It pays to be a nice guy even when those around you are not. You never know what a kind word or friendly gesture could do for you.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, (Genesis 37:1–40:23) contains the four words that changed Jewish history (and destiny) for all time.

Here’s the story:

Joseph is in jail due to false accusations and trumped-up charges. Some time later, two of Pharaoh’s senior ministers are thrown into jail as well. One is Pharaoh’s personal baker; the other, his personal butler. Sounds great – Joseph now has two new cell mates.

But think about it for a second: Joseph is a Jew in an Egyptian jail. A Jew. In an Egyptian jail (dungeon?). Over 2500 years ago.

In those days, and even today in some places, a Jew is at the lowest rung of society. The most despised and abused. The bottom of the Totem pole (if a Jew even makes it onto the Totem pole at all). Alongside Joseph are now two former senior ministers of Pharaoh’s cabinet – who were virtually at the top of the Totem pole.

What an apparent clash of cultures, personalities and status! Imagine what it would have been like for a Jew like Joseph to be imprisoned with these two ministers. In contemporary terms, it might be like a drug dealer sitting in jail with the Minister of Defense and the Secretary of State! There was probably not too much love or interaction between the two ministers and Joseph.

But one night, the butler and the baker have bad dreams. When they wake up in the morning, they appear nervous and distraught. Joseph picks up on this, goes over to them and says, Madua peneichem ra’im hayom? – which can be translated as: “Is anything wrong? You don’t look well,” or in today’s parlance, “Good morning! How are you today? You don’t look well…. May I help you?”

The baker and butler respond favorably to Joseph’s gesture, and they tell him all about their dreams. The results are exactly as Joseph had predicted: The baker is executed, but the butler is spared, released from jail and restored to his position.

Lowly Prisoner Become Prime Minister

Years later, when Pharaoh himself has a disturbing dream, with no one to properly interpret it, the butler speaks up. He tells Pharaoh that he knows just the right guy for an accurate dream interpretation! His name is Joseph, and he’s in cell A15 down in the dungeons. I can assure you this guy is good. He’ll interpret the dream perfectly and accurately.

And the rest is history. (For those unfamiliar: Joseph is called out of jail, successfully interprets Pharaoh’s dream and becomes prime minister of Egypt!)

What started this entire series of events? What eventually led Joseph to becoming the second-highest official in Egypt? Four words: Madua peneichem ra’im hayom?  (How are you? You don’t look well. Can I be of any help?)

The baker and the butler were certainly not going to approach the lowly Jew. If Joseph had not taken the initiative, if Joseph had not decided to reach out and be the good guy, he may still be in jail today!

It pays to be a nice guy even when those around you are not! Be sure to say “Good Morning!”, “How are you?”, “How are you doing?”, and “How are your kids?” to those you meet. You never know when a kind word can make a difference!

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

Shabbat Shalom! To read more of Rabbi Enkin’s articles on this week’s Torah portion, click below.