In this portion the Joseph story continues. Because of his ability to interpret dreams he becomes a vizier to the Pharoah. His prediction of plenty followed by famine not only wins him a seat of power, but also saves Egypt. From this we learn, like in last week’s parasha, that Joseph is a character from whom we learn to make our own luck. He becomes a success in spite of the odds. We also learn that it is important to plan ahead. In a world in which people tend to live far beyond their means, it is worthwhile to consider the lesson of prudence here. The saving of grain in the story leads to the saving of people.
In this portion, Joseph’s brothers (not having the benefit of foresight) are suffering in the famine and go to Egypt to ask for help. Joseph recognizes the brothers but they do not recognize him. This is connected with Joseph’s ability to “see” the big or complete picture. The brothers have a hard time seeing or recognizing what is going on, but Joseph is attentive and benefits from that attentiveness. Joseph sets up a test for his brothers. He tells them to return with their youngest brother Benjamin. Benjamin, replacing Joseph as Jacob’s favourite son – for he is the last remaining son of Rachel as far as Jacob knows – did not accompany his brothers the first time. Though Jacob is reticent to let him go for the second journey, he realizes they all may starve and thus he consents. On their return, Joseph makes it seem like Benjamin stole a special cup. He is testing the other brothers to see if they have learned their lesson. Will they stay faithful to Jacob and defend his favourite son, or will the old feelings of jealousy prevent them from doing justice? We find out the answer next week.
What is clear from these tests is that Joseph is willing to forgive his brothers. He has the power to turn them away or even put them to death in retaliation for their ill treatment of him. But rather he creates conditions by which they can prove themselves worthy of his forgiveness. This suggests that forgiveness is a positive value, but that in order to forgive someone they must show that they have learned something or would act differently. Forgiveness is a hot topic in contemporary society. We are told from life coaches, therapists, and self-help books that when we forgive someone we are doing ourselves a favour; holding a grudge is as bad for the grudge-holder as it is the one who committed the original offense. That is true, except I’d like to add a caveat that the Joseph story illustrates nicely. We are told to forgive. We are also told “fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” It is exhausting to put pressure on ourselves to forgive those who continue to hurt us. It is good for us to find a way to let go of that hurt
to be sure, but forgiveness itself needs to be earned. In the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we ask others to forgive us. We also – and this is crucial – consider how we have acted and how we may improve. Forgiveness is only really possible if we are willing to take responsibility for our behaviour and try to be better. Forgiveness goes hand in hand with change and growth. Joseph sets up this test because he wants to forgive his brothers, but he also wants to ensure that they are worthy of that forgiveness; that they have learned their lesson and are better for it.
Miketz is one of those Torah portions which makes us realize how literary the bible can be. The plot includes twists, suspense, and humour. The characters are knowable and relatable. We want justice to win out in the end. We are engaged readers. The literary aspects of the Torah, and how one can read the bible as literature, are much-discussed issues in the fields of biblical criticism and literary studies. It is useful to sometimes stop and take note of the well-crafted writing of some of our earliest authors and appreciate the story for the story itself.
Because the test that Joseph sets up for his brothers is the stuff of great literature, we tend to overlook what is going on with Jacob. Consider the story from his point of view. He has lost his favourite son and now is threatened with the loss of another. While showing favouritism for a child is never a good parenting strategy, we can have some sympathy for Jacob in the choice he has to make. He either lets Benjamin go or he risks starvation. There is a midrash that speaks of “Jacob’s Dilemma” which says “You may learn from the story of Jacob that it is a man’s worst trial to have his children ask him for food when he has nothing to give.” The famine is a plot device that gets the brothers to Egypt, but is important to consider in itself as well. Hunger is devastating and there is still far too much of it. Jacob reminds us of our responsibility to feed the hungry. The midrash about Jacob works nicely in conjunction with something Rashi noted about this portion. He makes the link between the word for corn/food in the Joseph story (shever) with the word for hope (sever). Indeed, it is difficult to ascend in power and position (the way Joseph does) when hungry. It is difficult to have hope without bread. Joseph offers his brothers food and thus sparks the hope that they may reconcile. Let all of us work for a world in which both bread and hope are in abundance for all.