From Pit To Palace: The Meaning Of Joseph’s Groundhog Day
The Untold Story Of Joseph's Redemption
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Parshat Miketz continues the epic Joseph Saga. Joseph is released from prison, and quickly becomes second in command to Pharaoh, making him one of the most powerful men in the world. The transition from prisoner to minister is jarring, a rags-to-riches story fit for the tabloids.
The story makes you wonder – was this some great coincidence, a bizarre twist of fate? Or did Joseph do something to earn this great station and finally leave his woes behind for good? Join Rabbi Fohrman as he finds echoes of Joseph’s first misfortune in all his later trials, and uncovers an evolution in Joseph’s character that may explain his unfathomable rise to power.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Parshat Miketz. You are watching Aleph Beta. So last week we talked about a strange pattern that seems to exist in the Joseph saga.
The Backstory Behind Joseph's Rise From Pit to PalaceAs the saga unfolds, we keep on hearing these echoes… Various aspects of the original ‘sale of Joseph story’ seem to be coming back to haunt each of the succeeding episodes. Judah and his interaction with Tamar; Joseph and Potiphar’s wife; Joseph and Pharaoh – each of these interactions seem to bear the unmistakable hallmarks of Joseph’s Sale. The question was why?
So I began to suggest a possible explanation. Kind of like that weatherman in the Groundhog Day film, the protagonists of the Joseph story seem condemned to live through various replays, of sorts, of the Sale of Joseph story – until somehow, things can turn out right; until somehow, each protagonist can sort of fix his part in the ‘perfect storm’ that was Joseph’s Sale. This week, I want to show you how that actually might be so.
Let’s start with the Yehudah and Tamar story. Back in the Sale of Joseph, Yehudah had been the one to convince the brothers to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites. Afterwards, he and the brothers had stripped Joseph of his coat; then, they slaughtered a goat and put its blood on that coat, they asked their father: Haker na, ‘Do you recognize this?’ Father had in fact recognized that coat, and came to the anguished, but mistaken, conclusion his beloved son had been killed.
So, right after the Sale of Joseph – we get the story of Judah and Tamar. Its not a digression – it is where Groundhog Day starts. In it, Judah is getting a chance to replay crucial aspects of his own behavior in the Sale of Joseph story; and hopefully, to make better choices this time.
Some of these choices involve goats and coats. For example, Judah is asked for a goat by Tamar, and when he says he doesn’t have one, he gives her his coat, instead – only to have Tamar, later on, challenge him, with a question about that coat. A question that Judah would have cause to remember well: הַכֶּר-נָא, do you recognize this?
Judah Redeems HimselfThat, of course, is the same question Judah once forced upon his father. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, points this out. And the significance of that sorta hits you in the face: The first time around, Judah had said haker na to force a false recognition upon his father – the falsehood that Joseph, Jacob’s beloved child is dead. This time, Yehudah must answer the question he once posed… whose coat is this; do you recognize it – and he must answer it truthfully.
Now is not the time for a really detailed analysis of the Judah and Tamar episode – we actually do have a full course on Aleph Beta that explores this fascinating story; you can click below the video here to get to it – but without giving too much away, let’s just say that Judah’s successful recognition that it his coat in Tamar’s hands – that admission ends up being heroic. By making that recognition, Judah owns up to his own part in an embarrassing scandal. And, spoiler alert: Through that courageous act, Judah ends up actually saving the lives of his own unborn children. So if you add it all up… the man who once forced upon his father a false recognition that his beloved child had died, now makes a heroic, true recognition that keeps his own children very much alive.
It was Judah’s Groundhog Day. Through his interactions with Tamar, Judah found a way to confront and replay his own, problematic, actions in the Sale of Joseph. And when he did it right this time, he was able, in some way to redeem his past, to clear his way to move forward in life.
Joseph Gets Thrown into a Pit... AgainSo now let’s move on to the next episode in the Joseph saga, the Potiphar Story. Here, we encounter Groundhog Day, Part II. Groundhog Day not for Judah… but for Joseph.
Back at the pit, Joseph lost a coat, and he descended into a hole in the ground. And, in this story, he loses his coat again – this time to Mrs. Potiphar, and he also descends into a hole in the ground. He is imprisoned in the royal dungeons. And lest you say, come on Fohrman – a dungeon isn’t a pit, you can’t compare those two holes in the ground. Well, later on, when Joseph comes out of the dungeon, look what the Torah calls it: וַיְרִיצֻהוּ מִן-הַבּוֹר. Pharaoh took him out of the… pit. Its like the Torah itself seems to be going out of its way to set this up as a replay of the original “sale of Joseph, Joseph in pit”, story.
