention.
Many people’s nature is to raise their heads in search of prominence. Is that good? Without people who strive for advancement and achievement, our world would not progress as it can, even spiritually. But some would be wise to learn the lesson of the raised head. If the wrong person pursues prominence or the right person does so at the wrong time or place, he may find frustration or even infamy instead of success and fame. A high profile, while allowing kiddush Hashem, can also be a vehicle to the opposite. The gemara (Sota 22a) deals with the following double-edged sword. It is a sin to take authority before one is ready, but it is also a sin to refuse responsibility when one is prepared. One needs to allow the prominence to progress naturally. Divine intervention and deserved recognition by one’s respected peers are indicators of who should stand out before the public, or the king, or the King, and when.
It is nice to be tall and jump high. But before raising one’s head too high, one should check that he isn’t standing under a ceiling fan.
[These words of general advise aren’t directed to a specific public figure, past or present.]
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