The Butler and the Baker

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion




The Butler and the Baker


By Rav Michael Hattin





            Parashat Vayeshev introduces the lengthiest, most nuanced and thespian of the Bereishit narratives: the story of Yosef and his brothers.  Over the course of the next four parashiyot, we will follow the story of Yosef's meteoric rise to power and renown, as he grapples with fundamental questions of identity and purpose.  Yosef will spiritually develop and mature before our eyes, transforming himself (with no small amount of not-so-subtle Divine prodding) from a narcissistic and self-centered dreamer into a gracious sustainer of his family and people who profoundly appreciates the role of God in his life.  The change in his brothers will be no less spectacular, as they move from being vengeful and calculating provocateurs, stung by jealousy to contemplate murder, to become contrite and noble men who are ready to surrender their own freedom in order to protect their privileged younger sibling from harm.  Along the way, Ya'akov our patriarch will also grow, for he will distressingly come to recognize the consequences of his personal failure of favoritism: there is a steep price to be paid for showering some children with special attention, talented and gifted though they might be, while neglecting the others.  At the same time, Ya'akov will anxiously come to understand that he must steadfastly submit to the ineluctable Divine destiny that will guide his children down to Egypt so that they might become a nation. 


            What makes these narratives so arresting, therefore, is not simply the fact that they describe relational situations that are painfully familiar to many of us or else that they incorporate moments of great drama and poignancy at almost every turn of the plot, but rather that they so masterfully trace the twisting trajectory of human spiritual progress and moral advancement right before our eyes.  This is the very path to the self-awareness and concomitant spiritual vitality – the life-transforming God encounter – that so many of us pine for longingly, even as we remain mired in a mundane or else malevolent reality, often of our own making, that forcefully grips us in its lethal embrace.


            This week, we will consider the dreams of the butler and the baker, the two servants of Pharaoh whom the mercurial god king imprisoned for their unstated but presumably minor indiscretions.  While there, the pair met Yosef, who had himself been incarcerated for a crime that he did not commit.  Recall that after Yosef had been brought down to Egypt by the Yishma'elites, he had been purchased by a certain Potiphar, chief executioner (or was it rather chief cook?) of the Pharaoh.  While in Potiphar's employ, Yosef proved his administrative prowess and organizational abilities time and time again, so that soon Potiphar appointed him as the overseer of his entire household and estate.  But danger lurked in the cool and shaded recesses of Potiphar's spacious and well-appointed palace, in the guise of his own beautiful but bored wife who took a liking to the ambitious, dashing and likeable Hebrew slave.  Her overtures to Yosef became more and more blatant as she slowly but calculatingly chipped away at his own crumbling resolve.  In the end, remark the Rabbis, only a vivid vision of his own aged father summoning him away from transgression and towards a future of Divine encounter was able to preserve him from sin.  But in a fleeting moment, the entirety of Yosef's efforts, the career and reputation that he had so painstakingly built up since the time that he had arrived in Egypt as a poor and lonely foreigner, lay shattered and destroyed.  The vengeful woman, spurned so heroically by the young courtier, now accused innocent Yosef of attempted rape, so that Potiphar's rage was aroused.




            And so it was that Yosef was unceremoniously imprisoned in the palace dungeon (but did Potiphar, knowing the wiles of his own wife, refrain from killing him because he suspected the Hebrew's innocence?).  Bowed but not broken, Yosef picked himself up, again assisted by the Divine favor that had always sustained him:


Yosef's master took him and placed him in jail, where the other prisoners of the king were incarcerated, and there he remained and languished.  But God was with Yosef and looked upon him compassionately, and He caused him to find grace in the eyes of the warden.  The warden therefore gave over to Yosef all of the other prisoners who were in jail, so that all that they did there was overseen by Yosef.  The warden of the jail could find no fault at all with Yosef's work, for God was with him, and in all that he did, God brought him success (Bereishit 39:20-23).


