Parshas Vayeishev – The Secret of Success

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לעלוי נשמת ישראל בן נחום, נפטר י״ט כסלו, ה׳תשס״ח

When Yosef first arrived in Egypt, after having been sold by his brothers, he experienced much hardship. During this time however, he prospered greatly. These successes were recognized by all as being G-d given. In the following Sicha, the differences between Yosef’s two manners of prosperity are brought to light.


In this week’s parsha,the details of Yosef’s captivity in the land of Egypt arerecorded.

Parshas Vayeishev opens with the tense relationship between Yosef and his brothers. Yosef is eventually sold to traveling Midianites, who then sell him as a slave in the land of Egypt.

Upon his arrival in Egypt, Yosef is tremendously successful in all that he is involved with, and is ultimately given full reign over the home of his master Potifar, a high-ranking Egyptian minister.  Yosef does not merely languish there as a slave, but becomes the custodian of the household. The verse tells us:


Text 1

Yosef found favor in his [Potifar’s] eyes…and whatever he had he placed in his custody.

Bereishis, 39:4


Eventually, he is framed for a crime that he did not commit regarding the wife of his master, and sentenced to reside in prison. In prison, too, he prospers in great measures, and is placed in charge of overseeing the penitentiary. The verse relates:


Text 2

The warden of the prison delivered all the prisoners who were in the prison into Yosef’s hand, and whatever they did there, he [was the one who] did it.

Bereishis, 39:22


Yosef’s troubles in Egyptwere comprised of two parts:

1)      Serving as a slave in the home of Potifar

2)      Being unjustly detained in prison

What is repeatedly expressed in both phases of the saga, is that notwithstanding the odds during those circumstances, Yosef rose to high positions. He was twice placed in tremendously difficult scenarios, and was twice extremely successful.

Concerning the first phase of his success in the home of Potifar, the Torah tells us:


Text 3

The Lord was with Yosef, and he was a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master.And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and whatever he (Yosef) did the Lord made prosper in his hand.

Bereishis, 39:2-3


However, there is a significant difference between the manner in which the Torah describes his success in the home of Potifar and the way that his success is described during his detainment in prison.

When the Torah describes the great fortune that was granted to Yosef while in prison,itis expressed in the following way:


Text 4

The warden of the prison did not inspect anything [that was] in his [Yosef’s] hand, for the Lord was with him, and whatever he did the Lord made prosper.

Bereishis, 39:23


In the former, the Torah says that he was successful in what he did with his hands. However, in the latter that word is dropped.

What can be the reason for this discrepancy and the lesson that can be learned in our personal service of the Almighty?

Good Luck

In order to understand the meaning behind the variant descriptions of Yosef’s successes, it is imperative to first define the word “success.”

While in general, we view success as commensurate with a person’s efforts, this, in truth, is not the case. Success,in reality, is the way that a person prospers in a manner which transcends their own actions.Success is actually more closely related to what people refer to as mazel, luck.

A person’s achievements are not only acquired through their own sweat. Ultimately, they come from G-d, in a way that is beyond any work that a person may have put in on his own.

A person’s success, or luck,cannot beachievedthrough their own efforts alone, rather,it comes from Heaven. When we refer to a person as successful, and when we see that time and time again a certain individual is prospers, it is because G-d is with him in all that he does and is granting himthis good fortune.

It was this type of G-dly success that the versedescribesby stating, “And G-d was with Yosef and he was a successful man.” Yosef’s success in Egypt was because G-d was constantly with him.

When a person prospers in a way that transcends the ordinary, it is specifically there that G-d’s gift of success is apparent. Conversely, regarding a person whose success is commensurate to their actions, it is possible that others will attribute these achievements to his actions, and not to G-d.

It is therefore specifically in situations where one cannot attribute the prosperity to his own efforts, that G-d’s involvement is most apparent. The more that a person is “lucky”in a disproportionate measure to his work he invests, the more G-d’s involvement is recognized.

In success, there are two levels in which G-d’s involvement is expressed:

1)      The person needs to put in actual work. The individual invests energy and effort and he constantly sees an abundance of success in result. From the fact that the person is always successful in everything that he does, it is apparent that his accomplishments are not by chance, but that he is an individual whom G-d gave special luck to.

2)      The success comes in a manner where it is clearly supernatural. It is impossible to see a correlation between the efforts of the individual and the resulting achievement, and thus itis clear from the onset that only the Hand of G-d at is at work.

Yosef’s success

This is the difference between the two manners in which Yosef was successful in Egypt. In the beginning of his saga he prospered on the first level, and in the next part of his life his successwas on the level of the second.

In the first phase, in the home of Potifar, the emphasis was that, “the Lord was withYosef, and he was a successful man.” We stress that G-d was with him in his actions and that he—Yosef—wasconsidered a successful man. Though indeed it was a success that was visibly above nature, it was an accomplishment that could beassociatedwith Yosef.

This correlates to the first type of luck, where G-d’s endowment of success is seen through the actions that a person does.

