Resources in Reserve – Parshat Miketz 5781

I am generally over prepared. I can’t help myself. I always have a full backup battery for my phone, shoes in my car for any change in weather, replacement lovies for my kiddos, and a variety of snacks in my office should anyone need them (not that there’s anyone in my office these days). When I travel I overpack because I just want to have something for every possible occasion, and when I’m hosting a meal, I always try to have backup options should something go wrong.

There are things you can store up besides emergency supplies and other tangible goods. For example, there is real science behind storing up faith and gratitude. Mental health experts suggest creating a daily gratitude journal, the idea being that if you write down a few things you’re grateful for each day, you’ll be able to look back on it when things aren’t so great and be reminded of all the good that’s come your way.

Parshat Miketz, which we read this week, reminds us of the importance of literally planning ahead and in doing so, restoring our faith. Joseph solves Pharaoh’s dreams and becomes a great leader in Egypt. He then marries and 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 Benjamin to be brought to him. 

The dreams that Pharaoh shares are dreams which illustrate the concern of not having enough in your stores to provide in a time of need. But there’s more to it than grain silos. The 19th century Torah scholar the Sfat Emet (the name of his monumental commentary, which also refers to the rabbi himself) asks, “What can be learned from this parshah to prepare ourselves in good days, days in which holiness is revealed, to set the light in our hearts, to be there in times when holiness seems far off?” He answers: “We must store up resources of faith, even as the Egyptians stored grain, to nourish us spiritually when events turn against us.”

Parshat Miketz is read around Hanukkah, a time in the year when we have less light and more darkness. And what could be a more appropriate lesson during a pandemic than the lesson of storing up gratitude? Savor the recent memory of the Hanukkah candles. Store your moments of light, of gratitude, because you never know when you’ll need to tap into them.

Forgive But Not Forget – Parshat Miketz 5780

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There are certain memories that I not only hold on to, but ones I sometimes feel hold me back. The broken heart after the end of my first true love left me afraid to trust and love again for some time. The feeling of failure when I didn’t get into a school I had my heart set on held me back from going for my dreams for several years after. One of the hardest lessons to learn is how to let go, and it’s something I’m still working on. Part of it might be my hyperactive memory, but I tend to hold on to grudges and remember not just what someone did but also how they made me feel. Sometimes those residual feelings we remember hold us back from healing, which makes it that much more difficult to move forward.

We see memory play a large role in the lives of our biblical leaders. So much of how they react in specific situations hinges upon what has happened to them in the past and how they have held on or let go of that experience. 

Our parshah this week, Miketz, brings us back into the story of Joseph. 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 set 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. 

In the midst of his time in Egypt, Joseph gets married, and he has two children, Efraim and Manasseh. The descriptions of their names comes in chapter 41, verses 50-52: “Before the years of famine came, Joseph became the father of two sons, whom Asenath, daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, bore to him. Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, ‘God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.’ And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, ‘God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.’”

The name of his first son, Manasseh, might seem strange, considering that he clearly did not forget the hardship of his parental home, which we see when he meets his brothers again in the next parshah. Instead, perhaps he is saying that while he remembers, the memory no longer oppresses him. In other words, Joseph has taken the lesson of his family hardship and learned from it so that he could move forward. He hasn’t forgotten the events, but he has put aside enough of the feeling of those events to move on.

Joseph reminds us that even when we live through the unimaginable, we have the ability to grow from it. On the other hand, when we let our memories oppress us, we’re letting the perpetrators win. Instead, sometimes we have to find the will to free ourselves from the part of the memory that’s holding us back and the wisdom to be aware of it in the first place. 

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.