Fine, Thanks – Parshat Miketz 5777


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


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.

The Name Game – Parshat Miketz 5775

name-badgesSouthern manners are a real thing.  Having lived the last four years in Texas, I heard and became accustomed to titles for everyone.  It was Mr. X or Ms. Y, Mrs. A or Dr. B.  We do our best to impart habits like this to Shiri and have taught her since she was tiny that everyone has a title and deserves to use that title.  But as a rabbi, I know that sometimes our titles can become our names, and a bit of individual identity is lost.  People often resort to calling me “Rabbi” instead of “Rabbi Posen” or “Rabbi Eve.”  While this works in theory, there are many times when I’m not the only rabbi around, and it can be difficult to determine who’s being beckoned.  “Rabbi” without a qualifier like first or last name is like calling out “Mom” or “Dad” in a crowded room; a dozen parents are likely to turn around.  Our titles and names are the way in which we can be easily identified.  They are the personalized method of keeping track of the people we meet and know.

The Torah takes names seriously as well.  Abraham was originally Avram, and Sarah was Sarai until they both had an encounter with God that changed their lives.  Like a bride and groom becoming Mr. and Mrs. or having the title rabbi or doctor bestowed upon you when you earn your degree and start a career, names tell us something about where we are in the world and who we are as people.

Parshat Miketz, the portion of Torah we read this week, again reminds us of the story behind each name we carry and the power it holds.  The parshah is the turning point in the Joseph saga.  Joseph solves Pharaoh’s dreams and becomes a great leader in Egypt.  He then marries, has two sons named Ephraim and Menashe, and the land endures the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine as foreseen.  We know how the story concludes, with Joseph’s brothers coming to Egypt in search of food, and Joseph recognizing them without them knowing who he is.  What we don’t talk about as much is the period of time as Joseph works his way up in Egyptian society to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man.

During this time Joseph is given a new name by Pharaoh.  In chapter 41 the following interaction occurs: “Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I am Pharaoh; yet without you, no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.’ Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him a wife…”  This new Egyptian name means “God speaks; he lives,” or “creator/sustainer of life.”  Clearly Pharaoh believes that Joseph, a Hebrew name, is not befitting of someone with such power and honor in society.

We’ve seen previous name changes in the Torah, but this is the first instance in Jewish tradition of someone having two names simultaneously – one Hebrew, for religious purposes, and the other secular, representing what Joseph does for the greater society.

We continue a similar tradition today; Jewish children typically receive a Hebrew name and an English name.  The idea is not that we’re two different people, in the same way that Rabbi Posen is not a separate person from Eve.  Rather, the two names represent different parts of who we are to ourselves and to the world.  I am a mother, wife, daughter, sister, and a rabbi, and all of these 24/7.

As we near the closing of the secular year, may we remember that our Jewish and secular lives are not exclusive of each other.  They are intimately woven together, and we rely on both to be full and complete.

