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.

This Too Shall Pass – Parshat Miketz 5778

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There is a wonderful story about a king who dreamed about possessing the most precious ring in the world. He sent his advisors out to find something that could live up to this vision. When they finally returned with the one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry, the king opened the box to find a simple, plain-looking ring. Inscribed on it were three Hebrew words: “Gam zeh ya’avor.” This too shall pass. While he didn’t appreciate the simplicity at first, over time the king started to realize the true magical powers of the ring. When he was exceptionally sad, he would look at it and be reminded that dawn always follows the darkness of night. When he was giddy and enjoying his days, he would look at it and be sobered, managing his expectations and knowing how quickly things could change. This ring became his most prized possession.

As a parent of small children, parents of older children are always reminding me that everything is simply a phase. We hear all the time, “This too shall pass.” And while it brings little comfort in the midst of a tantrum, it is still very true. With all of life’s challenges, it can be important to remember “this too shall pass.” It may not seem like it in the moment when you’re down on your luck or in a “phase,” but it is the truth.

This week we read Parshat Miketz, the turning point in the Joseph saga. Joseph solves Pharaoh’s dreams and becomes a great leader in Egypt. He then marries a woman, he has 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. All the while, Joseph’s brothers still have no idea who he is.

The story of this particular famine is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible. The Israelites and the Egyptians were confronted with one man’s dream that predicted a terribly difficult period ahead of them. The key to their survival was the knowledge that “this too shall pass.” The seven years of plenty could have been squandered, but they knew that those years were to be followed by seven years of famine, so instead the people saved.

We don’t have a way of knowing what is to come, but perhaps, like the king in search of something precious, we can remind ourselves that nothing lasts forever. Things do change, although that’s sometimes hard to see in the moment.

 

Fine, Thanks – Parshat Miketz 5777

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There’s a certain expectation that comes with asking someone how they are. You expect to receive a simple “good” or “fine” or maybe even “could be worse.” So it catches you off guard when instead you receive an entire life story of what ails them in that moment, including why it ails them, how they got there, and what they wish would happen. Suddenly you realize you’re still standing there fifteen minutes later, and you’re second-guessing asking the question in the first place.

Or perhaps you’ve been on the other end of this conversation. You desperately have something you need to share, but you’re afraid to share it because the other person seems uninterested. And perhaps instead of the long diatribe, you answer “I’m fine” and move on, sad and frustrated the other party wasn’t as receptive as you had hoped.

The ways we care for one another represent the roles in which we see ourselves in our communities, and caring for one another is a central theme in this week’s parshah, Miketz. In the parshah, Joseph solves Pharaoh’s dreams and becomes a great leader in Egypt. He then marries, has two sons named Ephraim and Menashe, and sees the land endure the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. During the famine Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt in search of food; 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. Even up to this point, Joseph’s brothers still have no idea who he is.

When Joseph is first reunited with his brothers, he asks them, “How is your aged father of whom you spoke? Is he still in good health?” It’s an interesting twist on the casual “How are you/I’m fine” exchange. To the brothers, Joseph is just a high elected official, who for some reason seems to actually care about them and their family. But in reality we know that Joseph is also Jacob’s son and of course has a vested interest in the health of his own father. In a sense, Joseph’s question is the beginning of what has become the Jewish cultural norm of asking about a person’s wellbeing. In fact, it is often suggested that this act of inquiry led to the modern practice of bikur cholim, visiting the sick.

Of course beyond this significance, the question Joseph asks is also one of basic human compassion. It’s just that many religions, including Judaism, obligate members of a community to make an outward, public showing of care and concern. We recite the Misheberach, the prayer for healing, publicly on Shabbat and Torah-reading days partially to ask for God’s aid in healing, but also so that the congregation is aware of who is ill and who needs our support.

Parshat Miketz reminds us that beyond the initial asking of the question “How are you?” we have an obligation to be interested and engaged in the answer, to be aware of whom in our community really needs our help. Then, just as Joseph did, we act.

Brother Against Brother – Parshat Miketz 5776

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This week we commemorated the Japanese military strike on Pearl Harbor, which led to the United States’ entry into World War II. Among the many tragic events following that attack was the internment of people of Japanese ancestry living in the United States, the majority of whom were American citizens. Sadder still is that fact that it wasn’t until 1992, more than 50 years after Pearl Harbor, that the Civil Liberties Act Amendments finally ensured all remaining internees received redress payments, a process that was put into motion in 1988.

Asking for and granting forgiveness can be a long, difficult road, especially in the extreme instance of nations at war. But that certainly doesn’t explain away this type of treatment of fellow citizens who are our brothers and sisters. This week’s Torah portion, parshat Miketz, speaks to the idea of familial forgiveness in a more literal sense. It’s a lesson in perseverance and understanding between brothers.  

We pick up in part two of the life and trying times of Joseph. Our hero has had a few setbacks, among them being sold into slavery by his brothers and thrown into jail. However, Joseph gets his big break when Pharaoh has a startling occurrence of dreams. When none of Pharaoh’s resident magicians are able to interpret his visions, Pharaoh calls on Joseph, and with God’s help, Joseph translates the dreams as a sign of an approaching period of fertility followed by a period of famine. Joseph presents Pharaoh with a game plan and becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man in preparation for these times that will certainly be difficult not only for Egypt, but also neighboring lands.

With a little project management, Joseph stores the extra food during the fertile years and saves Egypt from starvation during the seven years of famine. Joseph’s brothers are sent by Jacob to Egypt to buy food for the family, and the stage is set for a surprise confrontation between the brothers and Joseph, who has become one of the most powerful men in all of Egypt.

Joseph has a choice to make. He can seek vengeance and throw his brothers into jail (or a dark pit) to rot, or he can forgive and accept them back with open arms. Though we know he chooses the path of forgiveness, he does so in a way that tests their feelings towards their father and their youngest brother Benjamin in order to see if they’ve repented yet for selling him into slavery.

The reunion has a happy ending, but not just because of forgiveness. The greater lesson here is one of perseverance.  Joseph could have easily given up hope when his brothers left him to die or while he was in jail when others were set free. Instead, he pressed on and let the fire burning inside him carry him from the darkness rather than consume him.  

Crimes committed out of fear against our brothers and sisters, whether in an immediate family or in the more global sense, are a byproduct of ignorance of the worst kind. It was this type of crippling ignorance that forced over 100,000 people into internment camps in the early 1940s. Now imagine if we saw our brothers the way Joseph saw his. Even for Joseph, free and full forgiveness was difficult to achieve, but it came as a result of understanding and ending the ignorance that existed between them. May we learn from Joseph that acceptance is possible, and may we have the perseverance to get there.