So, it like the events of the sale are happening all over again. Except, this time, there’s one crucial difference: Back at the pit, the coat was forcibly stripped off of Joseph. This time, he chooses to leave it behind:
וַיַּעֲזֹב בִּגְדוֹ בְּיָדָהּ, וַיָּנָס וַיֵּצֵא הַחוּצָה
He left his coat in her hands and ran outside…
Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes, if you would, right at the moment that Mrs. Potiphar grabs him by the coat. Your only way out of this situation, with your integrity intact, is to quite literally to slip out of that coat and leave it in her hands. And, imagine what that choice must have been like...
It must have been a terrible choice, a terrible deja vu moment. Joseph, still suffering from PTSD from the first time his coat was grabbed and stripped off him, still traumatized from the first time he was thrust into a pit – now finds himself replaying those awful moments. It feels just like last time. And, as she takes hold of his coat, and as it dawns on him what refusing her advances would mean – she’d be furious and could use that coat as evidence against him! – every fiber of his being must have been crying out: “Never again!” Never again will I allow myself to lose a coat and face the pit. Never again will I allow people to lie about me to father or the father-like person whose trusted me. All I need to do is give in to her, and this nightmare all goes away.
But Joseph, to his immense credit, does not do that. He overcomes that voice. Heroically, he chooses to slip out of his coat – keeping his integrity intact.
Joseph Finds Redemption in the PitNow, he will pay for that choice by being thrown into the dungeon. He will go back to the pit. But it is different this time. He is not a victim anymore. Yes, once upon a time, a coat was stripped off him, and he no choice in the matter. But now he chooses the pit, proactively. In doing that, in a deep way, he has, replayed his past – he’s redeemed it.
How, exactly, has Joseph redeemed his past? Truthfully, it is not just a matter of shedding his sense of victimhood; acting proactively rather than passively. It is more than that. Joseph is fixing something, something he did, that contributed to the ‘perfect storm’ of his sale. Because if you think about it, the brothers anger at Joseph wasn’t entirely inexplicable. Joseph contributed to the maelstrom of resentment that swirled around him. Look at the very first verses of the Joseph story, the Torah says that when Joseph was seventeen years old:
וַיָּבֵ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־דִּבָּתָ֥ם רָעָ֖ה אֶל־אֲבִיהֶֽם׃
Joseph brought bad reports of them back to their father.
Now, why would Joseph have done that? The answer to that depends who you ask.
If you asked seventeen-year old Joseph himself, he’d probably tell you he was doing it out of loyalty to his father: Dad needs to understand all the bad stuff my brothers are doing. In his own mind, his purposes were high-minded. But that’s not, evidently, how the brothers saw it. They may well have seen somebody, one of their own, their own brother, betraying them. They saw someone who was cultivating his relationship with father at their expense.
Who was right? We don’t really know for sure – but look at the word the Torah uses to describe Joseph’s actions here. Isn’t it interesting… that the word is Dibah. Dibah in hebrew is not a nice word. One of the only other times it appears is in Sefer Bamidbar, where that word dibah characterizes the slanderous reports the spies brought back about the Land of Israel. In using dibah to describe Joseph’s reports, the Torah seems to suggest the brothers might have had a point in viewing Joseph as spying upon them; as slandering them. On the outside, Joseph looks like he’s loyal to his father; but does actuality match appearances?
Well, if Joseph’s loyalty towards his father might have been flawed somewhat back when he was seventeen, does he ever get a second chance – a chance to do something about that flaw? And the answer may very well be yes: In Groundhog Day. Because in the Potiphar story, Joseph once again finds himself second in charge to a man who is master of the household. It is not his father this time, but a man who has been good to him, who has been, maybe, like a father to him: Potiphar. And then, just like before, tension developed between Joseph and other members of the household – this time, not his brothers, but Potiphar’s wife. And finally, as the Potiphar story barrels towards its conclusion, we find Joseph faced with a very uncomfortable choice – a choice that has to do, curiously, with the meaning of loyalty.
What would you do, if the only way you could express loyalty to someone who is important to you, is by seeming to betray him?
Loyalty Gets Joseph Thrown into the PitThat’s the choice. You see, when Mrs. Potiphar grabs hold of Joseph's coat and simply will no longer take no for an answer – Joseph faces a clarifying choice. It is as if fate is asking him: What kind of a loyalist are you, really? Back when you were seventeen, you were reporting bad things about your brothers to your father. You say you were loyal. But was that real loyalty, or only superficial, counterfeit, loyalty? Did your father really need to know, or were you just looking to curry favor in his eyes?
