Fear and Oppression – Parshat Miketz 5779

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Why is it that some people in leadership positions feel they succeed only when others are held back? Whether it’s a boss, a politician, an athlete, or even a family member, we’ve all known someone who felt it was their job to push people down rather than lift them up. Why do people engage in smack talk or bullying in order to make their case or keep others quiet? Why are intimidation and fear of backlash used to keep victims of abuse and harassment silent? Thankfully the Me Too movement has shed at least some light on this pervasive issue. Of course it hasn’t wiped it out altogether, but the pushed around are starting to push back. Today we are seeing that it’s not only the powerful who have a voice, and it’s not only the ones with the loudest voices who hold the power.

The idea of the powerful remaining in control by holding back or oppressing the less powerful out of fear that they might be overthrown is not a new phenomenon, nor one that should surprise us. In Parshat Miketz, the reading we’ll have from the Torah this week, we see a similar fear, manifested in a couple of ways. But in the case of the Torah portion, the fear is channeled productively to everyone’s benefit.

To recap, Joseph solves Pharaoh’s dreams and becomes a great leader in Egypt. He then marries and has two sons named Ephraim and Menashe, and the land endures the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. During the famine Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt in search of food, and Joseph recognizes them, but they have no clue who he is. Joseph tests the brothers and asks for his younger brother to be brought to him. Then when no food remains in Jacob’s house in Israel, Benjamin is brought back down to Egypt and again Joseph interacts with his brothers.

At the outset, Joseph is interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. One dream features fat, prominent, powerful cows being devoured by weak, skinny, meek cows. Imagine being in Pharaoh’s position and dreaming that you, the tyrannical, powerful leader might be overthrown by a body of people you see as “less than.” But instead of using his fear as an excuse to oppress his subjects, Pharaoh uses Joseph’s subsequent interpretations to focus on the famine and formulate a plan to survive.

This seems remarkable for someone in Pharaoh’s position. Consider the potential threat of Joseph himself. Had Pharaoh let fear of an overthrow prevail, he might not have been open to Joseph’s help, possibly fearing Joseph would be the one to overthrow him. However, this Pharaoh was able to look past his fear and doubt to the knowledge to be gained. Instead of oppressing Joseph or holding him back, he welcomed his guidance, which would prove invaluable. The next Pharaoh could have learned a thing or two from his predecessor on how to treat those who are “other.”

Parshat Miketz reminds us that every leader, no matter how powerful or steadfast, has moments of doubt. It’s up to the leader to recognize those moments to learn and grow and continue their success.

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