At summer’s end I met a Holocaust survivor.
He told us his story of persevering through inconceivable horror and pain. Afterward, his aid wheeled him toward the exit and I approached to thank him and introduce myself. I also asked for him to inscribe a copy of his book to me. This took longer than I expected, because his hand shook, the fine black line from his pen shaking along with it like a seismograph. Writing was not easy for him.
I waited. He asked me my name and I told him. We spoke a little of the challenges he faced, and those that I was facing, though they seemed small in comparison to what he had overcome in his lifetime. When he finally handed me the book, the inscription read:
Bloom Where You Stand.
After all that Yosef had been through in his life, being sold into slavery by his brothers, his exile to Egypt, being falsely accused of rape and imprisoned, languishing for years in jail and being forgotten by those he helped, this week in Parshat Miketz we finally see his redemption.
Once Yosef skillfully interprets Pharaoh’s enigmatic dreams, he is promoted to second in command of the land of Egypt. Yosef is granted a new name by Pharaoh: Zaphenat-Paneach. This name contains two unusual letters – two Pei Lefufot, or Double Peis:
There is much discussion amongst the sages about the meaning of this cryptic name, and biblical scholars argue over whether Yosef’s given title has Egyptian origins.
The two spiral letters of Pei draw attention to this name and give us pause over the new identity and position that Yosef has obtained for himself. This title shows that, to borrow a term from the world of video games, Yosef leveled up.
The Baal HaTurim has several interesting opinions on the subject. He writes that the gematria of the name (828) is equal to that of the phrase megaleh mesutarim, or ‘revealer of things that have been hidden’, likely a reference to Yosef’s ability to interpret dreams.
The Baal HaTurim’s second comment is that the name Zaphenat-Paneach is an acronym. Each of the eight letters of his new title corresponds to a character trait that Yosef exemplifies:
- צופה – a visionary
- פודה – a redeemer
- נביא – a prophet
- תומך – a support
- פותר – an interpreter
- ענו – a humble person
- נבון – an understanding one
- חוזה – a seer
What inspires me about Yosef is that despite everything, he always found a way to move forward. He wasn’t born perfect by any means – the Torah records his moral failings and his mistakes. But he grew from a prideful person to a humble one, and never lost his sense of responsibility towards others, even after being betrayed by so many people that he trusted.
Yosef was not one to shrink from difficulty. Unlike other visionaries and prophets in Jewish history who came forward to warn the people of impending catastrophe and then stepping back, Yosef first predicted the famine and then suggested ways to prepare for it and survive. This is why, says the Maharzu, he is called a visionary and a redeemer, a prophet and a supporter.
Like his father Yaacov before him, who gained the name Yisrael after an existential wrestling match, Yosef was granted the name Zaphnat Paneach because he was able to hang onto a negative situation until it blessed him – even if it took decades to reach that blessing.
The Masorah notes that when Pharaoh tells his dreams to Yosef, he describes the healthy and good ears of corn growing as beKaneh echad, on a ‘single stalk’. There is only one other place in the Torah where this phrase is used, aside from twice in this dream, and that is in the description of the Menorah. VeChur LaZahav explains that just as the Menorah’s seven lights branched out from one main kaneh, stem (see Exodus 25:31-32), so too did the seven ears of grain sprout from one stalk.
The Baal HaTurim explains that these two verses are connected because prosperity, as symbolized by the healthy grain of Pharaoh’s dream, is a light for the world.
I see the connection between the verses in the flourishing imagery of stalk and bough. Even though it’s a little early to start thinking about Tu B’Shevat, I think it’s often forgotten that the golden Menorah that was crafted by Bezalel resembled an almond tree, with blossoms and knobs, branches and a single strong trunk.
The light of the Menorah, and of the Chanukiah that we kindle at this time of year to remember the triumphs of the Hashmonaim, is meant to inspire hope and clarity in the darkness.
What sets Yosef apart is that he, like the survivor I met, were both able to find a way to flourish despite their setbacks, despite the pain of arduous circumstances. Those who can remain rooted even in adversity, those who carry their light with them wherever they go, those with a vision through and beyond the darkness of the present…their future belongs to them.
Yosef was his father’s son, able to take a situation and wrestle it until it blessed him. The symmetry of his blessings to his challenges is satisfying. Whereas his youthful dream of sheaves of wheat incensed his brothers and brought him low, his interpretation of Pharaoh’s grain-filled dream brought him to the highest heights. Yosef escaped from Potiphar’s wife, and even though he did not give in to temptation that encounter brought him low. But as Zaphenat-Paneach, Yosef is given Osnat, Potiphar’s daughter, in marriage. The same family that caused him grief now elevates his future, and with Osnat Yosef raises two sons that became great tribes of Israel.
What was his secret? How did he never give up in all the many years of being a stranger in the strange land of Egypt, being enslaved, wrongly imprisoned, and forgotten?
A story: Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach once visited a New England university in the middle of winter. A group of students were walking with him towards the lower part of campus through the snow and then reached a flight of icy steps. All the students slipped and fell down the stairs, but not Reb Shlomo. He made it down safely without missing a step. How come you didn’t fall down? The students asked him. He answered, When you hold on from Up High, you don’t fall down below.
Yosef’s title of Zaphenat Paneach reveals more than his new role in Egypt. It reveals not only what he sees in the dreams of others, but also the strengths of his own character. Persevere. Carry that Tree of Light. Bloom where you stand.
Chanukah Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.