Well, here’s your chance to replay that story. If you are superficially loyal and that is all, if that’s all you really care about is just looking good in the eyes of those in power – well, you can't go wrong by giving in to Mrs. Potiphar. Joseph will be intimate with her, betraying his master – and Potiphar will never be the wiser. Joseph will keep up the appearance of loyalty to his master quite well, answering his every request with impeccable politeness and grace, even as he, in actuality, betrays him. But to express true loyalty to Potiphar – well, the only way you can do that, unfortunately, is by seeming to betray him. You have to literally slip out of that coat she's holding and run outside – leaving open the possibility, the probability, that the woman you leave behind will frame you in the eyes of her husband. The man who had trusted you will think you betrayed him. He will never know the truth about how worthy you were of the trust he placed in you.
There was a time, back when he was seventeen, when Joseph may have chosen the appearance of loyalty over the real thing. But he would not repeat that mistake a second time. No, this time, in the Potiphar story, he would choose authentic loyalty. In the short term, it gets him thrown in a pit – but authentic loyalty, integrity, has a way of shining through.
Pharaoh Saves Joseph from the PitFor Joseph, it took years for that to happen. But eventually it did. Years later, Joseph would find himself hauled out of prison by Pharaoh. Back at the original pit, Joseph had been thrown into a hole in the ground after first losing his nice new clothes and being sent away from father. But now? Now, a new man draw him near, and doesn’t send him away. This man would give him beautiful new clothes, not take them away. This man would draw Joseph out of a hole in the ground, not put him in one. That man was Pharaoh.
Pharaoh gives him a new name, gives him a job, gives him a wife – as a father might. It is as if God is providing an anguished Yosef a surrogate father who can somehow salve his wounds. If Joseph ever wondered, as he was being dragged by the Ishmaelites down to Egypt, where was my father when all these terrible things happened to me … if Joseph ever had the sense that perhaps his family, perhaps even his father, had kicked him out of the family – the salve for that wound comes in the form of... another father-like man who somehow, seems to do everything right. Who somehow makes everything better. Pharaoh.
But stop and ask this: What was it about Joseph that impressed Pharaoh? That made him act so father-like to Joseph? What was it about Joseph that was so compelling to the Egyptian king?
The answer, I think, is loyalty. True loyalty.
Loyalty Makes Joseph Rise from Pit to PalaceYou see, when Pharaoh first met Joseph, in the moments after he hauled him out of the dungeons, the Egyptian king had badly needed to know the meaning of a troubling set of dreams. He told Joseph: I heard about you, that you know how to interpret dreams. And, if you were Joseph at that moment, desperate to get out of prison, you might have said to Pharaoh: “Sure, I’ve interpreted a few dreams in my day. Run one by me”. But that’s not what Joseph said. He said…: בִּלְעָדָי. It’s not me. I have no independent power to do as you say. אֱלֹהִים, יַעֲנֶה אֶת-שְׁלוֹם פַּרְעֹה. God will interpret Pharaoh’s dream.
Joseph was loyal to Father – to a Father in Heaven. And so, maybe he could be someone whom Pharaoh could trust… to be loyal to him, too. It’s not coincidental, probably, that when Pharaoh promotes Joseph, just a few verses later, places him in charge over all of Egypt, he remembers what Joseph says about God. He actually quotes Joseph’s own words, expressing that loyalty, right back to him:
אֲנִ֣י פַרְעֹ֑ה וּבִלְעָדֶ֗יךָ לֹֽא־יָרִ֨ים אִ֧ישׁ אֶת־יָד֛וֹ וְאֶת־רַגְל֖וֹ בְּכָל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם
I am Pharaoh; yet – biladecha – without you, no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt…
Pharaoh remembers Joseph’s biladai- its not me, he remembers his loyalty.
Joseph's Lessons from His Experiences in the PitIn the end, Joseph’s loyalty in the presence of Pharaoh – his trustworthiness – saves him from the pit, from the royal dungeons. It is the key to his rise, to his eventual greatness. Once upon a time, Yosef might have tried to rely on counterfeit loyalty to impress a father. Now, its true loyalty – towards a Father in Heaven – is what impresses this new father in his life, Pharaoh, and makes him a king. Where did that come from?
The seeds for that loyalty-infused declaration of Yosef – biladai!, which Yosef says so naturally, without even planning it – they were planted long before Joseph ever met Pharaoh. They were planted at the moment Joseph made the decision to enter that hole in the ground, to enter the royal dungeons, in the first place. They were planted the moment he chose to slip out of his coat – the moment he replayed the terrible events of his own sale, redemptively. They were planted during Joseph’s version of Groundhog Day.
To others, watching Joseph’s dizzying rise to power in Pharaoh’s court would have seemed strange. It would have seemed sudden. A Hebrew slave… suddenly rises to inexplicable greatness. But mere onlookers… they don’t have the perspective the Torah gives us, the reader of the Torah. We come to understand that Joseph, had in truth, risen to greatness long before. He did so at the moment he faced the pit... and didn’t flinch. He did so on Groundhog Day.