It is for this reason that the verse says, “The Lord made prosper in his hand.”  The success that he experiencedcame through the medium ofYosef’s actions. Yosef was part and parcel with the success.

However, in the second phase, while he was in prison, the latter aspect of success came to the fore—that which, “whatever he did the Lord made prosper.” By dropping the word “hand,” the Torah is expressing that the success Yosef had was above and beyond any efforts that he may have put in.

While Yosef was in prison, any small endeavor that he undertook produced great result. It was obvious to all that it was truly the Almighty who was causing the success. Yosef’s own actions were insignificant and it was visible that the achievements were due to G-d’s direct involvement. In this phase, Yosef was not connected to the outcome at all.

The key to success

The reason for the variant degrees of G-d’s intervention throughout these two periods in Yosef’s lifeis connected to Yosef’s positions during those times. Depending on the way that he was connected to G-d, he was prosperous accordingly.

The type of connection that Yosef had with the Almighty was brought about by the situation in which he found himself.

In the first stage,Yosef was a servant in the home of Potiphar.In the second, he wasan inmate in prison.

Interestingly,as seen from the narrative, the more that he was humiliated and made to feel as if he were nothing, the more he was raised in heights.The more that Yosef felt as if his own actions were meaningless,the more G-d intervened and brought success to those actions.

From here we learn a general principle: The less that a person feels themselves, the more G-d shows them success. The more one is humbled before the Holy One, blessed be He, the more G-dis withhim.


Text 5

“And all these My Hand made, and all these have become,” says the Lord. “But to this one will I look, to one poor and of crushed spirit, who hastens to do My bidding.”

Yeshaya, 66:2


When a person is haughty, their identity does not leave room for G-d to express Himself. Their ego serves as a barrier to their success.

The more a person nullifies his own identity to G-d,the Almighty shows him more revealed success. According to the degree that Yosef was nullified before G-d,was the degree of his success.

This was the difference between the way that Yosefconducted himself as a servant in the home of Potifar—one of the greatest ministers in Egypt—and the way that he acted as a prisoner.

Regarding the individuality of a slave the Talmud says:


Text 6

What a slave obtains is [automatically] obtained by his master.

Talmud, Pesachim, 88b


Although a servant does have humility, for he is owned by his master and all that he owns is therefore automatically his master’s possessions, hestill hassome personal identity.

He has a purpose: he, as an individual, accomplishes tasks for his master. His essential identity may be owned by his master, but he still has a degree of individuality in that he is able to accomplish things for his master, where others cannot.

However, a prisoner on the contrary, is identity-less. He is placed behind bars, in a manner in which he cannot actualize his potential in any valuable way.

A person by definition is an individual who makes constant advance. A healthy individual must always progress in his accomplishments and constantly grow in the manner in which he affects the world around him.

The Torah states thisidea in Tehilim:


Text 7

They advance from strength to strength; each one shall appear before G-d in Zion.

Tehilim, 84:8


In prison, a person’s most basic expression as a human being is curtailed, as all personal expression and growth is squelched.

Even when he does do work, it is forced labor, and cannot be called hisachievement in any meaningful way—in a sense, it is not him doing the work.

A slave may be owned by his master, but he still has an element of growth and expression.A person incarcerated in prison, however, has no personal identity at all.

Yosef in Egypt

Until Yosef came to Egypt, we did not see him as being described as a prosperous individual.Specifically after he arrived in Egypt,did the success story of Yosef’s life begin.

When Yosef was in the home of Potifar, he was a servant owned by his master. Being a slave in Potifar’s home awakened in Yosef the sense that while he may be serving a master of flesh and blood, in truthhe was the servant of the ultimate Master—G-d Almighty Himself.

When Yosef was roused with this sense of servitude to the Almighty, he became a receptacle fora G-dly successin kind, and the Holy One, blessed be He made himprosper in all that he did.

Being that even a servant has some identity of his own, the prosperity that the Almightygranted himwas in relation to Yosef’s feeling of insignificance. The success with which he was endowed was in a way that G-d “made prosper in his hand.” The Almighty’s presence was recognized through his actions.

When Yosef was placed in prison,however, a state which stimulated within him a feeling of complete worthlessness,specifically there was G-d’s Hand completelyrecognized. It was clearthat Yosef’s efforts were of no significance in relation to the success that heexperienced.

It was for this reason that during this time the Torah distinctly mentions, “Whatever he did the Lord made prosper,”—success ina way that transcended any action from Yosef’s part.

Explaining Rashi

Rashi comments on the above verse[1]describing Potifar’s recognition of the Almighty’s Hand in Yosef’s activities.

The Torah relates that his master saw that “the Lord was with him.”On these words, Rashi states:


Text 8

The Name of Heaven was frequently in his mouth.

Rashi, Bereishis, 39:3


Why did Rashi need to explain anything at all? What was unclear with the verse’s statement that G-d was with Yosef, whichnecessitateda further clarification?

