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Torah Sparks

December 4, 2010 - 27 Kislev 5771

Annual: Genesis 41:1-44:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 250; Hertz p. 155)
Triennial: Genesis 41:1-41:52 (Etz Hayim, p. 250; Hertz p. 155)
Maftir: Numbers 7:24-35 (Etz Hayim, p. 807; Hertz p. 598)
Haftarah: Zehariah 2:14 - 4:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 1270; Hertz p. 987)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Reading Summary

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 to interpret dreams accurately. 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. When they arrive Joseph recognizes them, though they do not recognize him. Joseph treats his brothers harshly, accusing them of being spies. Hearing them describe their family background, he insists that they bring their youngest brother to Egypt, to demonstrate the truth of what they have told them. He imprisons the brothers, releasing all but Simeon on the condition that they return with Benjamin, and he orders that they be given grain and other 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 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. They are received generously and brought to Joseph's home for a feast. Joseph greets his guests, asks about their father's well-being, and greets Benjamin, and then, overcome by emotion, briefly absents himself. Several hints about 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, and the brothers are arrested and returned to Egypt. The parshah concludes with a cliffhanger. Judah and his brothers maintain 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: “Clothes Horse”

“And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph's hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck. He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they cried before him, ‘Avrekh!'” (Genesis 41:41-43)

Derash: Study

  1. “Rabbi Yehudah said: ‘Abrek' is Joseph, who was an ‘Av' (a father, a sage, advanced) in wisdom, though ‘Rach' (tender) in years.” (Rashi)
  2. “So Haman took the garb and the horse and arrayed Mordechai and paraded him through the city square; and he proclaimed before him: This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor. The king slipped off his ring, which he had taken back from Haman, and gave it to Mordechai, for Mordechai was now powerful in the royal palace, and his fame was spreading through all the provinces.” (Esther 6:11; 8:2; 9:4)
  3. “Joseph, more than once, will ‘lose his shirt' to an angry and aggrieved opponent: first to his brothers, then to Potiphar's wife. On both occasions, he is stripped of the external marks of his apparent superiority, only to find himself at risk for his life. True, he is in these episodes the victim of injustice. But it may also be true that the ‘clothes' he was wearing - and the part they had him playing - did not fit him. When Joseph finally gets the clothing - and customs - that suit him perfectly, it will not be as a prince in Israel but as lord chamberlain of Egypt.” (Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis)
  4. “Our friend Tom, in his own simple musings, often compared his more fortunate lot, in the bondage into which he was cast, with that of Joseph in Egypt; in fact, as time went on, and he developed more and more under the eye of his master, the strength of the parallel increased. St. Clare at first employed him occasionally; but struck with his soundness of mind and good business capacity, he confided in him more and more, till gradually all the marketing and providing for the family were entrusted to him.” (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin)

Questions for Discussion

Both Joseph and Mordechai enjoy a triumphal royal tribute after a period of mortal peril. Where else in the Torah is this dramatic contrast used to demonstrate the miraculous unfolding of the People Israel's historic fate?

Professor Kass points out the symbolic role of clothing in the Joseph narratives. What are other examples of this pattern? Why is clothing so apt a vehicle for symbolic expression? How do we use clothing to reflect our identity? Our values? Our meaning and purpose in different situations?

The parallel of Haman's grudging (and for him, ominous) declaration (“This is what is done for the man…”) is useful in deciphering the meaning of abrek in our verse - a term of otherwise debatable origin and etymology. The mortal king in Jewish parable is often a thinly veiled stand-in for the Divine Sovereign. Pharaoh and Achashverosh are both unlikely - indeed, unseemly - representations of the God of Israel… if that literary device is, indeed, here in evidence! Of what more sacred message is the royal proclamation in each biblical passage similarly suggestive? Uncle Tom perceives in his own life and treatment a parallel to Joseph's “more fortunate lot” in the spectrum of potential slave experiences. To what extent do the now proverbial negative connotations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's character also apply to Joseph?

Theme #2: “My One and Only”

“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 42:38)

Derash: Study

  1. “‘My son - This formulation, instead of ‘your brother,' may well imply a rebuke, in that it echoes what the brothers said when they had Joseph's tunic sent to their father: ‘Is it your son's tunic?' (37:32)” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)
  2. “The extravagant insensitivity of Jacob's paternal favoritism continues to be breathtaking. He speaks of Benjamin as ‘my son' almost as though the ones he is addressing were not his sons. This unconscious disavowal of the ten sons is sharpened when Jacob says, ‘He alone remains,' failing to add ‘from his mother.'” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)
  3. “In a radical sense, indeed, Benjamin is his only surviving son, as Judah recognizes: ‘“Your servant my father said to us, ‘As you know, my wife bore me two sons”‘ (44:27). The heart of the matter, as Jacob articulates in a time of stress, is that he only had one wife, only two sons.” (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire)
  4. “Whenever a person said something sensible and pleasingly intelligent to Rabbi Tarfon, he would reply: ‘a bud and a flower' (from Exodus 25:33, describing the intricate decorations on the sanctuary's golden menorah) and whenever someone would say something outrageous and devoid of reason, Rabbi Tarfon would respond, ‘My son must not go down with you.'” (Midrash Beresheit Rabbah)

Questions for Discussion

Why did Rabbi Tarfon treat Jacob's statement as the very paradigm of inanity? Because of the likely consequences of his proposal? The emotional effect on his other sons? His habitual favoritism? His trifling with Providence? What part of Jacob's statement is most problematic?

What did Jacob mean by referring to Benjamin as “my son”? An intentional rebuke, as Nahum Sarna suggests? Or is his wording simply an honest window into his true character and emotional life, as both Robert Alter and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg propose? Does the patriarch ever grow beyond paternal favoritism? Does he learn from his mistakes? Or does the text validate his lack of parental diplomacy?

What precisely is objectionable in Jacob's behavior? Loving Rachel more than his other wives, and Joseph more than his other sons? Or is it his willingness to show externalize - and verbalize - that internal inequity? Can a good parent feel greater love for one child than for another? Enjoy a closer emotional bond with one child than with her or his siblings?

Jacob makes repeated reference to descent: going down to Egypt and going down to Sheol. In his short statement, he also mentions death and disaster. Is Jacob simply in a state of profound depression? Would this mitigate his moral responsibility for the manner in which he addresses his sons? Or should the acuteness of his pain at the loss of one child sharpen his insight into the inestimable love each of his sons deserves, and so does this actually compound Jacob's moral ineptitude and culpability?

Halachah L'Maaseh

The haftarah chanted on Shabbat Parshat Miketz 5771 is taken from Zecharia 2:14-4:7, the special haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah. When Parashat Miketz coincides with the eighth day of Chanukah (and is thus the second Shabbat of Chanukah), we chant I Kings 7:40-50 as the haftarah. When Miketz does not coincide with Chanukah at all (this occurs approximately 15 times in 250 years), the “regular” haftarah assigned to the parshah - the most rarely heard of all haftarot - is chanted: I Kings 3:15-4:1. The last time this happened was on December 30, 2000, and it will happen again on December 19, 2020.

Historic Note

In parshat Miketz, read on December 4, 2010, Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies - a charge that they vigorously deny and that Joseph knows is unfounded. On December 4, 1981, President Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12333, providing the president with increased access to “timely and accurate information about the activities, capabilities, plans, and intentions of foreign powers, organizations, and persons and their agents.”

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