Parashat Miqetz/Hanukah/Rosh Hodesh
Genesis 41:1 – 44:17
What makes a person speak up instead of keeping silent? What makes a person remember after years of forgetting? What makes a person keep a promise when it is so easy to betray it?
The Chief Butler in Pharaoh’s court has been silent and forgetful. It has been two years since he was restored to his position of authority and since he made a promise to use his restored position to benefit the forlorn Joseph, stuck in a dungeon. It has been two long years for Joseph, waiting to be remembered, while, for the Butler, time has just breezed by as he has gone about his duties to the monarch and the court.
But, when Pharaoh has a dream that he cannot understand, this somehow changes the Butler’s consciousness and brings him to remember Joseph and speak up on his behalf. What was it that changed the Butler’s mind and soul?
All we have from the story is this: He was present when “it was in the morning, and his [- Pharaoh’s] spirit was pounding, and he sent for all the magicians of Egypt and all her sages; and Pharaoh told them his dream, but there was none to explain them to Pharaoh.” (Gen. 41:8) Why was the Butler present? Was he one of the wise men or magicians? Probably not. He was there because he was always at Pharaoh’s service, bringing in the appropriate drinks, as needed.
He had been privy to the meetings between Pharaoh and his counselors many times. They spoke of weighty matters and made decisions that affected many people. He was but a fly on the wall. In fact, he had developed the ability to hear only what he needed to hear and see only what he needed to see in order to discharge his duties correctly. Oh no! He was not going to get himself in trouble with Pharaoh again! And, indeed, this ability to function automatically served him well in his ongoing amnesia about that inconvenient promise he had made 2 years ago.
But this time he saw and heard something different. He saw and heard a monarch, endowed by the gods with absolute power, shaken, trembling and powerless. All of a sudden the Butler saw that servant and master were not so different after all.
The urgent need that Pharaoh felt – for explanation, for a sense of what the uncertain future had in store, for security, for support – was a need that the Butler acutely knew only too well. He knew that need only two years before, before he forgot about it, hoping that the restoration of his fortunes would shield him from ever having to know that feeling again. But here was Pharaoh himself, who could not shield himself from that sense of uncertainty and panic. No. And Pharaoh, no matter how high and mighty he was, could not quiet that need that was pounding at his spirit. And, despite all Pharaoh’s resources, there was no one who was able to satisfy his questioning, his thirst for an explanation. The glorious ruler was reduced to an abject and lonely beggar, pleading for help.
The Butler, despite his own well-developed defenses, could not help but see himself reflected back at himself in the form of this disheveled king, whose regal palace was of no avail. And he saw how he, in his despair, in his dungeon, was once aided and his questioning answered. And by whom? By a “young lad, a Hebrew, a slave.” (v. 12) Some readers have suggested that the Butler is here using disparaging terms to try to belittle the young man who helped him, Joseph. But perhaps that is not quite what these terms are about. Just as the Butler has discerned that even the mighty may know fear and impotence, so has he learned that the powerless and degraded – a youth, a Hebrew, a slave! – may have the power to know how to listen and how to share wisdom – how to answer the need of another. Even the mighty can need help. And even a slave ( – and, to be honest, wasn’t that what the Butler knew he was, really?) can offer help.
The Butler learns that there is a basic human unity and solidarity among us all, high and low, fortunate or deprived, of whatever group and station in society and life. In that epiphany of oneness he sees Pharaoh as a human being for the first time. He, the lowly servant, can speak to Pharaoh as another person who has known anxiety and frustration. Look! He can actually be of real service to this suffering individual! And so he finally remembers Joseph.
Shabbat Shalom, Hag Urim Same`ah, v’Hodesh Tov
Rabbi David Greenstein
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