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Lessons From the Past

  • Lessons From the Past

    Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1−44:17
D'var Torah By: 

Much has been written in recent years about the dysfunctional families of Genesis the founding families of the Jewish "tribe." Some try to deny this blemish. I remember the storm that arose in the Knesset and the Orthodox community when then Prime Minister Simon Peres dared utter moderate criticism about King David and his conduct. The storm threatened to topple Peres's government and his criticism was regarded as heretical. In my opinion, the ability to view the heroes of our nation as humans rather than angels is an element of strength and a sign of maturity. The sages and the commentators differed in this regard. Some of them attempted to idealize the past and smooth over its blemishes, while others, who courageously acknowledged the flaws in the behavior of these biblical figures, pointed to the suffering that has befallen our nation on their account and refused to ascribe all such events to a divine "grand plan."

Israel finds herself now in a similar position, battling with her past. After years of ideologically motivated Zionist education that emphasized the just struggle of the Jewish people while suppressing an acknowledgment of the rights of the Palestinians, we are now beginning to see the complexity of the struggle. We now realize that Israel did not refrain from using improper means to hide the facts from the public. Some Israelis resent this shattering of old myths and don't want to see the past revisited. Others, and I among them, feel that as Israel reaches her Jubilee, addressing with greater responsibility and integrity the challenges of the future is a reflection of national maturity.

In the Jewish tradition, Joseph is often called "Joseph the righteous." But the young Joseph of the previousparashah had to mature and endure much suffering before he attained this level. The account of his relationship with his brothers is not "black or white," "good guys and bad guys." The appalling behavior of his brothers, the fathers of our nation's tribes, is the direct result of continuous provocation by Joseph ("Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father" [Genesis 37:2] and "Everything bad he could tell of them, he would" [Rashi]), as well as the insensitivity of Jacob, who demonstrates excessive love for Joseph over his brothers. (The Talmud, in tractate Shabbat, ascribes to Jacob's discrimination between his sons the reason for the Israelites' descent to Egypt and instructs us that a father may not show preference for one son over another.)

Parashat Miketz shows us the transformation that occurs both in Joseph and his brothers. In spite of his wisdom, Joseph needed this face-to-face encounter with his siblings to recognize the deep void that existed in his life as a result of his having been detached from his family and to vent the intense emotions that he had suppressed during the years of his successful assimilation into the good life he found in Egypt: "He turned away from them and wept." (Genesis 42:24) The brothers, on their part, needed the horrors of being falsely arrested to arouse in them the necessary soul searching that led them to acknowledge their grave sin toward their brother and father, which they had suppressed from their thoughts and hearts for thirteen years: "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." (Genesis 42:21)

We can derive optimism from the fact that the destructive relationship between Joseph and his brothers did not prevent their coming together as brothers, just as Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau did. As human beings, as Jews, and as Israelis, we are part of many diversified relationships. In some of them, we are the victims. In others, we are the offenders. The experiences of the ancient and recent past teach us how disputes and even battles that are just can produce hatred and bloodshed. The deeper and harsher the struggle, the more difficult it is to heal the wounds. Will we be able to learn the lesson of this text? Will we acknowledge the necessity to recognize our omissions and failures and not cover them up? Can we be sensitive to the needs and feelings of our fellow human beings before they turn into hostility toward us? At the same time, we must learn the lesson that conflicts can be reconciled and that it is worthy and imperative to invest our efforts in healing them if we have not been wise enough to preempt them. We must remember the words of the brothers in our parashah, "We are ? sons by the same father" (Genesis 42:32), and expand on them in the spirit of the prophet: "Have we all not one father? Did not one God create us?" (Malachi 2:10)

At the time of this writing in 1999, Uri Regev, a rabbi and attorney, was the director of the Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.

My Son, the Fireman?
Davar Acher By: 
Mark L. Goldstein

Before the years of famine came, Joseph became the father of two sons, whom Asenath ... bore to him. Genesis 41:50

I was surprised when my son told me that he wanted to be a fireman when he grows up. Dad is a Jewish Federation director and mom is a Jewish studies teacher/tutor/cantor: Obviously neither profession fosters physical aggression. When queried, my son explained that we had told him to grow up and become a fireman. Every Friday night, he reminded us, we pray for God to make him like "the fireman Manasseh."

He was referring, of course, to the blessing that parents have bestowed on their children dating back toParashat Vayechi, when Jacob offered the blessing "God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh." (Genesis 48:20) Of all the role models in the Bible, why were Ephraim and Manasseh singled out to become the baseline for future generations? Would we not want our children to emulate Moses, the epitome of leadership in the face of multiple obstacles, or Abraham, the hero of every Jewish preschool lesson about monotheism? I myself have a soft spot for Noah: I would love my children to be handy with wood and tools, an area in which I am clearly challenged. But our tradition teaches us to long for children who will emulate Ephraim and Manasseh.

An explanation for why this is so can be found in Parashat Miketz with the birth of Ephraim and Manasseh. Until that time, Joseph seemed to have lived an assimilated life. A trusted adviser of Pharaoh, he accepted an Egyptian wife, an Egyptian name, and probably the Egyptian way of life. But he is still referred to as "the Hebrew," perhaps because he never totally abandoned the beliefs of Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham. And when his sons were born, they were born to him, Joseph, and not to the aristocracy of Egypt. Perhaps this implies that Joseph intended to raise his sons in the traditions of Abraham, not those of their maternal and idolatrous ancestors. This was no small feat. Joseph was perhaps the only Hebrew in all of Egypt. He was a former slave and an ex-con. His wife's customs and culture could easily have dictated what was practiced in the couple's household since they insured the family's wealth and highly placed position in Egyptian society. But Joseph resisted these temptations. He saw to it that his children were raised in a manner that remains the ideal for Jewish parents.

Is our tradition making the point that the offspring of a mixed marriage can produce a prodigious legacy? Whether they have one Jewish parent or two, our children must be raised in families that make a conscious decision to emulate Ephraim and Manasseh. Our Jewish communities and institutions must likewise provide programming and support that encourage active and substantive engagement. Outreach to interfaith families must become a trans-denominational, communal priority, helping them to raise Jewish children. Family life education at synagogues and JCCs must become a funding priority. The energy and resources that are being invested in Israel experiences should be replicated in Jewish camping.

So how do I feel about my son's wanting to be a fireman? Frankly, I don't care if he becomes a fireman, or a policeman, or a lawyer, or anything else. I just want him to be like Ephraim and Manasseh and allow the beauty of Judaism to permeate his whole life.

At the time of this writing in 1999, Mark L. Goldstein was the executive vice president of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, serving Norfolk and Virginia Beach, VA.

Reference Materials: 

Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1-44:17
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 264–277; Revised Edition, pp. 267–283;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 233–258