What Joseph got wrong

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By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

This week’s Torah portion is Miketz, Genesis 41:1 – 44:17.


One of the most fascinating aspects of the portions we are reading is the extent to which our towering personalities are driven, even obsessed, by their dreams. To what extent is it the dream, and not the individual’s merits and actions, which determines the recipient of the familial leadership legacy?

When Joseph saw his brothers bowing before him in order to purchase grain (Genesis 42:6), he believed that his first dream of economic and political power had been realized. But what he really desired was the spiritual leadership, the essence of the “firstbornship,” the universal assemblage of all the nations under the sovereignty of God, with him — Joseph — being the earthly representative.

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He unfortunately never dreamed of Israel as the place from which God’s sovereignty would emerge; he was really intoxicated with Egypt.

Hence, when “Joseph remembered his dreams” and prepared for their realization, he said to his brothers, “You are spies,” and insisted that they return with his beloved full brother, Benjamin. He wrongly calculated that the old father would not send Benjamin alone, but would opt to accompany him. Then Jacob, too, would bow down to the “Grand Vizier” and the second dream would be realized — in Egypt.


Alas, Jacob does not go down to Egypt at this point, and Joseph never achieves spiritual mastery in Israel. Now Joseph certainly does come a long way in religious development when he understands that it is God, and not him or any other human being, who rules the world.

You will remember that when Joseph stands before Pharaoh to interpret his dream, he insists that it is not his wisdom, but God, who will interpret the dreams for the well-being of Pharaoh. He also comes to recognize the importance of the Land of Israel when, with his very last breath, he asks to be buried there.

Nevertheless, Joseph invested most of his most productive years on behalf of Egypt and the Egyptians, rather than on behalf of Israel and the Israelites. And he also enslaved the Egyptians to Pharaoh for economic reasons, which was hardly the legacy of Abraham’s “compassionate righteousness.” And so, despite his positive growth and spiritual development, he is not to receive the spiritual birthright of Israel, only the physical blessing of the Ten Tribes. It is Judah who will receive the ultimate gift of the “ingathering of the nations” in reverence to God and the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Ultimately, it seems that worthiness and not dreaminess is the deciding factor for the future Jewish leadership.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder, chancellor emeritus and rosh ha-yeshivah of Ohr Torah Stone in Efrat.

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