Towards the end of the parsha, Yosef Hatzadik finds himself in a hopeless situation, having been in prison for ten years with no prospect of freedom. At that point occurs the incident of the interpretation of the dreams of Pharaoh’s ministers which begins the process of his meteoric rise to the position of Viceroy over the whole of Mitzrayim. There is one easily overlooked passuk which signals the beginning of the drastic upturn in Yosef’s fortunes. After the two ministers dreamt their respective dreams, they were very distressed because they did not know their meaning. At that point, Yosef sees their unhappy countenances; he asks, “Why do you appear downcast today?” This seemingly inconsequential question leads to the interpretation of the dreams which eventually results in Yosef’s liberation and incredible rise to power. Had Yosef never asked them why they were upset then they would probably never have confided in him and the golden opportunity for freedom would be lost. Yosef’s small act of thoughtfulness may not seem particularly noteworthy, however in truth it is quite remarkable considering his situation at that time: He had been living in appalling conditions for 10 years with no realistic hope of freedom. He had every right to be totally engrossed in his own situation and not notice the facial expressions of those around him. Moreover he was assigned to serve the two ministers who were very important people in Mitzrayim - they surely treated him as an inferior and gave him absolutely no attention. Yet he overcame all these factors and showed concern at their distressed appearance.
There is a great temptation to go through life so absorbed in our own lives that we do not recognize the needs of others. One of the keys to being a genuine baal chesed is to overcome our own self-absorption and notice the world around us. Sometimes, this even requires that we be mevater on our own needs for the sake of others. The most glaring example of this is found earlier in the parsha when Tamar is being taken to be burnt at the stake. She had every opportunity to save her life by revealing that the items in her possession were those of Yehuda. However she gave greater emphasis to the embarrassment that Yehuda would endure if she did so and therefore remained quiet. The Gemara learns from here that a person must give up his life before embarrassing someone else. Rabbeinu Yonah and Tosefos pasken this way lehalacho! This teaches us that there are occasions where we are obligated to give greater precedence to the feelings of others than even our own.
Gedolim epitomized the ability to negate one’s own needs and focus on the needs of others. Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l was being taken in a car by a bachur from his yeshiva. As Reb Moshe entered the car the bachur closed the door onto his fingers, yet he remained completely silent as if nothing had happened. A bewildered onlooker asked him why he did not cry out, he answered that the bachur would feel incredible embarrassment about having caused him pain and therefore Reb Moshe controlled himself and kept quiet. This is a well-known story but it deserves thought; Reb Moshe exemplified the ability to ignore his own feelings in order to spare the pain of his fellow Jew.
It is not only in times of pain that we should focus on others. Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l and his son Rav Shneur zt”l went to Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer (Rav Aharon’s father-in-law) to say goodbye shortly before leaving Eretz Yisroel for Rav Shneur’s chasunah. Rav Isser Zalman stopped in the middle of the stairs on the way down rather than escorting them all the way to the street. They asked him about it and he explained, “Many of the people who live around here have grandchildren who were murdered by the Nazis, yemach shemam. How could I go down to the street and embrace my grandchild, flaunting my joy publicly, when these people can’t do the same?!”
These superhuman demonstrations of selflessness can be an inspiration to us. There are numerous examples where we can overcome our own self-absorption and show an awareness of the needs of those around us. When we are walking down the street we tend to be involved in our own thoughts but it is worthwhile to be aware of the people around us - there may be someone who is carrying a heavy load and would appreciate a helping hand. There are many occasions when we may not be experiencing great joy or pain but we may still tend to focus on our own dalet amos alone. For example, after hagbaah on Shabbos Shacharis the baal hagbaah is left sitting on a chair holding the Sefer Torah with no Chumash to read the Haftara. People are understandably focused on following the Haftara themselves, but it shows great thoughtfulness to hand him a Chumash so he too can follow along. In Torah Vodaas there were occasions where there were not enough chairs in the room so the bachurim had to bring chairs for themselves from another room. Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz zt”l used to say that a boy who brought just one chair for himself was merely a shlepper, but a boy who brought two, one for himself and one for a friend, was a baal chesed.
There are numerous examples of small acts of thoughtfulness that can light up people’s lives. And we learn from Yosef that we can never be certain of the consequences of one act of chesed. The Alter of Slobodka zt”l says that we can also never know how much reward we receive for a small act of chesed. He discusses when Yaakov Avinu removes the stone off the mouth of the well so that everyone could drink the water. This small act of kindness would not seem to rank highly amongst the numerous mitzvos that Yaakov performed throughout his life. However, it is in fact the source of great merit for the Jewish people. Every year we recite a special prayer for rain - Tefillas Geshem. In this tefilla we mention some of the great acts of the Avos such as Yaakov’s overcoming of Esav’s malach. Yet we also mention Yaakov’s removal of the stone: “He [Yaakov] dedicated his heart and tolled a stone from the mouth of a well of water - for his sake do not hold back water.” Every act of chesed done with purity of heart is of immeasurable value. May we all learn from our Avos and be true givers.