Miketz

Parshat Miketz communicates on three levels: the realization of Joseph's dreams, the reversals of position experienced by him and by his brothers, and the story of Joseph's family against the backdrop of an Egyptian and International economic crisis. These developments move in these directions: from the world of the spirit (i.e. of dreams) to the larger world of the material, and from there to the world of the individual and his life story.

Story:

Last week we read parsha Vayeshev that ended with Joseph, the son of Jacob, in an Egyptian prison. While there, Joseph correctly interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh's chief butler and baker. Joseph asked the butler to mention his plight to Pharaoh, but the butler forgot about the matter. This week's parsha, Miketz, takes place two years later, with Joseph still in prison.

Pharaoh has a disturbing dream, where seven fat cows are eaten by seven skinny cows, and then a second dream where seven fat ears of corn or grain are eaten by seven skinny ears. None of Pharaoh's wise men can interpret the dreams to Pharaoh's satisfaction. Pharaoh's butler mentions that two years earlier Joseph did a perfect job of interpreting the butler's dream. So, Pharaoh hastily gets Joseph out of prison to interpret Pharaoh's present dream.

Pharaoh describes his dream to Joseph, and Joseph interprets the dream about the cows and the ears as one dream. The seven good cows and ears mean that seven years of plenty are coming to Egypt, while the seven skinny cows and ears means that seven years of famine will follow and befall Egypt. Joseph then proposed a plan of putting away part of the produce of the good years to use during the years of famine. This greatly impresses Pharaoh.

Pharaoh appoints Joseph head of all of Egypt, with the only exception being Pharaoh's throne. Thus, Joseph is now second in command only to Pharaoh. Joseph is 30 years old at this point, and he marries Potifar's daughter Osnat. (In true poetic license, our sages tell us that this was an adopted daughter by Potifar. They say that Osnat was really Joseph's niece - the daughter that Dinah had when she was raped by Shechem.) Joseph has two sons with Osnat - named Menashe and Ephraim.

The famine predicted in Pharaoh's dream begins. It was a very grave famine affecting Egypt and many other countries. As planned, Joseph had sufficient stores of food and therefore Egypt had food to eat. Meanwhile Joseph's father Jacob and his other eleven sons were in the land of Canaan. Jacob sends all of his sons (except Benjamin) to Egypt to buy food. On the way, it is the brother's intention to look for Joseph, their lost brother, because they regretted selling him. When the brothers get there, they have to go to their brother Joseph to request food, but they don't recognize him because he has grown up to be a man. The brothers bow down to Joseph, fulfilling Joseph's dream of his childhood.

Joseph acts angrily towards his brothers. While they're experiencing this they express regret about what they did to Joseph. Joseph accuses them of being spies, and holds Shimon hostage while sending the rest back to Canaan to fetch their youngest brother Benjamin. When the brothers get back to their father Jacob, he is upset at the thought of another son, Shimon, being missing, and the possibility of even another one, Benjamin, being lost. Therefore Jacob hesitates for a long time to send Benjamin, but in the end, because of the famine, he does send him with them.

The story includes a side bar about Ruben “laying” with his father’s concubine. More about that later in a piece by Prof. Yehudah Elitzur.

Joseph's brothers return to Egypt with Benjamin. They report to Joseph's palace where they are invited in to dine and are immediately reunited with their brother Shimon. In addition, Joseph sees Benjamin, his brother of the same mother, for the first in time 22 years.

When Joseph meets his brother Benjamin he immediately seeks a place to weep. Rashi says that this happened because upon their meeting, Joseph asked Benjamin if he had any brothers from the same mother. Benjamin replied that he had one, but doesn't know where he is.

All the brothers sit down to eat and drink, and Joseph gives Benjamin double everyone else's portion. In the morning they all leave, but Joseph plans a way to cause yet one more bit of trouble for them and frames Benjamin with a false charge of robbery, and claims him as a servant.

According to David Hazony (Author of The Ten Commandments) Joseph was the ultimate outsider.

He writes:

Joseph, in Egypt, was the ultimate outsider. A Hebrew, a slave, a prisoner. And yet, it is he who understands the dreams of the insiders of Egypt, the King's butler and baker, and then, of Pharaoh himself.

And earlier, back home in Canaan, as a boy, Joseph, the baby of the family, the spoiled son of an aged father, was an “outsider” from his brothers.

