Self-Erasure: Parashat Miqetz 2019

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Parashat Miqetz/Hanukah (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

Joseph is raised from the dungeon to face Pharaoh in Pharaoh’s time of need. This scene, as with the entire Joseph novella, is subtly and richly packed with psychological and interpersonal elements that are sometimes ignored as we are swept along by the main plot lines of the story. But a close reading of the exchanges between the exalted ruler and the lowly “Hebrew lad, a slave” (Gen. 41:12) can help us appreciate this drama even more.

Pharaoh greets the young man, newly spiffed up for his appearance before the ruler, by warily complimenting Joseph: “I have dreamed a dream and no one can interpret it. And I have heard about you that they say you can listen to a dream so as to be able to interpret it.” (v. 15). Pharaoh seems unsure about the wisdom of placing this urgent task in the hands of this stranger. Is he really as talented or uncannily possessed as people say? But Joseph’s response is a quick denial: “It has nothing to do with me. The Almighty will respond about Pharaoh’s wellbeing.” (v. 16)

This re-introduces a motif that has already been floated in our story – the role of God in bringing about its events. Joseph has already shown that he places his firm faith in God, even at his own expense. And he has already explained (to the Chief Butler) that his skill at interpreting dreams is not his, but comes from God. Now he repeats this credo to Pharaoh. This might look like a risky move. By denying any special qualities of his own, wasn’t Joseph undermining his chances of being appreciated and liberated from prison?

But Pharaoh is taken with the lad and immediately retells his dreams. While the Torah could have avoided redundancy by simply writing what I just wrote, instead the Torah takes pains to have Pharaoh go over each detail of both dreams. We should not be bored by this repetition. Rather, we should listen (as Joseph is listening) to a monarch who desperately needs to solve a personal mystery. (See Sparks for 2015.) If there is any chance that this Joseph will be able to explain the dream he must hear every piece of it. But then Pharaoh concludes with an anguished cry: “And I  spoke to the advisors and there is no one to tell me!” (v. 24) Pharaoh is dumbfounded, not only by the contents of his dream, but by the unheard of situation in which his advisors have failed him. Nothing they have offered is telling to Pharaoh.

Joseph’s response is again swift and again points to God. Pharaoh had said that no one was telling him anything. Joseph corrects Pharaoh and says, “God is telling you what God is about to do!” (v. 25) Joseph thus deflects the interpretation of the dream away from himself, but also away from any other human being. Pharaoh has indeed been spoken to all along – by none other than God. This takes Joseph’s perspective about God’s involvement one step further than before. God is not supporting an interpretive effort. Rather, God is speaking directly to the dreamer, Pharaoh.

And we may again wonder about the effect of Joseph’s response regarding his own future. By placing God and Pharaoh in direct communication, as it were, Joseph has effaced himself once more. Joseph does not claim to be God’s mouthpiece. Nor does he claim to understand God’s purpose better than others. He makes himself a pure medium through which he wants Pharaoh to personally hear God’s voice.

But then, out this self-erasure, Joseph jumps back to take the spotlight as he advises Pharaoh of a way to defeat the future forecast by the dreams. The statement is humble and audacious at the same time. Without bringing God into the picture, he speaks purely as a practical man giving wise counsel to solve a problem. But Pharaoh’s view is not quite Joseph’s. Pharaoh refuses to let Joseph deny that he is God’s instrument. To his courtiers the ruler proclaims that it is obvious that “the spirit of the Almighty (ru`ah elohim) is in him.” (v. 38)

Or is it perhaps Joseph’s spirit of audacity that Pharaoh terms “a mighty spirit – ru`ah elohim? (The word “elohim” can mean either “the Almighty” or it can simply mean “mighty.”) But then he turns to Joseph and praises him: “the Almighty has told you all of this,” (v. 39) which seems to include Joseph’s personally offered advice along with the dream interpretation. Joseph’s attempts to disappear behind God are thwarted by Joseph’s own irrepressible spirit. But his personal contribution is now dissolved into God’s. Yet, it is precisely because Pharaoh is convinced of God’s favoring of Joseph (as had been the case with Jacob, Potiphar and the Chief Jailor) that Joseph is saved and even elevated. The boundaries between human and Divine thought and action shift and blur. We know now how Pharaoh sees Joseph. How does Joseph see himself?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukah
Rabbi David Greenstein

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image collage by John Lasiter. Sources: Drought in Texas, USDA, Bob Nichols, US government image in the public domain; untitled by mateusmiliano10 used via Pixabay license.

Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein.

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Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein arrived at Shomrei Emunah in August 2009 with a rich, broad and deep background as a rabbi, cantor, artist, scholar, and teacher. Being Shomrei’s rabbi, he says, allows him to draw on all of these passions, as well as his lifelong commitment to building Jewish communities.
Rabbi David Greenstein

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One thought on “Self-Erasure: Parashat Miqetz 2019

  1. As usual, Rabbi Greenstein introduces a new element into the re working of this famous parashat and that is the character of Joseph and his strong moral commitment to a moral God. I have always been so disturbed by the behavior of his murderous brothers and what they initially do to Joseph. I mean, really, this is a young idealist man in an age when there seems to be a great deal of immorality. In his youth, the intensity of his gifts come forth in ways that cause the older brothers to get jealous and what do they do? They plot to kill him rather than gather the wisdom to understand Joseph and the special gifts he has. This particular interpretation of his character as seen through the Rabbi is so positive and uplifting- something I certainly need in this time of despair in the world
    Thank u Rabbi!
    Noa Freudberg

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