Hunger Games – Parshat Miketz/Shabbat Hanukah 5773

When I first started working at Levine, I was warned of the Levine 10, the number of pounds that can easily be put on working in the school.  The phenomenon makes a lot of sense when you consider the temptations.  Our children bake nearly every day in the ECC, and the smells are amazing.  We have snacks or leftovers to graze on in the teachers’ lounge, and birthday parties always seem to end with a piece of cake on my desk.  I’m certainly not lacking for food.  The warning of the Levine 10 is especially applicable at this time of year when the delicious smell of frying latkes makes its way through the halls, and several different types of latkes end up on my desk every day.  Rest assured the rabbi will never go home hungry.
The excess of foods that we see at this time of year with the tempting jelly filled sufganiyot and the crispy latkes comes as we read parshat Miketz, a portion of the Torah all about the lack of food in Egypt.  The parshah begins with Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and continues with Joseph getting married, having children, living out the vision of Pharaoh’s dreams, his brothers coming to Egypt to get food, and the test Joseph administers to his brothers to see if they have changed. 
Pharaoh dreams, or perhaps has a nightmare, about food.  First, seven healthy cows are eaten by seven emaciated cows; then seven thin ears of grain eat up seven healthy ears of grain.  Joseph is called to interpret these visions and ultimately shares that the dreams represent seven years of good harvest and the abundance to come, followed by seven years of famine.  But, Joseph doesn’t stop there.  Joseph continues to instruct Pharaoh on how to store the food and abundance now so that there will be food later.  Joseph shares great vision in preparing for the worst, and ultimately saves the society in which he lives.
Too many people in our own community aren’t fortunate to have their own food reserves stored for when times are tough.  Even the best planners can face unforeseen circumstances that lead to hunger and starvation.  As we’ve partnered with MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger this year, we have been discussing ways in which we can help alleviate some of the hunger locally. 
Because we are aware of where resources are in abundance and where they are in short supply, we have an obligation to be like Joseph.  We can choose to share what we know about hunger in our world and help ensure that the years of plenty that many of us live in today continue for us and those around us.  Perhaps parshat Miketz teaches us that another miracle of Hanukah might be the moment when we not only identify a problem in our world, but take steps towards creating a sustainable solution.  
THIS TOO IS TORAH: One of the learning resources MAZON uses as a teaching tool is a set of eight myths and realities about hunger. As you celebrate each night of Hanukah, enjoying the sights, smells, and tastes, take a minute each night to examine one of these myths. Is it something you knew? Is it something you can help do something about?
Hunger exists because there is not enough food
Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world’s food supply. Enough wheat, rice, and other grains are produced globally to provide every human being with 3,500 calories a day – that’s 75% more calories per person than are recommended in the USDA’s Nutritional Guidelines. Hunger persists in this country not because of a lack of food, but an absence of political will to solve the problem.
It’s better for local charities to feed people, not the government.
Charitable organizations – including MAZON’s nationwide partners on the front lines –were not designed to feed their entire community. Instead, these food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens were created to solve what were thought to be temporary or emergency situations, not systemic problems. Most are open only a few days a week, and for a few hours of each day. They are largely volunteer run, often out of basements or closets at their local houses of worship, and they primarily distribute food that has been donated from within their communities. They simply could never have the capacity to feed the number of people who need help.
Government programs enable lazy people to live well on society’s dime.
Receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) hardly enables anyone to live well. The average benefit equates to roughly $1.40 per person per meal. And in most cases, the money runs out before the month ends – typically after only three weeks – forcing families to rely on charity to eat. Government programs like SNAP are designed to ensure that people receive the sustenance they need so they can contribute back to society and get off these programs. How productive could we expect anyone to be if they haven’t eaten for days or weeks or longer?
Hunger is only a big city problem
When many people think about where people might be going hungry, they often envision a city where the disparity between those who have and those who don’t is blatantly evident. Certainly food insecurity exists in those cities, but every day, we at MAZON hear about the growing number of challenges that afflict suburban, rural, and remote areas of the country. And alleviating hunger in these areas can be much harder to do than in the cities, because those communities often have fewer opportunities to obtain needed resources and lack a sufficient transportation infrastructure to support food distribution.
You can’t be overweight and be food insecure.
Many people believe that hungry people always look thin and emaciated. However, a growing body of research shows a startling correlation between obesity and hunger. The simple fact is this: people living in poverty cannot afford enough food, and often, what little food they can afford is unhealthy and processed, with low nutritional value. They also tend to have far more limited access to healthy and affordable foods in their communities, and reduced opportunities for physical activity. It is the convergence of all these factors that has exacerbated the obesity epidemic among those who are, in fact, hungry.
People on SNAP just need to get a job
As the nation’s unemployment rate hovers at 9%, SNAP provides a vital lifeline so that people and their families can eat while they search for work. In fact, this important and effective program is designed to expand and contract in relation to unemployment – in other words, for caseloads to rise as unemployment rises and fall as the economy recovers. 40% of households receiving SNAP benefits have at least one working person.
SNAP is rife with waste, fraud and abuse
SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program. States must conduct regular “quality control” reviews of SNAP case files to ensure that benefits are accurately distributed. And ongoing improvements to regulate the program have kept fraud and abuse to a historic low of less than 2%. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients follow the rules because they desperately need help ensuring their family has food to eat.
 “Hunger can be a positive motivator”
– Rep. Cynthia Davis (R-MO)
There is no doubt that hungry people would rather not be hungry and may try to do everything they can to avoid it in the future. But that same hunger also hinders their ability to take such action. Being hungry can be all-consuming and distracting, which in turn decreases productivity in working adults, and negatively impacts unemployed people’s ability to get jobs. And for children, chronic hunger has devastating effects, impacting their physical development, and making it nearly impossible to learn. In both the short and long term, having a substantial population of hungry people – be they adults or children – impedes the country’s economic prosperity for everyone.