This parashah continues the story of Joseph and his brothers that began in Parashat Vayeitzei. The patriarchal and matriarchal narratives that carry us through the Book of Genesis set the stage for the story of Jacob and his four wives and thirteen named children. By the time Jacob's family is introduced, the reader has recognized that the familial connections portrayed in the Bible mirror and perhaps foreshadow the complex behaviors, hungers, and longings that characterize intimate relationships throughout human history.
The division of this story into parshiyot is masterful, for the action continues, the plot thickens, and each portion concludes just when the reader is most engaged. Vayeishev, the previous portion, concludes after Joseph correctly interprets the dreams of two of Pharaoh's courtiers with whom he shares his narrow prison cell, predicting that one will be exalted and the other be hanged. The final sentence is ominous: "But the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; [instead] he forgot him" (Genesis 40:23). Mikeitz opens two years later when Pharaoh seeks an interpreter for his troubling dreams.
The theme of hunger is embedded in Pharaoh's dreams, for he dreams of seven "handsome and fat" cows who come "up out of the Nile" and are subsequently devoured by seven "repulsive and gaunt" cows who appear just as mysteriously from the river that is the source of Egypt's irrigation. This dream is followed by a parallel dream, in which seven ears of healthy grain are devoured by seven ears of "thin and scorched" grain. These dreams trouble the sovereign sufficiently that he seeks the advice of "all the soothsayer—priests and sages of Egypt . . . but no one could interpret them for Pharaoh" (Genesis 41:1-8). His chief cupbearer remembers the interpretive gifts of Joseph, the Hebrew slave, and Pharaoh orders that Joseph appear before him and listen to the monarch's frightening vision.
Joseph has learned that dream interpretation is a dangerous business; his first attempts so angered his brothers that they cast him into a pit. His story is one of being lifted up and then cast down, as he went from being most favored son to languishing in a pit empty of everything but, according to Rashi (on Genesis 37:24), "serpents and scorpions," becoming a highly prized servant and then being thrown into prison, and now, once again, being brought up, this time by Pharaoh himself. Joseph's interpretive ability becomes the ticket for his final ascension: to become Pharaoh's first in command.
Joseph is appointed Pharaoh's chief deputy with the responsibility of managing the collection and storage of the food supply of Egypt as the region experiences the predicted seven years of plenty and then moves into the seven years of famine. As Joseph dreamed earlier, his brothers do indeed come to bow down before him, requesting grain to feed their families. The parashah is framed by the tension between physical famine and subsistence, between hunger for grain and satiety. Below the surface of physical hunger lurk other kinds of hunger. We can detect or imagine the longings that animate and haunt the various characters in this narrative even when the text leaves those details opaque. The Rabbinic sages, who read between the lines, can help us discover, and imagine, those dynamics.
When the portion opens, Joseph has been sitting in prison for two years. He must be hungry for freedom, to walk unfettered beyond the courtyards that confine him, to live according to his own will, not by the whim of guards who monitor his every move. Joseph must also be hungry for family. His years of exile may have sharpened his longing for the warmth, safety, and security that a family can provide, for the special relationship he enjoyed with his father, his ache for his long-dead mother. His hunger for familial connection has probably become keener than ever while isolated in prison, where he may have reflected on how his father's favoritism isolated him from his siblings. And he may also wonder whether God, too, has played favorites—and chosen others.
Pharaoh may hunger for his own knowledge of the Holy. Pharaoh's dreams unsettle him because he knows that God speaks to him through them and he desperately wants to understand what God is saying. In addition, Pharaoh is hungry to fulfill his responsibilities as the divinely appointed sovereign of Egypt. Midrash Rabbah comments on the opening line of the parashah, "Pharaoh had a dream . . ." (Genesis 41:1): "And do not all people dream? True, but a king's dream embraces the whole world" (B'reishit Rabbah 89:4). The midrash further teaches that Pharaoh had been troubled by these two dreams for two years but that he did not remember them until "the day had arrived for Joseph to come forth from his prison house" (Mikraot Hedulot HaMa'or 611, 618). According to the Rabbis, God controls Pharaoh's dreams for the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people.
Joseph's ten older brothers may continue to hunger for their father's love and approval. Throughout their lives, they suffered as Jacob favored Rachel's sons, Joseph and Benjamin. They are haunted by their terrible past and their treatment of Joseph. The midrash explains that this open wound drives them to look for Joseph. "So Joseph's brothers went down—ten of them . . . " (Genesis 42:3) is interpreted to mean their motive in going down to Egypt was "ten parts [fraternal] love and one part to buy corn" ( B'reishit Rabbah 91:2). They are so desirous of finding Joseph that when he asks them who they are, they answer, "We are all of us sons of the same man" (Genesis 42:11). The ten brothers unwittingly—or perhaps with hope—include Joseph in their enumeration. After Joseph imprisons and then releases all the brothers but Simeon, on the condition that they return to Egypt with Benjamin, they say, "Oh, we are being punished on account of our brother! We saw his soul's distress when he pleaded with us, but we didn't listen . . ." (Genesis 42:21). The earlier narrative of the brothers casting Joseph into the pit does not include any mention of Joseph's cries. Hungry for the brother they cast away, the brothers' guilt, or their hearts, call to them now. As men, their hunger for family and for justice is as strong, or stronger, than their hunger for bread. Now, they are ready to listen and respond to the cries they could not hear when they were deafened by their own jealousy.
Jacob hungers for his beloved Rachel and for the legacy embodied by Joseph; Jacob's grief has blinded him to the sons of Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah. Jacob, who tricked his own blind father to secure his blessing, cannot see how his own favoritism compromises and complicates his ability to pass down his own legacy to Rachel's sons. If Benjamin, like Joseph, is lost, who will carry on the legacy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Jacob craves his son and his ability to fulfill his patriarchal imperative.
As this parashah ends, the reader sees clearly Joseph's longing for the company of his brothers, for the voice of his father, and for the comfort of his homeland. He aches for the syllables and cadence of his mother tongue. Joseph's tears reflect his desperate desire to be seen, to be recognized, to be embraced. But the time is not yet right. The names he chooses for his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, reflect his deep ambivalence about his situation as a ger toshav , a "resident alien"; he wants both to forget and to remember, and to establish his sons as heirs of both Egypt and Israel. As Naomi Steinberg writes, "the parashah ends as a cliff-hanger, with hungers expressed but not addressed, and hearts yearning for reconnection, reflecting the famine of a nation and its afflicted neighbors" (commentary on Mikeitz, in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, ed. Tamara Eskenazi [New York: URJ Press, 2008], p. 251).
(My thanks to Dr. Tamara Eskenazi, editor of The Torah: A Women's Commentary, for her generous guidance.)
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD, spent nearly two decades working with synagogue leaders to keep congregations healthy and vibrant through the Union for Reform Judaism. The founding director of the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Center and the first rabbinic director of Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Program of the JCC of Manhattan, Elwell served as editor of Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation (2001), The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah (2002), poetry editor of the award winning The Torah: A Women's Commentary (2008), and as editor of Chapters of the Heart (2013). She continues her rabbinate through study, teaching, writing, and as a Spiritual Director.