Everyone Owns the Words of Torah

Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1−44:17

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Michael Dolgin

Learning, commenting, and reacting to our Torah’s teachings are a personal experience, or at least they should be. Like all books of the Torah, our relationship with Genesis grows deeper each year when we encounter it anew. For, me one part of Genesis that especially stands out is Parashat Mikeitz.

During my first year of rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem, I gave my first d’var Torah on Mikeitz, focusing on the story of Joseph. While living in Jerusalem that year, I purchased my first copy of Mikraot Gedolot, the Torah printed with traditional commentaries, and in the winter of 1987, I sat with that sacred volume and reflected on this parashah.

Its opening words that speak of “sh’natayim yamim” – or “two years of days” – inspired me to speak about the importance of reminiscing on our days at this dark time of year and making the most of the days ahead. As I sat in my Jerusalem apartment holding this book and finding a teaching to share with my fellow students, I could never have imagined the fall and winter of 2020.

I sit now in my home in Toronto, where I have served Temple Sinai for the past 28.5 years, with the same volume containing the same commentaries written hundreds of years ago. Back then, no one could have imagined there would be a global pandemic, nor could they imagine the digital tools that connect us to one another despite it. Yes, the world has changed; even more so, I have changed.

While I do not remember which specific Torah commentary inspired me 33 years ago, this year, I am particularly drawn to the words of K’li Yakar, the commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (1550–1619), who served as the Rabbi of Prague from 1604-1619. While I have revered R. Luntschitz as a teacher, over the years, he has also come to feel like my friend. When I need a particularly significant word of guidance, I can easily find it in his writing. His comments on this week’s parashah focus on the characteristic of humility, especially as it relates to learning.

At the end of last week’s portion, Joseph asks Pharaoh’s cupbearer to intercede for him with Egypt’s ruler and save him. Our sages, however, want to see Joseph relying on faith in God as well. Such faith is not easy to come by; it requires belief that the Holy One takes an interest in each of our lives. Naturally, many of us question such a belief. In the K’li Yakar, R. Luntschitz suggests that the Holy One should be our model. Just as God takes an interest in us, we should take an interest in everyone and listen to and respect them, regardless of their “level” of learning, education, or experience.

As it is written in the commentary on the first line of this portion:

“It is the way of the world that when a person has reached a superior level regarding a personal characteristic or strength, [they cease] to recall the individual at the lower level and do not speak that person’s name.”

Many of us have a natural tendency toward hierarchy. We come to understand our place in life by comparing ourselves to those we see as above or below us. Recognizing this inclination creates an opportunity for us to overcome it.

Another ally in personal growth is longevity. Ever since I encountered this text over three decades ago and have studied it many times since then, the message of this commentary echoes within me more loudly than ever. During those intervening years, this text also became my son’s bar mitzvah bar mitzvahבַּר מִצְוָהCeremony marking a boy's reaching the age of religious maturity; plural: b'nei mitzvah. portion.

What have I learned from this journey? I have learned that I need to hear as many reactions to these ancient words as I can. I need to know what message they communicate to teachers and students, to professors and newcomers, to biblical Hebrew scholars and those who cannot yet read the Torah’s native language.

I have learned that everyone owns the words of Torah; that we are truly in possession of Torah when we realize that it does not exclusively belong to us and that its multiple interpretations are not ours to measure.

This week, discuss Mikeitz’s words with someone who thinks or lives differently than you do. You will be far richer for the experience.