A Simple “Good Shabbos” Can Change the World

The Yosef saga, defined by dreams and cruelty with Yosef’s brothers throwing him into a pit and then selling him to a caravan heading to Egypt, the tests and challenges that followed, was clearly crafted by God’s master plan. Yosef’s descent into Egypt was but prelude to the galut foretold to Avraham (… “your offspring shall be [ger] aliens in a land not their own...they will oppress them - four hundred years…” [Bereishit 15:13])

V’Yosef hurad Mitzrayama – and Yosef had been brought down to Egypt (39:1) – is not a mere factual; it is the key to all that will unfold as Am Yisrael is to be born into a galut from which God must eventually redeem them. God has ordained that we will not be born in London, Cancun, Paris or Las Vegas… that we will be born after long and difficult labor pains, all rooted in and defined by galut Mitzrayim, our collective descent that was ushered in by the life events of Yosef HaTzadik.

God engineered the difficult trials and tribulations by which Yosef descended to Egypt; God raised him from the depths – both literally and figuratively – to attain the high and noble viceroy position, all to prepare an honorable path to bring to bear His decree that Yaakov and his family be exiled and, in being exiled, to pave the way for galut Mitzrayim and the eventual geula

As we study and relearn these latter parshiyot of Sefer Bereishit we understand that in them we are reading not merely the conclusion of Bereishit as the introduction to Sefer Shemot and its lessons of galut and geula. At each point, we must pause and look closely at the Yosef story to glean the lessons each of the seemingly strange puzzle pieces can teach us. How do Yosef’s fanciful dreams fit in to his brothers’ resentment? What dark passion would drive them sell their young brother, causing their father untold grief? How does young Yosef, a mere boy, overcome the trials he encounters? Whence his wisdom and maturity to guide his way to success?

How does this young man, enticed by Potiphar’s beautiful wife, resist? How does he maintain his dignity in the jail cell? How does he find the insight and wisdom to aid his fellow prisoners? The answer is that each of these episodes was decreed by God’s Divine Plan. But let us not forget that as this saga unfolds, each facet and aspect of the tale conveys eternal lessons that guide us in matters large and small, lessons that apply throughout the generations.

Let us consider just one such lesson…

After finding favor in the house of Potiphar where “Hashem was with Yosef...” he is falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and sent to prison where he is, once again, supremely successful and where, again, God guides his hand (“Hashem was with Yosef, and He endowed him with charisma...”). Yes, Yosef is a lowly prisoner but even in his prison cell, he is dominant and, “…whatever he did, Hashem made successful.” 

Yosef was not the only player in God’s great drama. Lo and behold! A fly found in Pharaoh’s goblet lands his cupbearer in prison; a small pebble discovered in the king’s bread likewise places his baker in prison as well. Two prominent officials of Pharaoh’s court in prison! And who is there with them? The Hebrew slave! The most outlandish Hollywood script could not have orchestrated such an eventuality. And yet, here it is two senior officers and a lowly, Hebrew slave.

And then, they dream.

Dreams! These two senior officials do not know what to make of their dreams. But Yosef does.

Yosef came to them in the morning. He saw them and behold they were aggrieved. And he asked Pharaoh’s courtiers who were with him in the ward of his master’s house saying, “Why do you appear downcast today?” (40:6-7) Why not simply state, “And he asked…”? Why this whole song and dance? It reads more like a social media post than a Torah message! Ramban emphasizes just how unusual this is, Why is a lowly slave approaching two senior officials? Who made him a social worker? Where does he get the right to offer unsolicited advice?

Why didn’t they sneer at him and tell him to, “mind your own business?” Were they not insulted to be asked by a slave why they were zoafim – aggrieved? But no, they did not react this way. Yosef’s words, so objectively out of place, hit exactly the right tone; they were necessary steps toward geula. They seemed out of place in the moment, but they were exactly what needed to happen to be part of a larger plan.

