By Rabbi Yisroel Shusterman
Would you think that “How are you today?” can be a religious question? And that it plays an important role in a major Biblical narrative?
In this week’s Torah reading Vayeishev (Bereishis [Genesis] 37:1-40:23) we read the dramatic story of Joseph - the technicolor dream coat, the sibling rivalry in Jacob’s family, and Joseph’s descent to Egypt, sold into slavery. After being framed by his master’s wife for scorning her attempts at seduction, young Joseph finds himself incarcerated in an Egyptian jail. There he meets the Pharaoh’s butler and baker, and correctly interprets their respective dreams. Later, when Pharaoh himself will be perturbed by his own dreams, the butler will remember Joseph, and Joseph will be brought from the dungeon to the royal court. His dream analysis will satisfy the monarch, and the young Hebrew slave boy will be catapulted to prominence and named viceroy of Egypt.
How did Joseph’s salvation begin? It began with the imprisoned Joseph noticing that the butler and baker were looking somewhat depressed. “And Joseph came to them in the morning and he saw them, and behold, they were troubled. He asked Pharaoh’s officials ‘Why do you look so bad today?’” (Genesis 40:6-7). They tell him about their disturbing dreams, he interprets the dreams correctly, and the rest is history.
But why did Joseph have to ask them anything at all? Why was it so strange to see people in prison looking sad? Surely depression is quite the norm in dungeons. Wouldn’t we expect most people in jail to look miserable?
According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the answer is that Joseph was exhibiting a higher sense of care and concern for his fellow human beings. Torn away from his father and home life, imprisoned in a foreign land, he could have been forgiven for wallowing in his own miseries. Yet, upon seeing his fellow prisoners looking particularly unsettled, he was sensitive enough to take the time to inquire about their well-being. In the end, not only did he help them, but his own salvation came about through that fateful encounter. Had he thought to himself, “Hey, I’ve got my own problems, why worry about them?” he might have languished in prison indefinitely.
Sometimes, says the Rebbe, a simple “how are you today?” can prove historic.
It’s a lesson to all of us to be a little friendlier. To greet people, perhaps even to smile more often.
When we meet someone we know and ask, “Hey, how are you doing?” do we wait for the answer? Try this experiment. Next time you are asked how you are doing, answer “Lousy!” See if the other person is listening and responds, or just carries on his merry way, oblivious to your response.
Aside from Joseph’s many outstanding qualities which we ought to try and emulate, in this rather simple passage Joseph reminds us to be genuinely interested in other people’s well-being. And that it should not be beneath our dignity, nor should we be inhibited, to make an honest and sincere inquiry as to their condition.
This forthcoming week begins the beautiful holiday of Chanukah, beginning this Tuesday eve (December 16, 2014). The Chanukah lights lend particular emphasis to this teaching. Every night of Chanukah a new light must be added, for one’s Mitzvah observance should always be in ascendancy. What may have been adequate for yesterday needs additional input and light for today! Preferably one should not observe the Mitzvah today with the same devotion as yesterday; he must increase his commitment and involvement.
Let us indeed strive to improve and enhance our interpersonal relationships. Who knows? It may not only change others' lives, but perhaps even our own!
(Excerpts from Chabad.org and Rabbi Yossy Goldman)