Word for the Week ... Vayeshev
Rabbi Simche Sherer

Would you believe that a “Hello” can be a religious question, and that it even bears Biblical significance? 

This week, in Parshas Vayeshev, we read the dramatic story of Joseph (Yossef) - the famous “technicolor dream coat”, his sibling rivalries, ultimately his descent to Egypt (Mitzrayim), and his being 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 Pharoh’s butler and baker and correctly interprets their respective dreams.

Later, when Pharoh himself will be perturbed by his own dreams, the butler will remember Joseph and he 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 it all happen? It began with Joseph in prison 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 Pharoh’s officials, 'Why do you look so bad today?'” They tell him of their disturbing dreams, he interprets them correctly and the remainder is history.

But why did Joseph have to ask them anything at all? Why is it so strange to see people in prison looking sad? Surely in the dungeons depression is the norm? Wouldn’t we expect most people in jail to look absolutely miserable?

Our sages answer 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 enquire 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, "I have my own problems, why worry about them?" he may well have languished in prison until his end.

Sometimes, a simple “Hello” can prove historic! It is a lesson to all of us to be a concerned and little friendlier, to greet people, perhaps even to smile more often.

Some years ago after studying in the Talmud how one of the great sages never allowed anyone else to greet him first but always made a point of initiating the greeting; we should really all make a personal resolution to try and put it into practice. Try it every Shabbes, while walking to and from Shul, passing fellow pedestrians. Rarely do any of them greet you but then perhaps we should be ones to say "Good Morning" to them. They will almost always respond. Many may even look rather surprised at the acknowledgment. In a country where where not all are devoutly religious, a simple “Hello” can really become a very humanizing experience. A most commendable practice.

Conversely, while most fellow Jews do say “Good Shabbes”, I am sometimes unpleasantly surprised when, ironically, a frum person may walk right by without even so much as a nod.

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. 

Besides 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 enquiry as to their condition. Who knows? It may not only change their lives, but ours.