Most remarkable about Yosef at this juncture is that he betrays no rancor or bitterness, none of the consuming disappointment that often condemns to oblivion those that have unexpectedly failed miserably in life or else have been unjustly and utterly undermined so that they suddenly topple and fall.  In fact, quite the opposite.  From the moment of his imprisonment, Yosef resolves to not fall prey to paralyzing despair at all, for he immediately sets himself to improving his dismal situation!  Demonstrating the initiative that earlier while yet in Potiphar's house had served him so well, Yosef now takes responsibility for ensuring the smooth workings of the strange and surreal society of miscreants that now is his lot.  With the same flair and aptitude that had so impressed master Potiphar, Yosef now administrates prison life, so that the warden takes notice and bestows upon him additional responsibilities and enhanced authority.  In the process, righteous Yosef (for hadn't he acquired that appellation honestly for not betraying Potiphar's trust by sleeping with his wife?) earns the confidence of the other prisoners, and it is not long at all before they come to him seeking his guidance and advice when they are deeply troubled or otherwise upset. 




            Thus it is that after a particularly unrestful night punctuated by unsettling dreams, the butler and the baker are encountered by Yosef.  Perhaps they had been discussing their respective visions when he arrives, for he immediately senses that they are distressed.  Inviting them to share their concerns, the butler begins, by describing what he saw:  


…he said to him: "in my dream there was a vine before me.  The vine had three branches; it appeared to blossom so that its bud now appeared, and then the clusters bore ripe grapes!  The cup of Pharaoh was in my hand, so I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh's cup, and I then placed the cup into Pharaoh's hand" (Bereishit 40:9-11).


Without a moment's hesitation, Yosef interprets:


Yosef said to him: "this is its meaning – the three branches represent three days.  In three more days, Pharaoh will raise you up and return you to your station, so that you will give Pharaoh's cup into his hand, just as when you were his butler…" (Bereishit 40:12-13).


We may of course wonder whether Divine inspiration is required to interpret the dream of the butler, or else if penetrating insight alone might instead suffice.  Clearly, Yosef notes that the butler is consumed by dreams of grapes and their juice, an unambiguous reference to his earlier station.  And while the three branches might just as easily have been understood as three weeks, months or years, or perhaps three other things that are non-temporal, Yosef notes that the butler describes a scene that unfolds chronologically, while injecting a note of haste into his portrayal.  The branches blossom and immediately bud, now bearing grapes that are fully ripe.  Did Yosef therefore detect in the imagery an allusion to events that were slated to soon come to pass, so that he surmised that the matter was about days rather than longer intervals?  And could Yosef, who as favorite of the warden might be expected to have access to information from the "outside world," perhaps have been aware that Pharaoh's birthday was in three days' time?  And as Potiphar the executioner's former administrator, did he not know that the conventional noel celebrations were often accompanied by a "magnanimous" sweeping out of prison of Pharaoh's fallen ministers, with some prisoners of state granted amnesty while the others were ceremoniously condemned to perish a painful death?




            Significantly, many of the medieval commentaries suggest that it is Yosef's sensitivity to the seemingly minor cues that allows him to correctly interpret the dream of the butler, rather than some inexplicable Divine inspiration.  See, for example, the comments of Ibn Ezra and the Radak on 40:10, and the comments of the Ramban on 40:12 that may be regarded as representative.  And as for the dream of the baker, Yosef employs a similarly insightful strategy:


…he said to Yosef: "I also saw, in my dream, three baskets of open willow work upon my head.  The upper basket contained all manner of baked goods fit for Pharaoh, but the bird was eating them out of the basket that was upon my head."  Yosef responded and said: "this is the interpretation – the three baskets mean three days.  In three more days, Pharaoh will lift your head off of you and hand you from a pole, so that the birds will pluck the flesh of off your body"! (Bereishit 40:16-19).


Here again, Yosef notes that the interval involves threes, and that the imagery includes the standard tools of the royal baker's trade: the perforated baskets that are utilized to hold the freshly baked goods until they can cool down and then be served.  But, unlike the butler, the baker never sees the pastries removed from the basket to be presented, nor does he himself extend them to Pharaoh's waiting hands.  Instead, the baked goods are consumed by a scavenging bird from upon his head while yet warm, a clear reference to his imminent demise.


