By Rabbi Arnold Saltzman
This week’s Torah portion is Miketz, Genesis 41:1-44:17.
This sidra includes the interpretation of Pharaoh’s “dreams and duties” by Joseph, followed by Joseph being elevated in status by Pharaoh, once again becoming a “favorite” son. The sequence in this parsha includes the narration of events from famine devastating the land to Joseph’s encounter with his brothers when they do not recognize him, although Joseph recognizes them.
We read in Genesis 42:8: “And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.” They did not view him as brother, which enabled them to commit a crime against him, yet “he saw them” as his brothers. A brother, Simeon, is taken prisoner in what will become a dramatic test. It is ironic that these brothers who turned on Joseph, now are determined to be responsible for each other. They recognize the burden of their previous actions by expressing remorse (Genesis 42:21), saying “We are guilty” of abandoning and selling Joseph.
Genesis 43:16 initiates a tension-filled puzzle. Joseph saw Benjamin with them, and he commands his steward to bring them into the house to dine at noon. According to Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, this was meant as a test to see if they were envious of Benjamin when he receives a special portion at the dining table.
The brothers enter, but have a sense of foreboding expressed in Genesis 43:18 in the verb l’hitgolel, “to lord over,” according to Onkelos who translated the Torah into Aramaic.
Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known by as Ramban and Nachmanides, explains that gal, meaning “wave,” implies “to act like a wave,” rising above the others. This reflects the fear of the brothers that they would be imprisoned, as their donkeys had been taken away. It is understandable that they were worried rather than delighted. They must have found it discomforting that an Egyptian of such importance offered hospitality to them.
This is something that the patriarchs and matriarchs were known for, yet such graciousness by an Egyptian to non-Egyptians was strange to them.
The steward reassures them saying that they should not be afraid, and uses language familiar to them: Shalom lachem, al ti’ra’u,” meaning “All is well, do not be afraid.” Thus, the steward reassured them they were guests (according to Don Yitzhak Abarbanel). The steward, according to Radak, or Rabbi David Kimchi, adds, “I have received your payment, have no fear .”
The fulfillment of Joseph’s first dream occurs when Joseph arrives and his brothers bow to the ground before him. The reader can observe this, and Joseph knew it. This moment is a powerful realization of the dream and the God-given gift which Joseph used wisely, yet must have moved him in this extraordinary moment. Joseph nervously asks first if his their father is well, followed by inquiring if he is still alive.
The brothers bow again out of gratitude for his concern, according to Rashi. Seeing Benjamin, Joseph refers to him as “little brother” and then blesses him, the son of his own mother, Rachel. At this point he leaves the room and weeps. Joseph suffered the rejection of his brothers, and their jealousy nearly drove them to fratricide. Instead Joseph was thrown into a pit, and sold as a slave. In Egypt, he was falsely accused, imprisoned only to rise to the highest office, second only to Pharaoh.
Joseph demonstrates the qualities of a great leader and human being in his ability to forgive and to recognize that this was God’s doing. Joseph’s is a transformative story that mirrors the experience of the Jewish people.
On Chanukah, we should ask ourselves if we see our communities as our brothers and sisters.
Can we emphasize the harmony of our world for a moment rather than the dissonance (in religion and racial inequality)? Is there a way for man to come out of the “dungeon” and rise to the level of forgiveness, which Joseph exemplifies? Can we follow the example of our ancestors in the Torah in welcoming the stranger?
Questions for discussion:
1. Why does the Talmud teach that “one who does not examine their dreams, it is as if they have only lived half their life?”
2. Who are the dreamers among Joseph’s ancestors?
3. In what way does the story of Joseph parallel the history of the Jewish people?
Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is the rabbi of three Maryland congregations, a member of the Educational Director Council of the Jewish Federation and cantor emeritus of Adas Israel in Washington.