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Torah Sparks

December 11, 2004 - 28 Kislev 5765

Annual: Genesis Genesis 41:1-44:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 250; Hertz p. 155)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 41:1-41:52 (Etz Hayim, p. 250; Hertz p. 155)
Maftir: Numbers 7:36 - 41 (Etz Hayim, p. 808; Hertz p. 598)
Haftarah: Zehariah 2:14 - 4:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 1270; Hertz p. 987)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Little Neck Jewish Center, Little Neck, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Pharaoh is disturbed by dreams his advisors are unable to interpret: seven fat, healthy cows consumed by seven lean and sickly cows, with no affect on the latter; seven solid, wholesome ears of corn, consumed by seven wilted, malformed ears. Pharaoh's cupbearer remembers Joseph and his ability accurately to interpret dreams. Joseph, released from prison and brought before Pharaoh, insists the dreams are a divine portent of seven years of plenty, to be followed by seven years of famine. He advises Pharaoh to appoint "a man of discernment and wisdom" to oversee conservation of Egypt's resources in preparation for the coming famine.

Pharaoh appoints Joseph, granting him all but unlimited power over Egypt. Joseph orders the collection of grain in vast quantities. During this period, he marries Asenath, daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On. Two sons are born: Manasseh and Ephraim. Their names reflect the dramatic changes of fortune in Joseph's life.

Jacob instructs his sons to travel to Egypt to acquire provisions. Ten sons go to Egypt, leaving Benjamin with Jacob. Upon their arrival, the brothers are recognized by Joseph, though they do not recognize him. Joseph treats his brothers harshly, accusing them of being spies. Hearing them describe their family background, Joseph insists they bring their youngest brother to Egypt, to demonstrate the veracity of their defense. He imprisons the brothers, releasing all but Simeon on the condition that they return with Benjamin. Joseph orders that the brothers be given grain and provisions for their journey home. He also secretly has their money returned. Finding the money, they fear they will be accused of theft.

Arriving home, the brothers recount their experiences to Jacob, explaining Simeon's predicament and the need to return to Egypt with Benjamin. Jacob laments the prospect of losing his youngest son. The continuing famine in time impels Jacob to send his sons back to Egypt. Judah takes personal responsibility for Benjamin's safety, and receives Jacob's blessing. The brothers bring gifts and the mysteriously restored money back to Egypt, to be presented to Joseph, whose true identity remains concealed. Received generously, they are brought to Joseph's home for a feast.

Joseph greets his "guests," asking about "their" father's well-being and greeting Benjamin. Joseph, overcome by emotion, briefly absents himself. Several hints as to Joseph's identity go unheeded: he is served food apart from other Egyptians, in keeping with particularistic Egyptian taboos; Benjamin is given especially generous portions; Joseph has his brothers seated in age order. The brothers depart with generous amounts of grain.

In a final test, Joseph orders his silver goblet planted in Benjamin's sack. The departing brothers are "arrested" and returned to Egypt. The Parshah concludes with a "cliff-hanger." Judah and his brothers claim their innocence, but submit themselves to Joseph's judgment as his slaves. Joseph insists: "Only he in whose possession the goblet was found shall be my slave; the rest of you go back in peace to your father."

Theme #1: "From Nice Boy to Viceroy"

"And Pharaoh said to his courtiers, 'Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?'" (Genesis 41:38)