            But this time, however, Yosef in his interpretation takes a calculated risk.  As the Ramban (13th century, Spain) perceptively points out, if Yosef is incorrect about the butler's dream, no harm can be expected to ensue.  If Yosef is wrong about the vision of the grapes so that the butler continues to languish in prison after Pharaoh's birthday or else is executed, Yosef will remain safe.  But if, on the other hand, Yosef is proved incorrect concerning the baker, so that he does in the end emerge from prison unscathed, then there will surely be accounts to settle.  The baker will not fondly recall Yosef's ominous interpretation, and will not soon forgive him for the protracted three-day anguish that the portentous reading caused him.  In all probability, if the baker lives and returns to his exalted post, he will be sure to exact vengeance from the hapless Hebrew slave and, utilizing his restored powers, have him killed! (See Ramban's commentary to 40:7).  Stated differently, unless Yosef was utterly certain that his interpretation was being guided by some Divine muse, he would not have dared to predict the baker's future death.  Thus, while the Ramban himself acknowledges that Yosef employs extreme acuity in his consideration of the dream details, the Divine element cannot be entirely dismissed from the matter, as if Yosef's abilities are solely an expression of his prodigious powers of intuition.




            But all of this is only true from the perspective of Yosef himself.  He proclaims that he is guided mightily by inspiration ("Behold, do not interpretations belong to the Lord?  Tell me please [your dreams]" – Bereishit 40:8) because he feels it coursing through his veins, but the butler and baker may very well believe that Yosef is simply a gifted prognosticator and dispenser of timely advice.  And contained within this charged vignette that vividly unfolds on the morrow of those unsettling dreams, is therefore the story of Yosef's inner journey – the outside observers who witness his successes, namely the warden, the butler and the baker, reasonably ascribe them to his own talents and abilities, while he is incrementally becoming aware that they are actually the product of God's providence.  Thus, for example, when Yosef is first imprisoned and his ambition and skill quickly come to the attention of the warden, the latter never sees the hand of God in any of Yosef's triumphs.  As the text states: 


Yosef's master took him and placed him in jail, where the other prisoners of the king were incarcerated, and there he remained and languished.  But God was with Yosef and looked upon him compassionately, and He caused him to find grace in the eyes of the warden.  The warden therefore gave over to Yosef all of the other prisoners who were in jail, so that all that they did there was overseen by Yosef.  The warden of the jail could find no fault at all ("meumah") with Yosef's work, for God was with him, and all that he did, God brought him success (Bereishit 39:20-23).


In the above passage, the warden clearly takes note of Yosef's strengths, and the text clearly ascribes those strengths to God, but the warden and the God-ascription remain disconnected.  In a similar way, the butler and the baker spell out their visions to the young Hebrew prisoner, not because they see him as a Divine emissary but because he has acquired among the prisoners a reputation as a good-hearted and intelligent fellow.  But let us now contrast this report to that which was stated earlier, when Yosef first entered the employ of Potiphar his master:


Yosef was brought down to Egypt.  Potiphar the minister of Pharaoh, who was the chief executioner and an Egyptian man, purchased him from the Yishma'elites who had brought him down to there.  God was with Yosef and he was a successful man, and he was part of his master's household.  HIS MASTER SAW THAT GOD WAS WITH HIM, AND THAT GOD SHOWERED ALL THAT HE DID WITH SUCCESS.  Yosef found favor in his eyes and he served him, so that he appointed him over his estate and made him overseer over all that was his.  It so happened that from the time that he appointed him in his household and over all that was his, that God blessed the estate of the Egyptian on Yosef's account, so that God's blessing was upon all that was his, whether in the house or else in the field.  He left all that was his in Yosef's charge and took care of nothing at all ("meumah"), save for the food that he would consume…(Bereishit 39:1-6).


The remarkable transformation is now plain for all students of the text to see: earlier, Potiphar was so surprised by Yosef's unusual talents and successes that he could ascribe them to nothing other than Divine intervention!  But while Pharaoh's minister clearly recognized the hand of God, Yosef himself remained oblivious.  He went on heaping success upon success without ever taking note of the fact that God was involved in the matter.  How else to explain the concluding remark of the above passage, otherwise so filled with God references, that: "Yosef was beautiful in form and in appearance" (40:6)!  God is there, God guides and supports, even Potiphar feels His involvement, but Yosef is blinded by his own accomplishments!   But now, in an ironic inversion, while Yosef feels His inspiration guiding him, the warden, the butler and the baker see nothing.  Yosef excels at prison life and brilliantly reforms its workings for the benefit of all, but the warden can only marvel at his talents without ever recognizing the hand of God.  Yosef communicates to the butler and to the baker the word of the Lord but all that they can hear in his measured words are the clever predictions of a soothsayer.  The Potiphar/warden contrast is particularly glaring because it is textually linked by the use of the unusual term "meumah," or "nothing at all":