Fine and good. We understand the Redemption narrative. But what do these pieces of the Yosef puzzle teach us today? Simply, when it comes to being civil, decent, and caring towards another we should never hold back. No harm can ever come from being a mensch and expressing concern for another.

As we know, Yosef correctly interpreted the officers dreams and eventually, after being restored to the Pharaoh’s court and the Pharaoh being tormented by his own undecipherable dreams, the butler remembered him; he remembered that special person who had cared, who was sensitive and kind.

Kindness, it turns out, is hard to forget. Yes, being nice is its own reward. Still, it turns out that being nice sends out ripples upon ripples, it multiplies many times over. Yosef had no reason to be concerned about these two – they had nothing in common other than sharing a prison cell. Yet, Yosef’s words changed everything for Yosef and klal Yisrael.

God could have created an infinite number of scenarios that would have led to the same outcome. So, why this one? Could it be simply so we learn to be nice? So, we say, Hello. How are you today? So, we say, Can I help you?

Yes! That is exactly the lesson. Just as Yosef asking two strangers, Why are you downcast? changed the world, so too can our small expressions of kindness change the world!

Consider every Shabbos when you come to shul and there are those “Yosefs” who always greet you with a smiling, cheerful, “Good Shabbos! How are you doing?” Think how they make you feel and then think of those “no-Yosefs” who even after years of davening alongside one another, do not so much as utter a greeting, do not nod an acknowledgment of your presence, not so much as a smile.

To those who cannot even manage a simple, “Good Shabbos” Yosef might ask, “Why do you appear downcast today?”

It can make all the difference in the world. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that a simple “good morning” could save lives.

Prof. Yaffa Eliach’s Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust published in 1982, relates moments of unfathomable faith, human strength, dignity and triumph that rose from the evil of the Holocaust. One such story related how, in the city of Danzig, there lived a prominent and well-to-do rabbi whose habit, as he walked along the street in the morning, was to greet every man, woman or child he met with a friendly “hello.”

On the outskirts of town, he often met an ethnic German, Herr Muller. When he did, he would greet him with an enthusiastic, “Good morning, Herr Muller!” In response, Herr Muller would reply, “Good morning, Herr Rabbiner.”

The war brought an end to the rabbi’s morning strolls. In time, he, along with the other Jews in the town, were rounded up and placed on trains heading toward the death camps. When the rabbi arrived at the bustle of the camp’s depot, far ahead the crowd of Jews was being divided into two lines. One line to the right. The other to the left.

Far in the front, he could hear a voice call out, “Left. Right. Right. Left.”

As they shuffled forward, the voice grew louder and more distinct; the rabbi heard something familiar in the voice and he dared raise his downcast eyes as he came closer. He was almost surprised to hear his own voice speak out, “Good morning, Herr Muller!”

There was a brief pause. Then a human voice spoke from beneath the S.S. cap with its skull and bones insignia. “Good morning, Herr Rabbiner. What are you doing here?”

A faint, sad smile came to the rabbi’s lips.

The baton waved to the right – to life. The following day, the rabbi was transferred to a safer camp.

Thank God our daily trials are not so great as the rabbi’s! Still, it is so important to say, “Hello. Good morning. How are you?” It means the world to say, “Good Shabbos.” Our lives and our experience is enlarged by doing so.

The Maharal explains that when you walk by someone without offering a greeting you make him or her feel invisible and insignificant. By making a point of greeting someone you demonstrate that you don’t see yourself as superior or better than another. Rather, your greeting shows that you respect that person as an individual and thereby you give them dignity and worth. Greeting someone else should be natural, just as it was for Yosef to inquire of the two officials why they are downtrodden. Saying, “Good Shabbos” should be automatic; it should not require that we first check out the suit, hat, yarmulke, shtreimel or bekeshe. After all, by that criteria the rabbi would never have greeted Herr Muller.

Pirkei Avot teaches, “…be the first to greet each person”. It does so without footnotes requiring “checking him out” first! We can never know the power and import of a simple – and genuine – greeting. It might merely brighten another’s day. It might change the world.