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Torah Sparks

Parashat Miketz - Shabbat Hanukkah
December 20, 2014 – 28 Kislev 5775

Annual (Genesis 41:1-44:17): Etz Hayim p. 250; Hertz p. 155
Triennial (Genesis 41:53-43:15): Etz Hayim p. 257; Hertz p. 158
Maftir (Numbers 7:30-35): Etz Hayim p. 808; Hertz p. 598
Haftarah (Zechariah 2:14-4:7): Etz Hayim, p. 1270; Hertz p. 987

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Pharaoh is disturbed by his dreams, and his butler finally suggests that Joseph be summoned from prison to help. When Joseph explains that the dreams foretell seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine, Pharaoh appoints Joseph as second-incommand of Egypt, and Joseph successfully ensures that Egypt has food during the ensuing years.

Facing famine in Canaan, ten of Joseph’s brothers go to Egypt in search of food. The brothers don’t recognize Joseph, though Joseph recognizes them; he withholds his true identity. Joseph imprisons Simeon and sends the rest of the brothers home with food, telling them not to return until they bring Benjamin with them. Despite Jacob’s protests, the brothers return to Egypt with Benjamin. Joseph is pleased, and he releases Simeon and sends the brothers back with food again, but also plants his goblet in Benjamin’s bag. The brothers fear that Benjamin will be imprisoned in Egypt permanently.

Theme #1: “Excuse Me, Have We Met?”

So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to get grain rations in Egypt … Now Joseph was the vizier of the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground. When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. He asked them, “Where do you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan, to procure food.” For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. (Genesis 42:3, 6-8)

Joseph and his brothers meet again, with the power relationship reversed.

Defeat usually comes as a great grief to the loser. Thus Joseph knew what a humiliation it would be to his brothers if they were to learn that the lord before whom they were bowing “with their faces to the ground” was Joseph, whom they had ridiculed when he had told them of his dream that they would all bow down to him someday. It was in order to spare them this humiliation that Joseph did not make himself known to them immediately. Scripture relates this fact in praise of the righteous Joseph. Another person in Joseph’s position would have taken full advantage of this opportunity to have his revenge, to make the enemy truly feel his defeat. But Joseph did the opposite. When his brothers bowed down to him, he recognized them immediately, but he made himself a stranger to them in order to spare them the shame of defeat. -- Kedushat Levi

“Joseph’s brethren went down.” Scripture should have said, “Jacob’s sons.” Why “Joseph’s brethren”? Because in the beginning they did not treat him like a brother, for they sold him into servitude, but in the end they regretted what they had done. Every day they would say, “When shall we be going down into Egypt to bring our brother back to his father?” And when their father told them to go down to Egypt, they were all as one in their resolve to bring him back. -- Genesis Rabbah

[This means] he acted like a stranger to them with words by speaking harshly. -- Rashi on 42:7

Questions for Discussion:

To Kedushat Levi, Joseph’s actions with his brothers are calculated from the beginning of their reunion. This might fly in the face of some parts of the story, in which Joseph has to excuse himself to hide his tears from public view. Is Joseph following a plan, or is he making this up as he goes along? Is Joseph taken aback when he realizes that his interpretations of his dreams as a child actually have come true?

Genesis Rabbah claims that Joseph’s brothers are hoping to reunite with Joseph, as they are filled with guilt for selling him into slavery. If we accept this idea, what impact does that have on how we see these brothers? Is there anything in the Torah text which indicates that they feel remorse from the beginning of their journey to Egypt? Or do they only feel bad once they think that they are being punished for selling him?

Rashi seems to think that strangers behave poorly toward one another. Yet there are many times when we uphold politeness with people we don’t know, yet we are quick to anger with people we love. Why does this happen? While we don’t advocate being cruel to strangers, how can we learn to treat those closest to us as well as we treat strangers?

Theme #2: Poor, Poor Pitiful Me

Their father Jacob said to them, “It is always me that you bereave: Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you would take away Benjamin. These things always happen to me!” Then Reuben said to his father, “You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my care, and I will return him to you.” But he said, “My son must not go down with you, for his brother is dead and he alone is left. If he meets with disaster on the journey you are taking, you will send my white head down to Sheol in grief.” (Genesis 42:36-38)

Jacob is overwhelmed with self-pity over the bad luck that has afflicted his family.

[Jacob] thought to himself: “But do I really have a choice? I must let them take the boy back to Egypt, or else Simon will surely die. What can I do? I pray that El Shaddai will dispose the man with mercy toward my sons, that he may release to them their brother Simon, as well as Benjamin. If anything should happen to him, I will hold each of them accountable, especially Judah, who has personally guaranteed Benjamin’s safety. But as for me -- alas, I am bereaved and will continue to be so. I have now been forced to part with all that is precious to me in my entire life. -- Norman J. Cohen, Voices From Genesis

When Jacob speaks of going to Sheol is he speaking of the netherworld or the grave? Some have maintained that the term never refers to the netherworld, but always to the grave. … [But difficulties with this] suggest that the concept of Sheol as the netherworld must be considered central to the understanding of the Israelite concept of afterlife. -- John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament

Jacob speaks with pathos of his descent to Sheol, the realm of the dead. That was a rather poetic idea; for everyone knew that the dead lay in the family grave. But it was apparently considered to be especially bad to die in such sorrow and not “in a good old age” because it was then possible that the spirit of the dead would find no rest. -- Gerhard von Rad, Genesis

Questions for Discussion:

Cohen offers an alternate view of Jacob’s state of mind -- instead of worrying about just himself, he is worried more about the rest of his family. Is this an apt assessment? If so, why does Jacob say “These things always happen to me!”? When we feel self-pity, do we commonly block out the needs and concerns of others? Or is it possible to compartmentalize and feel badly for both ourselves and those around us?

Walton says that Sheol is part of the Israelite world-view of what the afterlife will be like. While there are many Jewish theories about what an afterlife or “world to come” may entail, there is no uniform view of what the details of such a place or time would be like. Is it essential for us to consider the nature of the afterlife? If Judaism had a clear understanding, would that alter the way we evaluate our current lives?

Von Rad pictures Jacob fearing the nature of his death, not wanting it to be filled with sadness. As we don’t control our ultimate destiny, it always is difficult to arrange our deaths to take place after reaching an ideal sense of closure in our relationships on Earth. What ways can we ensure that our dignity remains intact during our final days? Are ethical wills a good method? Is it helpful to celebrate with loved ones while we still our physically and mentally able?

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