Joseph knows loneliness. He’s intimate with it – it circumscribed his entire life – loneliness as a child, loneliness in the pit, loneliness as a slave and then a prisoner. He never really “belonged” anywhere. Perhaps it was his status as a relative outsider--despised by his brothers, singled out by his father's love for him, that made it possible for him to see beyond the family's surface reality to the deeper truth of who he really was--a truth which his brothers so violently tried to repress.

It has often been said that the Jewish people, whose role as monotheists in a pagan world, and subsequent 2000 years of exile has made them the ultimate outsiders, have developed a Joseph-like ability to see beyond the surface realities of the world around them, and come to a deeper, more critical assessment of the societies in which they live.

Here is an interesting perspective on WHY Joseph isolated Benjamin from the other brothers – this one comes from Prof. Yehiel Domb, Department of Physics, Bar Ilan University.

He writes:

Joseph’s peculiar behaviour towards his brothers who had come to Egypt to buy food has evoked the wonderment of Jewish scholars, thinkers and exegetes for many generations. His first response to their arrival was to act like a stranger to them. His vehement insistence that they bring Benjamin down to him was something which surely would cause his father great pain; his order to put his goblet into the sack of his totally innocent brother would surely cause great heartache to Benjamin, born of the same mother; these demand thorough investigation. Aside from this, several theories have been set forth answering the question why Joseph made no effort to contact his father and inform him that he was alive and well. We shall attempt to answer these questions by means of a close look at the facts themselves.

How did Joseph imagine his brothers when he was taken down to Egypt? All he knew of them was that they hated him, that they were prepared to cast him into a pit, to sell him into slavery, and perhaps even kill him. He knew that they were the sons of Jacob, the grandsons of Isaac, and the progeny of our patriarch Abraham. But some of these progeny had been dismissed as not chosen – Ishmael and his descendants, and Esau and his descendants. Joseph was very close to his father and apparently knew in detail about the Lord’s promise to Abraham regarding the historic role destined for his children. But the promise was not directed at both of Isaac’s sons, rather only to Jacob.

Joseph may have thought that a similar parting of ways might also occur among Jacob’s children; the sons of Rachel would be chosen to continue the line and fulfill the destiny, and the sons of Leah would be rejected and would go their own way. Therefore, when the brothers did not recognize Joseph when they came down to Egypt, this afforded him an excellent opportunity to rescue his brother Benjamin from their hands and become reunited with him as the ones who would continue Jacob’s line. Apparently Joseph did not believe that his father was still alive after the dreadful shock he must have suffered upon hearing that his beloved son had disappeared. The fact that his brothers spoke about their father seemed to him only a pretext for arousing his mercy. Recall that later, when Joseph decided to make himself known to his brothers, after Judah’s dramatic speech, he asked them explicitly: “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” (Gen. 45:3).

In order to carry out his plan, Joseph demanded that his brothers prove the truth of their story and required them to bring him Benjamin. Due to the severe famine, the brother had no choice but to comply with his request. This provides an answer to the question why Joseph did not make efforts to contact his father: first, he was convinced that he was no longer alive. Second, the only way to get to his father was by means of his brothers, in whom he had no faith.

The legends in Sefer ha-Yashar provide an enlightening comment on the encounter between Joseph and Benjamin (also presented in Yalkut Am Lo’ez).1Sefer ha-Yashar explains that Joseph seized the opportunity to reveal his identity to Benjamin and inform him of his plan:

Joseph said to him: I am Joseph, your brother. Do not reveal this to your brothers. I am going to send you off with them, and they will leave. Then I will order them brought back into town and will take you from them. If they are willing to give themselves up … to save you, then I will know that they have repented of what they did to me and I will make myself known to them. If they abandon you, then I will keep you and you will live with me; and I will send them off, and they will go without my making myself known to them.

We all know that when the brothers faced the great trial that Joseph set up for them, Judah in his impressive speech succeeded in displaying tremendous devotion, patently showing that he and all his brothers had truly repented and that they were worthy of being included in the Lord’s promise to Abraham. This speech led to reunification of the family and to ending Joseph’s anger at his brothers.

Another interesting perspective is put forth by Prof. Yehudah Elitzur (of blessed memory).

In order to understand the events in this week's reading one must first recognize that the family of the patriarchs was not a family in the modern sense of the word. It was an entire clan with hanikhim or "retainers" (cf. Gen. 14:14), ne'arim or "servants" ("nothing but what my servants have used up," Gen. 14:24), and ahim or "kinsmen" ("And Jacob said to his kinsmen," Gen. 31:46); it had allies, was likely to go to war and make treaties, and had servants who dug wells. In short, it was the beginnings of an entire nation.

