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Torah Sparks

December 23, 2006 – 2 Tevet 5767

Annual: Genesis Genesis 41:1-44:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 250; Hertz p. 155)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 43:16-44:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 265; Hertz p. 163)
Maftir: Numbers 7:54 – 8:4 (Etz Hayim, p. 809; Hertz p. 599)
Haftarah: I Kings >7:40 – 50 (Etz Hayim, p. 1274; Hertz p. 990)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

Joseph, the lowly Canaanite/Hebrew slave, has been languishing in an Egyptian prison for two more years after he successfully interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer. His incarceration might have continued indefinitely, except that Pharaoh has a pair of troubling dreams. When no interpretation from his usual advisors satisfies Pharaoh, the butler reluctantly recounts the tale of his own imprisonment, culminating in a glowing recommendation for Joseph as an interpreter of dreams. Joseph is immediately summoned from prison, tidied up, and brought before Pharaoh.

Upon hearing the content of Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph conveys an interpretation that foretells seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. But Joseph also goes beyond his mandate to interpret the dreams; he recommends a plan of action to Pharaoh that would use the bumper crops of the first seven years to cushion Egypt against the ravages of the famine that is to follow. Pharaoh, impressed with Joseph’s insight and initiative, appoints him as viceroy with broad powers to implement the plan.

The plan works successfully. As the famine eventually spreads to neighboring countries, Jacob and his 11 remaining sons in Canaan run short of food. Jacob deputizes 10 of the sons to go to Egypt to procure food for their extended family. Benjamin alone is to remain with Jacob. The brothers gain an audience with the Egyptian viceroy Zaphenath-paneah (who, unbeknownst to them, is actually their brother Joseph). The viceroy accuses them of being spies and grills them with questions, eliciting a mention of their brother Benjamin. Expressing skepticism that Benjamin really exists, he stuns the brothers by imprisoning Simeon.

Joseph sends the brothers back to Canaan with ample provisions. However, he warns them that he will refuse to see them again unless they bring Benjamin with them. There is a dual incentive for them to return to Egypt:

  1. Although Joseph has given them all the food they could carry, they would eventually need to return for more.
  2. Simeon is still a prisoner, and the brothers should want to regain his freedom.

When they return to Canaan, Jacob is pleased to have food for his household. But he is displeased that Simeon is not free, and he is still reluctant to consider letting Benjamin out of his sight. After all, Jacob had lost his beloved wife Rachel, as well as her older son, Joseph. Only Rachel’s younger son, Benjamin, remains. Reuben fails to change Jacob’s mind. Eventually, as food supplies begin to run low, Judah gets Jacob to relent.

The brothers meet with Joseph in Egypt. Joseph is pleased to see Benjamin; Simeon is set free. Joseph sees to it that the brothers are supplied with plenty of food, but then he directs his servants to frame Benjamin for theft. The brothers are intercepted on their way back to Canaan and Benjamin is imprisoned.

Issue #1: Jacob's Protectiveness of Benjamin

Why does Jacob refuse Reuben’s request (42:37) but gives in to Judah’s plea (43:8-10) to let Benjamin travel to Egypt?

This is a multilayered question. The primary answer has to do with the content of Judah’s message compared to Reuben’s. You may wish to examine the substance and tone of their words.

A secondary answer has more to do with empathy and shared experience. (Hint: Judah has lost two adult sons. The details, related in Chapter 38, verses 7 and 10, are not expressly related to our story. But our knowledge of information from previous chapters legitimately may be assumed by the Bible.) Why is Jacob predisposed to listen to Judah about the dangers that may threaten an adult son?

Issue #2: Joseph's Manipulation of his Brothers

It is no exaggeration to say that as viceroy, Joseph repeatedly sought to manipulate his brothers. Quite conceivably, we may not agree with his tactics. And we also may suspect that the desire for revenge may have played a role. Setting aside our reservations about his tactics and about revenge for a moment, we should address the following questions:

  1. What information and memories did Joseph hope to elicit from his brothers?
  2. What thoughts/reflections/realizations did he seek to lead them toward?
  3. What did he hope that they would express?

Looking ahead within the biblical narrative, did Joseph achieve these goals?

A Note about the Maftir

People often wonder why the Torah portion designated for the eighth day of Hanukkah is longer than average. Keep in mind that all the Hanukkah readings are borrowed from the story of the dedication of the mishkan – the portable sanctuary – because of the parallel to Hanukkah’s theme of rededication. When the mishkan was dedicated, representatives of 12 tribes brought offerings on successive days. For the first seven days of Hanukkah, we can quote from the first seven days of the dedication ceremony, one offering per day. But, because Hanukkah is only eight days long, we have five tribes’ offerings to deal with on our eighth day, plus a summary of the 12 original days’ offerings. It should be noted that this longer-than-average maftir happens to be paired with a shorter-than-average haftarah.

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