Posted on December 15, 2023 by Lewin Weyl
At the beginning of Parshat Miketz, the focus of attention is on Pharoah and his dreams. In his first dream, the exalted King of Egypt saw seven fat cows devoured by seven lean and sickly cows. In his second dream, he saw seven healthy ears of corn on one stalk. And then those seven ears of corn were swallowed up, and seven lean ears of corn were left, withered by the wind. Pharoah awoke in the morning, agitated and with a troubled spirit.
He convened his court to discern the meaning of his dreams, but none of the wise men or magicians of Egypt could make any sense of them. But then one of the Pharoah’s aides recalled how Joseph, the imprisoned Hebrew lad, had correctly foretold of his and his then fellow prisoner’s future after they both had dreams in prison. Still languishing in prison, Joseph is retrieved and brought to Pharoah, who recounts to Joseph his dreams. Joseph listens closely and predicts seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine (41:1-32).
Many rabbis and commentators have asked why Pharoah’s so-called wise men and magicians could make no sense of the dreams. In other words, why did Pharoah need, in the words of the Torah, an “Ish navon v’chacham,” a discerning and wise man to reach this interpretation that led to a strategic plan.
In his Torah commentary, Rabbi Harvey Fields cites several views regarding this week’s Torah portion.
Rabbi Shlomo Luria, the Maharshall, a 16th century rabbinical scholar, explains that the Egyptians were so wealthy that it was beyond their imagination to think that the country would ever need to store food away for a famine. Not so for Joseph. He possessed clarity. He had survived abandonment by his brothers and imprisonment in jail; he had lived near the bottom of society. He had endured, in today’s terms, hunger or food insecurity in the desert pit and possibly, too, in jail in Egypt. And he was a dreamer who could envision the future.
Pharoah embraces Joseph’s dream interpretation that a famine is coming and puts Joseph in charge of food collection and distribution. Joseph is elevated and becomes a viceroy. (41:37-49). Joseph is also given Asenath, the daughter of a priest, for marriage. As a viceroy, during the time of plenty, Joseph administers food distribution for the first six years of his prophecy; he and Asenath also have two sons, Menashe and Ephraim (41:50-52). Joseph explains that the name Menashe means “for God has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.” Joseph is leading the good life and is at the pinnacle of Egyptian society. One wonders if Joseph has forgotten, in part, his earlier personal struggles with his family.
Then come the seven years of famine that extends beyond Egypt itself and throughout the region. Responsible for food distribution during the famine, Joseph becomes, in essence, even more powerful. With the famine extending to the land of Canaan, Joseph’s brothers now come down to Egypt to buy food. Joseph recognizes his brothers but does not reveal himself. And his brothers do not recognize him.
Instead of welcoming or greeting his brothers with joy, Joseph accuses them of spying and holds Shimon hostage, while the rest of the brothers return to Canaan to retrieve Benjamin, as demanded by Joseph. Already grief-stricken at the loss of his son Joseph, Jacob is woefully distressed by the prospect of losing Benjamin and sending him to Egypt. He refuses at first. Eventually, according to Rashi, when their food supplies are depleted, as a matter of survival for his children and grandchildren, Jacob relents and lets his sons bring Benjamin down to Egypt.
With Benjamin by their side, the brothers return to the viceroy and ask for more food. Joseph continues the test. He gives them food and returns their money, but he has his steward hide Joseph’s goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph then has his men pursue the brothers and “find” the goblet in Benjamin’s sack. They falsely accuse Benjamin of theft, and Joseph declares that Benjamin must remain as his slave. How will Jacob respond to and endure this dreadful news?
In true Dickensian style, the week’s Torah reading ends with this cliff-hanger, and we must wait till next week to hear how things turn out. (Spoiler alert: it ends well).
We’re left to think about Joseph and his conduct. How could Joseph disregard his family’s woes and the suffering he knows his decision will cause his father? In his discussion of Miketz, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno refers to weak bullies as those who are “emotionally starved” and suggests this assessment might have applied to Pharoah who worried about the impending famine and loss of support from his countrymen. But I wonder if this characterization should also apply to Joseph. That is, when it came to his family, Joseph remained wounded by his brothers’ betrayal and abandonment, and he cut himself off from emotional attachment to them.
The 19th century Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch defends Joseph. He says that Joseph merely sought to fulfill the divinely inspired predictions of his dreams. Rabbi Hirsch argues that Joseph needed to test his brothers to learn how they had treated Benjamin and to know whether he could trust his brothers. Hirsch says Joseph felt unsure about whether his brothers would still want to destroy him. Joseph wanted to know that his own position and his wife and sons’ position would remain secure.
Isaac Abravanel, a 15th century Portuguese Jewish philosopher, sees it differently. He criticizes Joseph for denouncing his brothers, saying it was wrong to take revenge and bear a grudge. After all, God turned the brothers’ evil intent into something good. None of Joseph’s good fortune would have occurred if his brothers had not sold him into slavery. Why then did Joseph not have compassion for them or, at least, more concern for his aged father?
Maurice Samuel, the 20th century author, cites Joseph’s cruelty and revenge and calls Joseph a “brilliant failure.” Joseph had reached the pinnacle of success and achieved enormous power in Egypt. But he remained insensitive to his brothers and father, and lacked concern for his brothers’ families, wives, children, and Jacob – – who waited for bread and family reunification. He was still captive to unresolved feelings of hurt and betrayal.
Perhaps one lesson from the Parsha is that while we need to remember our origins and struggles, we also need to meet the present moment with a “Lev Shamaiah,” a “hearing heart,” so we can listen to what is actually and presently before us with openness and wisdom. (Lev Shamaiah – See 1 Kings 3:9).
Keyn Yehi Ratzon
Guest service leader