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Torah Sparks

December 24, 2011 – 28 Kislev 5772

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: Zehariah 2:14 – 4:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 1270; Hertz p. 987)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser


Pharaoh is disturbed by dreams his advisors are unable to interpret – seven fat, healthy cows consumed by seven lean and sickly cows, with no effect 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 to prepare for the 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 and treats them 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 him. 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 tell Jacob their experiences, 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, 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 parashah 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: "Super-ego meets Super Ego"

"And Pharaoh said to Joseph, 'I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now, I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.' Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, 'Not I! God will see to Pharaoh's welfare.'" (Genesis 41:15-16)

Derash: Study

"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? In the end, it seems, Jacob had similar doubts. Jacob assigns kingship not to Joseph, but to Judah: a man who speaks rarely of God and never of vision." (Gershom Gorenberg)

"It is inconceivable that the professional dream interpreters are unable to provide 'interpretations.' Their solutions do not satisfy him. The fact is that there is nothing in the dreams that relates in a personal way to Pharaoh himself. This, incidentally, is in contrast to all previous dreams in Genesis in which the dreamer plays a central role. It is therefore clear to Pharaoh that his dream experience has a wider, national significance. The customary fawning and flattering expositions of the magicians are therefore unconvincing." (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

"Joseph again gives honor to God and at the same time makes it clear that he is not a professional soothsayer." (Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary)

"Joseph interprets to Pharaoh not his dreams but his duties." (Benno Jacob)

"A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world." (Oscar Wilde)

Questions for Discussion

Does Joseph's "God talk" represent sincere spiritual fervor, beyond the believer's capacity to contain? Or is Joseph inappropriately injecting private faith into the public realm in order to gain political advantage? Beyond the spoken word, what scriptural evidence is there about Joseph's piety? How do these issues relate to modern politics in western democracies?

Professor Sarna's insight about the dream "professionals" is well-taken. What (beyond the content of the dreams themselves) might have motivated Pharaoh to look for a more cosmic significance? What impelled an absolute autocrat and despot to look beyond himself, perhaps for the first time?

provides the paradigm for the court Jew – the Jew who rises to a position of considerable power and trust within the government of a "foreign" regime. Where else do we see this in Scripture? In more recent history? In modern politics? How is the story of Joseph instructive in understanding this familiar phenomenon in the halls of power?

How has Joseph's ability to interpret dreams changed or matured over the course of his life? Consider his own dreams during his youth, those of Pharaoh's servants, and those of Pharaoh himself. Why is this the last incident of dream interpretation in Joseph's career?

Does Joseph, as Rabbi Plaut posits, truly deny that he is a professional soothsayer by attributing his interpretations to God? Or is he instead claiming divine insight, revelatory power, and direct oracular ability?

Theme #2: "Quizzical Queue, Quintuple Quarry, Quality Quaffs"

"As they were seated before him, from the oldest in the order of his seniority to the youngest in the order of his youth, the men looked at one another in astonishment. Portions were served them from his table; but Benjamin's portion was five times that of anyone else. And they drank their fill with him." (Genesis 43:33-34)

Derash: Study

"They were seated before him: Joseph commanded that they be seated in this manner. They were astonished: For all of them had been born within a seven year period and there was no way to recognize who was older than whom." (Rashbam)

"From the oldest: Joseph struck his goblet and called out, 'Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulon, sons of the same mother: sit in that order, according to your birth. And so the rest. When he got to Benjamin he said, 'This one has no mother just as I have no mother. He shall sit by me.'" (Rashi)

"The brothers saw that Benjamin had received larger portions than they, and yet they were not jealous of him. Hence they realized that they had already rid themselves of the sin of envy." (Kav Chein)

"Acting either from impulse or calculation, Joseph sends portions of food from his table to his brothers, seemingly confirming some kind of link between them. The brothers are delighted by this turn of events and conviviality reigns. The brothers marvel over the fact that the viceroy has magically divined their birth order, this time rejoicing over the fivefold favoritism shown their youngest half-brother." (Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom)

"Yosef arrives and says to Binyamin, 'May God be gracious to you, my boy.' References to the one God by the viceroy of a pagan empire could not possibly be explained by the brothers as anything but a near revelation by the Almighty Himself. Yosef specifically acted in a manner so peculiar that the brothers could interpret it only as a direct punishment by God. For the same reason, he seats them in age order, much to the brothers' astonishment. Yosef saw to it that the brothers would immediately attribute their experiences to the Hand of God." (Rabbi David Silverberg)

Questions for Discussion

What was Joseph thinking? Did he have his brothers seated in age order to inspire them to perceive Divine Providence? To see if they were capable of such spiritual insight? To hint at his own identity, since only he would have known their ages? To establish his own powers of divination (compare Genesis 44:5, 15)?

On what do Dr. Kass and the Kav Chein base their assertions that the brothers were not bothered by the special treatment shown Benjamin? Was Joseph's fivefold generosity to his younger brother yet another test? Yet another hint at his identity? An insidious continuation of his father's fateful favoritism? A brash recompense for his older brothers' earlier betrayal? A device to manipulate their emotions, thereby asserting control over them? A sincere expression of love for his baby brother (compare Genesis 45:22)?

Dr. Kass writes that the meal shared by Joseph and his brothers was characterized by "conviviality," perhaps because of the good food and ample drink. Of course, the brothers hardly could have refused the Egyptian potentate's repast. What other mood or emotional atmosphere might have been evident at this luncheon?

Joseph was seated alone at the meal he provided, apart from his brothers as well as the Egyptians in attendance. How might his isolation and loneliness have guided his actions and explain the strange seating and service?

At what point in the meal (or perhaps at some earlier point) did Joseph make a final decision about how to treat his brothers? What factors impacted this decision?

Halachah L'Maaseh

Mishnah Gittin 5:10 prohibits giving assistance to fellow Jews who are engaging in forbidden agricultural activities in the land of Israel in violation of the Sabbatical year. It is permissible, however, to lend practical support to non-Jewish farmers during this period; they are not bound by Jewish law. The Mishnah continues to say that we offer such non-Jews greetings and encouragement, in the interests of peace and amity. In the Gemara (Gittin 62A), the rabbis wonder if the stated permissibility of greetings is redundant – properly subsumed, as it were, in the sanction for practical assistance and support. Rabbi Yeva, an amora of the third century, answers: "The additional statement permitting greetings is necessary specifically in reference to their holidays" -- in can someone would reason incorrectly that such holiday greetings are to be avoided. That is, the sanctity and permissibility of offering our non-Jewish neighbors appropriate greetings on their holy days is established with special emphasis at the earliest stages of Jewish law's development. This Shabbat – and the day following – represents the ideal time to fulfill this religious obligation. Rabbi Benjamin Bleich, professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, writes about the Christian majority culture and its holiday observances: "Our greatest fear should not be those who worship in a different way but those who mockingly reject the very idea of worship. Our children today are threatened by the spirit of secularism more than by songs dedicated to proclaiming a holy night. We differ in countless ways. Yet Christmas allows us to remember that we are not alone in our recognition of the Creator of the universe."

Historical Note

Parashat Miketz is read on December 24, 2011 – coinciding with the fourth day of Chanukah – and celebrated by our Christian neighbors as Christmas Eve. On December 24, 1997, a Chanukah menorah was lit at the Vatican for the first time in history. On December 24, 1968, orbiting Apollo 8 astronauts read verses from the Book of Genesis. In Parashat Miketz, Pharaoh appoints Joseph as his vizier: "Only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you" (41:40). On December 24, 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed General Dwight D. Eisenhower supreme commander of all allied forces.

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