What makes this question more difficult is that in the verse prior to this one[2], the Torah states similarly, “The Lord was with Yosef, and he was a successful man.” There, however, Rashi does not feel the need to explain the phrase to mean that he habitually mentioned G-d.Why then, does Rashi feel compelled to do so here?

However, Rashi’s reasoning can be explained as follows:

Rashi is not merely explaining the meaning of G-d being with Yosef, but how this was recognizable to others.

Rashichooses to add explanation to the latter verse becauseit is proceeded by the words, “And his master saw(that the Lord was with him).” Meaning to say, that Potifar witnessed G-d’sinvolvement in Yosef’s achievements.

How did Potifar know that the success was coming from the Almighty G-d, and not one of the many idolatries that were worshipped then in Egypt?

Regarding this, Rashi explains that it was because Yosef was always mentioning G-d.Potifar therefore knew that the success Yosefattained was caused by the Holy One, blessed be He and not from one of his idolatries.

In the other verses whichmerely speak of Yosef’sprosperity and not about the recognition of this G-dly by others, it is not necessary for Rashi to explain the manner in which it was witnessed. Therefore, Rashi only relates Yosef’s frequent mention of G-d in this verse.

His time in prison

However, one can still inquire on the verse itself.

When Yosef was in prison, surely therehe spoke of G-d as well. Why then, pertaining to his time in prison, does the verse not tell us that the minister of the prison knew G-d was with him (due to the fact that he spoke of him)?

According to the above explanation regarding the two levels of humility, this can be explained:

The fact that Yosef always mentioned the Almighty was not only the source for Potifar’s observation of G-d’s involvement, but also expressed the general way in which Yosef conducted himself during his time as a servant in his master’s home.

Being that Yosef always spoke of G-d, he was therefore a receptacle for G-d blessing in all that he did.

However, the idea of speaking of G-d, and thereby revealing His existence, can only be relevant on the level in which Yosef acted as a servant—the degree of humility in which the person retains his individual qualities, and through his abilities expresses G-dliness.

Whilehe was in prison though, Yosef was in a state of such insignificance that his entire being was nullified to the Almighty. It is not relevant to describe his connection to G-d as, “the Name of Heaven was frequently in his mouth,” being that his body and very being held no identity of its own and were completely nullified to the Almighty.

Yosef’s entire existencesolely expressed the presence of G-d. He was a complete conduit for success and not only because something that he did or said, but because of who he was.

The Alter Rebbe

The celebration of the Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Chabad Rebbe) beingliberatedfrom Russian imprisonment,and commemorated on the 19th of the month of Kislev, generally falls out during in the week of Parshas Vayeishev.

The Alter Rebbe had been arrested as a result of his teachings of Chassidus and involvement with the preservation of Judaism.

In the course of this ordeal, these two aspects of success that were found regarding Yosef Ha-tzadikcan be seen in the Alter Rebbe’s persona as well:

During hisdifficult stay in prison, he underwent a series of interrogations. The result of these interviews, was that the ministers—andeven the Czar himself—recognizedhis great wisdom, and realized that this was due to the Alter Rebbe’s holy character, and coming from G-d.

They understood that the Alter Rebbe was not only a brilliant scholar, but that he possessed aG-dly power (i.e. ruach hakodesh – divine inspiration, etc.) and was a holy person.

This aspect correlates to the first level of Yosef’s success—that of which “the Name of Heaven was frequently in his mouth.”During this period, the presence of the Almighty was revealed through Yosef’s actions.

The second level of success can also be recognized in the Alter Rebbe, during his actual release from prison. In his letter regarding the Czar’s ministers’ recognition of this miraculous event, the Alter Rebbe writes:


Text 9

…Rather, this was from G-d and is a wonder in our eyes. For even amongst the gentiles and the ministers who are [found] throughout the provinces of the king—intheir eyes too, was this a tremendous wonder. They exclaimed, “This can only have been through G-d, and is a wonder in our eyes.”

Beis Rebbe, Ch. 18


The entire course of events relating to the Alter Rebbe’s release were so supernatural, that in this instance, the ministers didn’t only recognize the wondrous success as being due to the Alter Rebbe’s holy character, but rather, they announced that this was “from G-d” and that all human intervention was insignificant.

The presence of the Almighty was clearly evident, and the ministers saw this miraculous release as being completely a G-dlyordained phenomenon.

The reason the Alter Rebbe merited this great success was because of his humble state during his stay in prison.

Like Yosef, he underwent much hardship. He was not able to actualize his G-dly potential of spreading Torah and the awareness of the Almighty. When he was in such a state, he was completely humbled before G-d, and therefore merited tremendous success and such a greatredemption.

This success of Chassidim and Chassidus is inherited by all who follow his path.

May we emulate the ways of these two great tzadikim, and merit tremendous success in all of our G-dly endeavors, with the ultimate revelation of Moshiach!


(Based on Likutei Sichos 25, Vayeishev 2. Reworked by Rabbi Dovid Markel.)


[1] Bereishis, 39:3

[2] Bereishis, 39:2

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