Miketz – reversals, irony, gifts and foreign languages

The Joseph story continues excitingly in this Parsha, reaching almost to its climax by the end. Beginning with the third cycle of dreams, Pharaoh has a pair of dreams that even his favourite “Chartumim” (magicians – who we see next during the Ten Plagues) cannot solve. “Miketz” refers to the end of a two year period in which Joseph is wallowing in the pit of the prison where he last solved the dreams of the butler and baker. Although Joseph asked the butler to remember him and help him, he “forgets” Joseph. Only when Pharaoh is frustrated does the butler speak up about the time he met Joseph the amazing dream-analyser. The psychological realism of the story is evident, as who would want to remind a tyrant of a time when they were ‘angry’ with them and had them in prison? Only when the butler thinks he can gain from his association with Joseph does he speak up about him.

An interesting comment from Rabbi SR Hirsch here explains that even though it says “Vayeritzuhu”, and they made Joseph run out of the prison, then Joseph takes charge of his own public image at this pivotal moment, as he “shaved himself and changed his clothes” and “came” to Pharaoh when he was ready. This famous reversal is taken as symbolic of Jewish history and life itself. One minute everything is “the pits” and next one is ready for stardom. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we say the prayer “Unetaneh Tokef” where some are brought high and some are rendered low. Shakespeare refers to the ‘wheel of fortune’, but Joseph epitomises the Jewish concept that “salvation is in the blink of an eye”. However, one must be ready. And Joseph is now ready. He has been humbled and he has had time to think about G-d’s place in his life. He is ready to give credit to ‘Elokim’ for his ability to interpret dreams, as he did for the butler and baker, as well as to Pharaoh.

This parsha is packed with fabulous dialogue and description in the smallest and most vivid detail. While Joseph uses his facility with languages to speak perfect, accentless Egyptian, he is able to eavesdrop on his brothers while hiding behind an interpreter. This hints at the facility many Jews have with foreign languages, which are always useful – one never knows when they will come in handy. This writer once heard a woman say that when she was in Auschwitz she enjoyed learning different languages from inmates of different countries.

A fascinating detail is given when Joseph hears his brothers express regret for their earlier callous treatment of Joseph. He wants to cry, and he goes to his room, cries, and then washes his face. This event explains the whole process in which he torments his brothers through the strategems of false accusations of theft etc. He imprisons them all for three days, and then keeps Shimon imprisoned until they bring Benjamin with them. This points to Shimon as the worst of the brothers, who most likely was the most keen to have Joseph killed. Joseph does not torment his brothers for revenge, although there may be an element. He does so in order to test whether they have repented for their former cruelty towards him, and whether they harbour the same jealousy against Benjamin as they had for him.

When faced with the inevitable parting with Benjamin, and the suspicious note of ‘what happens if a tragedy befalls him – ‘pen yikrenu ason’, Jacob falls back on what he knows works: sending a gift (of spices, almonds and honey) to the difficult lord of Egypt. He sent gifts to Esau, and that worked. And he had arrived without gifts to stay with Laban (the midrash says he was robbed on the way there by Esau’s son), and that’s why Laban was so harsh with him.

The irony abounds in this episode: the fact that the brothers don’t recognise Joseph, the fact that Joseph’s dream of their bowing down to him is coming true, the fact that they don’t know that Joseph hears their confessions from the past. But the best irony is in the final sentence: Joseph says to them: “Go up in peace to your father.” How can they, when he plans to keep Benjamin as a slave, and they must return without him? When Joseph was sold, they did return a brother short, but they have learned their lesson, and can’t possibly do it again.

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