“I have set God before me always…”
Rashi brings the Midrash that the cupbearer was imprisoned because a fly was found in Pharaoh’s goblet of wine; the baker was imprisoned because a small pebble was found in the king’s bread.
Our tzaddikim (righteous ones) never lost sight of being in God’s presence. Everything that transpired was contemplated as to how it applied to their service of God. The story is told of one such tzadik, the Alter (Elder) of Kelm who once found a small chip of wood in his bread. This immediately brought to mind the story of the king of Egypt’s baker who was imprisoned for allowing a pebble to be in the king’s bread. The Alter cogitated, “A defect in a person’s bread is hardly grounds for so severe a punishment. No one will be punished for this chip of wood in the bread, especially since it was totally accidental. Why, then, was the king’s baker punished so harshly?”
A tzaddik is a holy or righteous person who, as Rabbi Packouz states, does not lose sight of being in the presence of God. There’s a reason most of us aren’t tzaddikim or “righteous ones.” It is extremely difficult (forgive me for saying this) to keep our thoughts on being in the presence of God every waking hour. Even if it is our most heartfelt desire, sooner or later our concentration will waver, our mind will wander, and we’ll start thinking and then doing things without an awareness that God is also present with us.
This is what separates someone like Joseph from you and me. Even when he was alone and knew he would not be caught, he still refused to take advantage of very appealing opportunities. For even if his human master was away, he was always in the presence of the Master of the Universe.
After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused. He said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” And much as she coaxed Joseph day after day, he did not yield to her request to lie beside her, to be with her.
One such day, he came into the house to do his work. None of the household being there inside, she caught hold of him by his garment and said, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside. When she saw that he had left it in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to her servants and said to them, “Look, he had to bring us a Hebrew to dally with us! This one came to lie with me; but I screamed loud. And when he heard me screaming at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and got away and fled outside.” She kept his garment beside her, until his master came home. Then she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to me to dally with me; but when I screamed at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and fled outside.”
–Genesis 39:7-18 (JPS Tanakh)
Of course, Joseph wasn’t always a tzaddik.
At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father.
–Genesis 37:2 (JPS Tanakh)
As his father’s favorite son, Joseph could get away with almost anything, so much so, that his brothers learned to hate him and finally conspired to kill him. Thus began the long descent of Joseph from favored son to slave and the finally to prisoner in Egypt.
It is said in some circles of Judaism:
Before a person experiences a miracle – נס – , he is given a trial – ניסיון. There is no ascent (aliyah) without a prior descent (yeridah). The lower the descent, the higher the potential ascent.
And so it was for Joseph.
But what about you and me? Remember, while we have more than a few Biblical examples of people who started out in difficult circumstances only to rise mightily by the hand of God, there is also a certain amount of midrash involved in the commentaries I’m using. Can we say that for every difficulty or misfortune we encounter, we will ultimately spring back with the same force or greater, ascending exalted heights for the glory of God?
Probably not. The apostle Paul, while a highly respected Rav and tzaddik in his own right, died a cruel and unrecorded death among pagan Gentiles in Rome at the hand of Caesar. How many righteous ones, both Jewish and Christian, have suffered and died with no reward in this world? How many never thought of a reward in this present life, but only looked to Heaven?
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.
–2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NASB)
Paul too was a man who was always aware of being in the presence of God, standing before the Throne of the Master of the Universe. It was being in His Presence that was most rewarding to the apostle, much more than any reward he could ever receive in mortal life. His crowns are in Heaven.
Rabbi Packouz concludes his commentary like this:
The Alter concluded, “It was because when one serves or relates to the king, the standard of perfection is much greater than when relating to other people. One must exercise much greater caution to prevent any defects. In serving the king, even a small defect is a major offense!”
“I am in the service of the King of kings,” continued the Alter. “Is my behavior before Him without defect? Have I been cautious enough to avoid even accidental infractions?”
On the surface, we might wish always to be in the presence of God, but consider this. God watches every move and every mood. You cannot so much as twitch without God noticing. Then too, if you are always in His presence, that includes when you drive to work, when you discipline your children, when you talk to your neighbor, when you talk about your neighbor behind their back, and particularly when you are alone, for no one displays more of who they really are than when they’re alone and they think no one is watching.
The only difference between a tzaddik and the rest of us is that the tzaddik knows he or she is in the presence of God constantly. The rest of us are also constantly in God’s presence, but we aren’t always aware of that fact, or we don’t want to always be aware of it.
Joseph became Prince of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh in power and majesty in that ancient land. But this was only after suffering great trials, and in those trials, always being aware he was in God’s presence. Only when he didn’t succumb to the temptations of lust, anger, and despair was he elevated to great heights, but even then, only for the glory of God and to serve the desperate and the starving…and only to ensure the continuation of Jacob and the Children of Israel.
Nearly two years ago, for Torah Portion Vayigash. I wrote something similar as related to our Master, to Messiah. Jesus also suffered many trials in his mortal lifetime as a humble teacher who could have risen to King, but in the presence of God, allowed himself to be degraded, crucified, and murdered.
But he rose to the most exalted place at the right hand of the Father, to be glorified and with the promise of one day returning as King to defeat Israel’s enemies, restore the Holy Land to glory, return the exiles to their nation, and to rule us all in justice and peace.
Any one of us may be called upon to serve the King at any moment, not in exalted glory, but as a humble and even humiliated servant. How we respond to suffering, hardship, and shame in the presence of God may determine how we will be allowed to continue to serve Him…or if we will be allowed to do so.
When you believe you are living inside of an unobserved and unguarded moment, that is the time to realize the truth. You are never alone. God is always there. You are always before the Throne. That can either be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you choose to use that moment.