Torah from Around the World #94
Parashat Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)
While I was preparing for my formal installation as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism at the URJ biennial last week, I draw great inspiration from the teachings of this week's Torah portion – Miketz.
When I study or teach Torah, the truly important question I ask is: Where are we in the text? What does this story teach us that can help us to become better representatives of the Divine Image in which the Almighty created us?
Miketz, the second of four weekly portions which tell the epic story of Joseph and his brothers, chronicles two of the most amazing turnarounds in all literature.
The rise of Joseph from imprisoned slave to second in command to Pharaoh in Egypt is the more familiar of the two. One minute Joseph was in jail for a crime he did not commit. The next instant he was shaved, given fresh clothes and whisked into the presence of Pharaoh to interpret the monarch's dreams. But Joseph did more than interpret. He seized the opportunity before him and offered Pharaoh advice as to how he should handle the economic crisis that loomed in Egypt's future! What chutzpah! What courage! Almost in an instant Joseph became Pharaoh's chief economic adviser and began to ride in Egyptian Chariot Number Two!
What a meteoric rise from the lowest depths to the highest heights, but where are we in the text? Hopefully, like Joseph, we see and seize the special opportunities that present themselves to use our talents to make life better for others in some way.
The second turnaround is less overtly dramatic but it is every bit as remarkable as the rise of Joseph from slave boy to court Jew. It concerns Joseph's older half brother Judah. To understand the lesson that begins in this week's portion and reaches its climax next week is to understand why we carry his name and called ourselves Jews as opposed to Naphtaleans or Danites or the name of some other tribal head.
Judah, you will remember, is the brother responsible for selling Joseph away as a slave and bringing immeasurable grief upon his father. The Judah we meet in this week's sedrah is very different from the person who years earlier convinced his brother's to sell Joseph as a slave, bloody his special coat and bring it to their father so that Jacob would think that a wild beast had torn him apart. Like his father Jacob before him Judah has grown through the negative experiences of his life.
In fact in Genesis, chapter 38, the Torah interrupts the flow of the Joseph story to illustrate one of Judah's formative lessons. His daughter in law Tamar, one of the Bible's most underrated heroes, taught him about integrity and dramatically impressed upon him the impact of his actions upon others. This incident is just one of many biblical examples (email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if interested and I'll send you more) of a woman playing an indispensable role in a man's world rise to eventual covenantal greatness. To his credit, Judah has learned his lesson well.
In our portion, famine grips the land like a vise. The food from the brothers' first buying trip to the grain centers of Egypt is exhausted. The vizier of the land, whom the brothers did not know was their brother Joseph, made it crystal clear that only if their youngest brother Benjamin is with them could they buy more food. It is Judah, alone among his brothers, who realizes that there is no choice. Despite Jacob's reluctance to send him, Benjamin must go down to Egypt. Judah, once the instigator of a heinous crime, now becomes the responsible son determined to save his family from famine. He calmly but clearly forces Jacob to face the gravity of their situation, pledges personal responsibility for Benjamin to his father and exclaims: "If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, I shall stand guilty before you forever." (Genesis 43:9)
In next week's portion we see that Judah is as good as his word! He is willing to remain a slave in Egypt so that Benjamin can return to his father!
So, where are we in the text of Parashat Miketz? Hopefully, we shall aspire to stand in the shoes of Joseph and Judah! Hopefully we shall courageously seize the opportunities before us to make a positive difference! Hopefully, too, we shall learn through our misdeeds to become more just, caring and compassionate partners with the Eternal One in the creation of a better world!