Reuben's sin -- "Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine" (Gen. 35:22)-- should be understood in this context. It was not that he violated the laws on permissible sexual relationships, but as Jacob put it, that he was "unstable as water," (Gen. 49:4), trying to seize something before its time, as in Ahithophel's counsel to Absalom, "Have intercourse with your father's concubines" (II Sam. 16:21). Joseph's "coat of many colors," according to the plain sense of the text, was not simply a father's way of pampering the child of his old age with a fine woolen garment, but was royal garb like that mentioned in the story of Amnon and Tamar: "a coat of many colors, for maiden princesses were customarily dressed in such garments" (II Sam. 13:18). Likewise, "And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father" (Gen. 37:2) does not refer to a child tattling on his brothers, but to a supervisor submitting his report. Joseph, having been made the manager, reported to his father: Today Judah worked well, Naphtali goofed off, Levi did not show up at all.

The Point of the Story

Why does Scripture go into this story in such depth and detail? Surely the purpose of the story is to inform us how our ancestors happened down to Egypt! So why does Scripture have to dwell on this degeneration in sibling relations, revealing the shame of Jacob's sons in such detail? Bringing bad reports, telling dreams, the father berating his son, sitting down to a meal, dipping the tunic in blood, Reuben making his suggestions and Judah giving his opinion. Why does every Jewish child, in each generation, have to receive such a unkind picture of his ancestors?

The encounter with the group that declared themselves the true heirs of Judaism and its Torah can perhaps sharpen the question and shed light on the issue. Each year, in the same season when Jews read Va-Yeshev, Miketz and Va-Yigash, when they struggle to understand the nature of Jacob's sons -- jealousy, selling Joseph, slavery, and nonrecognition -- the Christians celebrate the birth of the person whom they claim to be the son of G-d as well as G-d Himself. That person is perfect beyond words; he knows no sin. Our Scriptures, the eternal "Old" Testament, teach us, in contrast, what was later put succinctly in Solomon's prayer and Kohelet: "For there is no man who does not sin" (I Kings 8:46; Kohelet 7:20).

The Torah brings out the character of the group of people chosen to be the core from which "the people close to G-d" would issue, precisely by showing their shortcomings and how they came to terms with them. Here, as in the story of David and Bathsheba, Scripture tells of righteous, good people, who had grievous failings. What, then, differentiates the righteous from the wicked? Scripture goes into such detail precisely in order to show the difference between the righteous person who sins and fails and the wicked.

Joseph was blessed with tremendous administrative talent, actually destined to run an entire empire, yet he was well liked by all his superiors. Naturally he stood out among his brothers, and at age seventeen he dressed like a manager and oversaw the work of people far older than he, people who themselves were of no small consequence. How could fierce jealousy have failed to develop here? The brothers had been spending many hard days out tending the flocks far from home, when along came their young upstart of a brother, well-coiffed and shined, wearing his ornamental tunic. In a moment of ardent emotion Reuben, the main one threatened, tried to return the lad to his father. When his plan failed and their plot was about to be carried, Judah, leader of the brothers, said, "what do we gain by killing our brother?" (Gen. 37:2).

The brothers felt remorse their entire lives: "we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us" (Gen. 42:21); "What is this that G-d has done to us?" (Gen. 42:28). Later a situation arose very much like the former one: the father's favoritism continued, the brothers had the same weaknesses, but this time Benjamin was the test. Judah and his brothers passed this test: "G-d has uncovered the crime of your servants" (Gen. 44:16); "Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy" (Gen. 44:33). There is no righteous person who never sins, but observe how the righteous are when they sin. Such types are worthy of being the ancestors of the chosen people.

The detailed description of these events provides protection against undermining monotheism. Only the Creator is entirely righteous and there is none like Him. Human beings all sin. The wicked live in sin and love wickedness. The righteous, when they sin, regret their actions and mend their ways.

Several themes emerge from Parsha Miketz – but I think the most important one is The importance of planning for the future

Let’s substitute the idea of a famine of food and think about a famine of spirituality, a famine of Jewish connection. The Joseph story tells us to fill our storehouses during the years of plenty so we will have sustenance during the lean years. Providing our children with a Jewish experience both educationally and in our homes is like investing in the future. Our dividends will be the continuation of our Jewish identity, unadulterated by assimilation. If we don’t think of the future, if we don’t plan for it, our futures will be bleak. God gives us free choice. We have to choose to act, to do things to ensure our future and the future of our people.