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D'var Torah: Miketz


What does Joseph have in common with Daniel and Mordechai? Most apparent is their almost perfect character (as adults). All have divine favor — this isn’t stated explicitly for the latter two, but Daniel escapes plots of his enemies, like the lions’ den, unscathed, while Mordechai always seemed to know the right things to do, always advised Esther wisely, and was in the right place to overhear plotters scheming against the king. But Joseph is different: the Torah itself tells us repeatedly—four times in Chapter 39—that God favored him; here is the first such instance:

Adonai was with Joseph, and he was a successful man. (Gen. 39:2)

But the stories of all three epitomize the archetypal “successful courtier,” a popular literary theme of ancient times, and in modern story-telling genres, it’s the “rags-to-riches” theme that Disney so loves.

Joseph’s fortunes, after a less-than-auspicious beginning at the hands of his brothers (who were likely reacting to his overweening egotism) and a slight setback after his Egyptian master’s wife’s false accusation, was nothing less than meteoric. Nowhere else in the Bible do we encounter a character who achieves as much success with so little apparent effort. Joseph’s fortunes began to rise when his interpretations of the steward’s and baker’s dreams became true. Our sidra’s action takes place in the palace and the narration proceeds with an exquisitely detailed description of events:

Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was rushed from the dungeon. He had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh. (41:14)

After he’s made presentable, Pharaoh describes his dreams and Joseph renders his interpretation. Amazingly, he doesn’t stop there—he offers his advice about how Pharaoh should act.

Accordingly, let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom and set him over the land of Egypt. And let Pharaoh take steps to appoint overseers over the land and organize the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. (41:33–34)

This is itself quite astonishing, as offering unsolicited advice to a monarch was a quick way to get oneself executed, and here was a young Hebrew slave giving the advice! Was this a sign of a little of Joseph’s early egotism reappearing?

Joseph was probably on safe ground. He likely was reacting to Pharaoh’s unspoken cues. After all, Pharaoh was very troubled by those dreams and was dismayed that “all the magicians of Egypt, and all its wise men” (Gen. 41:8) could not give him an interpretation. It’s certain that the magicians and wise men did give him plenty of interpretations but none satisfied him. When Joseph provided an explanation that rang true, Pharaoh’s relief would have been quite apparent, leading Joseph to risk offering his advice. Culturally, credible dream interpreters were held in high regard in the ancient world since they were thought to have a special relationship with the gods, and we see Pharaoh’s esteem in his next comments.

And Pharaoh said to his courtiers, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you.” (41:38–39)

Pharaoh accepts Joseph’s advice and then invests him with the authority to carry out the plan he proposed. Why would Pharaoh give a youth, a slave, and a Hebrew one at that, such power? Consider the information that Pharaoh no doubt had been given about Joseph. When the steward told Pharaoh about Joseph’s interpretations of his and the baker’s dreams, Pharaoh would have sought additional details about him. He would have learned from Potiphar, his palace guard commander, of Joseph’s outstanding administrative abilities while serving in Potiphar’s household, and heard similar comments from the royal warden about Joseph’s duties in the prison. Pharaoh would have placed great trust in those officials’ reports.

The narrative absolutely demonstrates the familiarity of the author with Egyptian culture. The symbols of authority with which Pharaoh invests Joseph are examples of this familiarity. Pharaoh gives Joseph his signet ring, a golden collar (not a chain; the Hebrew root implies a plaited object), and fine linen garments as symbols of Joseph’s new position. The authority that Joseph is given is to be virtually absolute:

“You shall be in charge of my court, and by your command shall all my people be directed; only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you.” Pharaoh further said to Joseph, “See, I put you in charge of all the land of Egypt.... I am Pharaoh; yet without you, no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.” (41:40, 41, 44)

The king’s ring symbolized the throne and its holder could issue edicts in the king’s name. Pharaoh wasn’t kidding—he really did give Joseph absolute authority. The collar, as Robert Alter observes,1 is illustrated in Egyptian bas-reliefs which show wearers of plaited ornamental collars that covered the neck, shoulders, and upper chest, apparel which was clearly ceremonial in nature. Joseph was also provided with the viceroy’s chariot for transportation and runners called “abrekh” as Joseph traveled about. This word isn’t Hebrew; it’s decidedly Egyptian2 and scholars have long debated its meaning (possibly: “alert, make way” or “do homage”). Finally Joseph is joined in marriage to the Egyptian ruling class—but father-in-law Potiphera is certainly not the same person who had been Joseph’s master, since he’s a priest of On.