…It so happened that from the time that he appointed him in his household and over all that was his, that God blessed the estate of the Egyptian on Yosef's account, so that God's blessing was upon all that was his, whether in the house or else in the field.  He left all that was his in Yosef's charge and took care of nothing at all ("meumah"), save for the food that he would consume…(40:6).


The warden of the jail could find no fault at all ("meumah") with Yosef's work, for God was with him, and all that he did, God brought him success (40:23).




            And the implication of the contrast is most revealing: it seems that unjust incarceration, adversity and struggle by any other name, has caused Yosef to ponder his fate and to take stock of his life!  The transformation of character that is the central motif of these narratives is now revealed to be a direct function of confronting and overcoming hardship.  Yosef in Potiphar's house was a complacent fellow, never called upon by outer circumstances or by inner turmoil to ask the existential questions that alone can lead to enlightenment and to growth.  But cast into prison and condemned to a Kafkaesque fate, Yosef suddenly was forced to explain the meaning of his own survival – enraged Potiphar, supervisor of executions, could have killed him! – and to consider the path that his life had taken.  What had been the purpose of all of that success, how had he made use of all of those talents, and what ultimate good had been bestowed upon the world as a result of his contributions? 


            Recalling his self-absorbed climbing of the career ladder, as if his own accomplishments alone were everything that mattered, Yosef was suddenly struck by the shallowness of it all.  True, he had beaten the odds just as he had always dreamed.  The talented shepherd boy, despised by his unambitious brothers and, as far as they were concerned, violently done away with forever, had shown that his visions of greatness were not unfounded.  But what difference did it all make now, shorn of his former glory and with his life hanging in the balance?  Thrust into prison, therefore, Yosef now could understand, for the first time in his life, his true calling.  A faded image of another time and place was now painfully recalled: the coat of many colors that his father had once given him, an expression of paternal love as well as expectations, the hated mantle that had been so viciously wrenched from his writhing body, now flooded his memory.  The principles that Ya'akov his doting father had always realized – God's involvement in his young son's life, His guiding hand and His compassion – were now apparent to him as well.  The Divine providence that had overtly steered him to success but that he had never noticed before, suddenly became self-evident.  And having become to him so utterly obvious, what others failed to see no longer mattered. 


            But how many years had passed since that time, years squandered on pleasing Potiphar, as if a life of wealth and repose, intrigue and palace gossip, could ever bring true fulfillment!  But now, languishing in a dank dungeon and uncertain of his future, a frightening question filled Yosef's feverish mind: was it not perhaps too late?  Having internalized the meaning of his suffering, was it still possible to change course, even while sentenced to perishing in prison?  Tentatively but determinedly, Yosef now did that which distinguishes him among the heroes of our tradition and bestows upon him his unique moniker of "Yosef Ha-Tzaddik": he resolved to change!  Even while his external freedoms had been capriciously taken away, his internal freedom would now be autonomously exercised, with his recognition that the God encounter could unfold even under the most trying of circumstances.  And in the end, God was merciful – a second chance was given to the Hebrew, as it is so often given to most of us.


            The story of Yosef strikes a powerful chord with many students of the Torah but few can articulate the source of its attraction.  I would respectfully suggest that Yosef's saga resonates with us because in it we recognize some of the most profound truths about our own lives.  Perhaps without full awareness, we sense the Divine text's challenge and long to embrace it.  But we simultaneously realize that to do so is not only an invitation to acquire spiritual maturity and moral growth (an opportunity that few would willingly pass up), but also to question some of our basic premises about our values and aspirations (a prospect that most would prefer to avoid).  So while we study the account with bated breath, we also heave a sigh of relief when we have safely moved on to less spiritually taxing tales.  But like all of the Torah's narratives, this one as well cannot simply be read and discarded.  It must be engaged, and in that honest and fruitful engagement is the possibility of our own transformation.


Shabbat Shalom