Thursday, December 22, 2011

Miketz

Two years have passed since the chief cupbearer was freed from jail.  Joseph however still remains in captivity.  Pharaoh is now plagued by disturbing dreams.  No one is able to interpret them, or perhaps dare to disclose their meaning.  It is then that the cupbearer remembers Joseph and his remarkable abilities.

He is brought before Pharaoh and immediately interprets the meaning of these dreams.  Joseph foretells that Egypt will be blessed with seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  The country must prepare for the famine by saving during the first seven years.  Pharaoh charges Joseph with this task and gives him the top administrative job in all of Egypt.

After these seven years of bounty, famine descends on Egypt and the whole world. Many are forced to come to Egypt, and therefore Joseph, to secure food.  Jacob sends his sons, except the youngest Benjamin, to Egypt to procure food.  They appear before Joseph who immediately recognizes them, but they do not recognize him for he dresses and acts like an Egyptian.  He speaks harshly to them and accuses them of beings spies.  He throws them in jail.  On the third day he lets them out and sends them on their way with food for their families.  One brother, Simeon, is taken and held in an Egyptian jail as ransom.  Joseph threatens them, instructing them that they must not return without Benjamin, the only other son of Rachel and Jacob.

The brothers say to each other, “’Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us.  That is why this distress has come upon us.’  Then Reuben spoke up and said to them, ‘Did I not tell you, “Do no wrong to the boy?”  But you paid no heed.  Now comes the reckoning for his blood.’” (Genesis 42:21-22)  They of course did not realize that Joseph understood their words.  He turns away and weeps.

On their journey home they discover that their money has been returned to them, hidden in their bags of food.  When they return home they report everything to their father Jacob.  He refuses to send them back to Egypt with his beloved son, Benjamin.  The famine soon grows worse and Jacob is left with no choice.  Judah pledges that he will take personal responsibility for Benjamin.  They set out for Egypt with double the money and Benjamin.

When they arrive and Joseph discovers that they have brought Benjamin with them he frees Simeon.  Joseph then prepares a feast for his brothers.  They apologize for not making proper payment on their first visit.  Somehow the money was returned in their bags, they report.  Joseph reassures them that he received proper payment and suggests that God must have put the money in their bags.

He then sees Benjamin for the first time and is overcome with emotion and runs out of the room.  He arranges the brothers at the table in order from oldest to youngest.  They wonder aloud if Joseph is a magician.  They cannot imagine how he could know their birth order.  Benjamin is presented with a double portion of food.

They are sent on their way with plenty of food.  But a goblet is secretly placed in Benjamin’s bag.  Joseph instructs his servants to go after his brothers and accuse them of stealing.  When they overtake them, it is soon discovered that Benjamin’s bag has the missing goblet.  They are brought back to Egypt to stand before Joseph.

The story pauses until next week.

It is a remarkable tale.  Throughout the story Joseph struggles with his attachments.  On several occasions the pull of his family is too strong.  He is unable to control his emotions and retreats to weep in private.  We cry that he is not yet able to embrace his brothers.

Rabbi Larry Kushner observes that throughout this story, our hero Joseph often changes clothes.  In the opening his father places the coat of many colors on him and then his brothers tear it from him.  There is as well the garment torn from him by Potiphar’s wife.  And finally in the opening of this week’s portion the following: “And he shaved himself and changed his garment…and Pharaoh dressed him in linen garments.” (Genesis 41:14, 42)

By the time his brothers come before him, Joseph looks like an Egyptian.  He is unrecognizable to them.  His clothes, and apparently his mannerisms and language, allow him to hide from them despite the fact that he stands before them.  Now it is left to him alone to tear these clothes.  But he is not yet able to tear the trappings of his Egyptian identity and reveal himself to his brothers.

I wonder, “What do our clothes say of us?”  What do they hide?  What do they reveal?  Soon Joseph will remove his mask and embrace his brothers in forgiveness.  He discovers that he will always be more a brother, and a member of the family of Israel, than an Egyptian.  His inner self becomes one with his outer identity.  I wonder as well, “Are we the same on the outside as we are on the inside?”  Like Joseph, what pain is caused by hiding out true selves from others?

I would like to believe that it is always more a matter of the acts we perform than the clothes we wear.  I would like to believe that we can always be same on the outside as we are on the inside.  I pledge never to allow my Jewish values to remain hidden.  Let them be revealed to all.

As we continue to celebrate Hanukkah we recall its message of asserting our Jewish identities in a world that is not.  We ask, “What Jewish values will we wear as our garments?"

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