So Joseph rises from a prisoner-slave to the kingdom’s second highest post. Walt Disney couldn’t have written this story any better. The Bible’s authors liked it so much they kept using variants—Daniel, Esther, Saul—even Jacob and Jephthah too. After Joseph becomes, in effect, the shaper of Egypt’s economy, we subsequently learn that among other accomplishments, he nationalizes Egyptian farmlands by taking land in payment for food when the famine becomes severe. Is this the first literary example of the creation of a socialist economy? By the end of the parashah Joseph has become a powerful member of Egypt’s political structure.

With little apparent effort (as the Bible describes, anyway), Joseph became one of the most powerful and important biblical figures, a ruler of a major country in all but name. But unlike virtually all other powerful biblical figures (David comes immediately to mind), he achieves this status without a single negative or critical comment about his behavior. But we can think of one major shortcoming of Joseph’s character—even after he became the second most powerful person in Egypt, he never let his beloved father know he was alive and well.

So why didn’t Joseph phone home? Considering his very close relationship with his father, you’d expect that Joseph would have made an attempt to contact Jacob. His first chance comes after he’s appointed Potiphar’s head servant. But surely after Pharaoh appoints him Egypt’s viceroy, he should have had no problem phoning home. But he never does.

This puzzles Ramban (Nachmanides) as well as other commentators. Ramban supposes that Joseph’s actions were driven by his desire to ensure the fulfillment of his youthful dreams (recall last week’s sidra). According to Ramban, Joseph understood that, in order for his dreams to come to reality, he mustn’t contact his family. Abravanel agrees that Joseph’s motive was connected in part to his childhood dreams. But he adds that Joseph’s strategy was really an attempt to bring his brothers to teshuvah, repentance. Despite this interpretation by Abravanel, which explains Joseph’s behavior after his brothers came for food, it doesn’t explain why he didn’t contact his father before they came to Egypt!

Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun (Yeshivat Ha-kibbutz Ha-dati, Israel) presents a fascinating solution, 3 based on an analysis of Joseph’s perception of bechira, free will. R. Bin-Nun begins by rejecting Ramban’s basic claim that Joseph is looking for his “dreams to come true.” Given Joseph’s righteousness, he argues that it is unthinkable that he would cause such suffering to his father simply to fulfill a dream. R. Bin-Nun maintains that the p’shat (the plain sense) of the Hebrew shows that Joseph recalled his dreams only after the brothers came and bowed before him—so after the passage of some twenty years, he had apparently forgotten about his dreams.

As to why Joseph didn’t contact his father, R. Bin-Nun suggests that Joseph had no idea that his father believed he was dead. Rather, Joseph assumed that Jacob would have found out about his brothers selling him to the passing caravan. Not knowing of the ruse with bloodying his special robe, he thought that Jacob certainly would have demanded that the brothers follow the traders to Egypt to rescue him. However, after months passed and no rescue materialized, his hopes of being freed would be replaced by feelings of rejection. So he eventually concluded that he was no longer wanted by his family, and this is strongly reflected in the name he gives his firstborn, M’nasheh, the root means “to forget” (to forget ... all my father’s house, Gen. 41:51).

This changed when he saw his brothers once again and sensed their remorse over their plot to get rid of him. And that’s when Joseph realized that his dreams did really come true. Kind of like what happened to Daniel and Mordecai. As Disney says, they all lived happily ever after, right?

Shabbat shalom v’chanukat same’ach.


December 2015

Notes

1. Alter, Robert, Genesis: Translation and Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1996, p. 240.
2. Alter, op. cit.
3. Based on discussion retrieved from Yeshivat Har Etzion, Dec. 2015





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