Derash: Study

  • "The spirit of God: the divine gift of prophecy." (Targum Onkelos)
  • "'In whom is the spirit of God' in the interpretation of dreams. All the more so as regards worldly affairs of state." (Rashbam)
  • "This advice was prompted from beginning to end by the Holy Spirit. The prophet cannot restrain his prophecy and must unburden himself." (Abarbanel)
  • "Joseph said all this so that Pharaoh would select him, for a wise man looks out for himself (literally, 'his eyes are in his head' - JHP)." (Nahmanides)
  • "Joseph proclaims the omnipotence of God at all times, in the midst of an idolatrous world, emphasizing against Whom man sins, Who interprets dreams, Who foretells that which is to come and Who brings things to pass. All this Joseph achieves not by a lecture or a discourse but by the rhetoric device of repetition. In the end, even Pharaoh took the hint and thus he answered: 'Can we find such a one as this, a man in whom the spirit of God is?'" (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Genesis)
  • "What makes Joseph a religious figure worthy of a quarter of Genesis? Who could be more religious? To the seductress, fellow prisoners, Pharaoh, he spoke of God. He regarded dreams as divine orders. He made sure all eleven brothers bowed to him, fulfilling his youthful vision, before revealing himself. He forgave them for selling him, because 'it was not you that sent me here, but God'. And that style of religiosity is what irks. Who needs this overweening talk of God before the unbelievers, this certainty he knows God's plan, this erasing of human responsibility? Who needs a man willing to serve Pharaoh because he's sure he is serving God?" (Gershom Gorenberg, Seventy Facets)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Is Joseph's advice to Pharaoh - which occasions his elevation to high office - a prophetic revelation he is compelled to deliver - or shameless self-promotion in the "spirit" of his boastful youth? Is his unbridled ambition merely an instrument of God's plan?
  2. Gorenberg criticizes Joseph for forgiving his brothers. Was Joseph in moral error? For what sins should human forgiveness not be given?
  3. Gorenberg also points out that Joseph waited to reveal his identity until after his brothers had fulfilled his vision by bowing down to him. Had he revealed his identity earlier and kept his brothers from bowing, would the divine quality of his dreams have been impugned? Did Joseph's delay demonstrate a lack of faith?
  4. To what extent is it constructive or desirable to speak repeatedly of God to unbelievers? To skeptics? To fellow Jews? To our loved ones?
  5. Through what qualities, actions, and attitudes do we perceive "the spirit of God" in the people we encounter?

Theme #2: "Flooded by Memories or Swimming in Denial?"

"Joseph became the father of two sons, whom Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, bore to him. Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, 'God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.' And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, 'God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.'" (Genesis 41:50-52)

Derash: Study

  • "Manasseh is named for forgetfulness. Joseph names his first-born son for the alienation that he experiences from his native culture. There is, of course, a brutal quality to situations in which sheer survival overrides all other considerations; the question of physical and cultural survival, with their implicit tensions, engages Joseph to the depths of his being. He names Manasseh for that tension. Ephraim, his second son, is also named out of Joseph's passionate concern with survival. The paradoxical thrust is palpable: fruitfulness and affliction are inseparable in Joseph's life." (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire)
  • "His outer garb, his changed name, his marriage to a daughter of the High Priest of Re, and his mastery of the Egyptian language were all calculated to make him outwardly indistinguishable from his fellow Egyptians. Although they could not accept Joseph wholeheartedly as their equal, he was yet, apparently, so thoroughly satisfied with his situation that he preferred not to be reminded of his past. He expresses this most clearly in the names he gives to his two sons." (Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis)
  • "'God has made me forget.' The forgetting, of course, was only on the surface, in his everyday existence. His past would not and could not go away. He would have been more than human if he did not think how some day he would let his brothers know of his great position, put them to shame, and arouse their envy." (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah)
  • "Genesis makes it possible for us to be critical of Joseph even as it chronicles his career. In showing us his prominence, it also shows us his emptiness. In the names of his sons we hear his pain and his denial. He is a man who wills himself to forget his afflictions, but he cannot fail to remember his hardships each time he regards his sons. As readers we are privy to the loneliness that comes with his enormous temporal success." (Peter Pitzele, Our Fathers' Wells)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Both Joseph and Moses marry the daughters of foreign priests. What is significant about this fact? What else do Moses and Joseph have in common?
  2. Compare the names Joseph gives his sons to the names Moses gives his sons - Gershom and Eliezer (See Exodus 18:3-4).
  3. Is it accurate to describe Joseph as alienated from his native culture? How is Joseph true to the mission of the Patriarchs?
  4. Joseph is an assimilated Jew, immersed in a non-Jewish (non-Israelite) culture, yet acts decisively to assure Jewish survival. Where else in Biblical and later Jewish history does this pattern recur?
  5. Is Joseph in denial toward enduring disappointments in his life? Or do his sons' names suggest that he is fully cognizant of past adversity… and has assimilated these unhappy memories into his personality to become a productive, successful "survivor?"

Historical Note

Parshat Miketz, in which we read of Joseph's elevation to royal office, and of his marriage to Asenath, is read on December 11, 2004. On December 11, 1936, Edward VIII of Britain announced his abdication of the throne in order to marry Wallis Warfield Simpson. Just as Joseph's ascendancy was a providential step in the survival of his people during a time of national emergency, Edward's abdication fortuitously permitted his brother - widely recognized as more "a man of discernment and wisdom" than he - to guide Britain through World War II.

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