Commentary for Mikeitz

22 Dec

This week’s parshah is quite the long one, containing the third-most words and second-most letters of any parshah in the Torah. First Pharaoh has a dream which none of his advisors can interpret. Then Joseph interprets the dream for him and devises a plan to save Egypt from the oncoming famine, so Pharaoh makes Joseph his second-in-command and he implements his plan. When the famine comes, it hits Cana’an hard, so Jacob sends all of his sons but Benjamin to go down to Egypt to buy food. When they come before Joseph they do not recognize him, but he recognizes them and messes around with them for a while, first sending them back home with food but ordering them to return with their youngest brother while keeping one of them as a hostage, then, when all eleven brothers return, he messes with them even more by framing Benjamin for theft.

While there is a lot of action here, there is surprisingly little that happens of any real religious significance. There are no mitzvot given, no warnings by God that continued sinning will lead to Divine punishment, very little in the way of praise of God, and no real moral lessons to be drawn from the characters’ actions. The closest we get to any of this is Joseph pointing out that it is God who gives him the power to interpret dreams (Gen. 41:16), the brothers wondering whether God is punishing them for selling Joseph into slavery (Gen. 42:29), and a quick blessing of Benjamin by Joseph that “God be gracious” to him (Gen. 43:29), comprising a mere thirty-five of the parshah’s two thousand and twenty-two words.

This parshah is also one of only three to end on a sad or distressing note, which is something that Jewish tradition usually goes to great lengths to avoid. Between its apparent lack of religious or moral significance and its breaking this rule of trying to avoid sad endings, one is left to wonder why it was not combined with next week’s parshah which completes the Joseph story, and one of the other long parshahs was not split in two to replace it?

There was once a Jew who was walking through the woods from one shtetl to another, but he made a wrong turn along way and got lost. After several hours of walking, he emerged from the woods and realized that he was not where he was supposed to be. Realizing that he was lost, he continued walking along the path, hoping to come to a signpost that would set him back in the right direction.

When he saw a crossroads along the way, he excitedly ran towards it, but when he reached it he saw that the signpost was broken, having been uprooted by a strong wind and blown completely to the other side of the road from where it had once stood. He picked it up, hoping to put it back in its proper place, but realized that with so many different signs for so many different towns he didn’t know, he would not be able to orient the signs correctly, and trying to follow it would simply result in getting even more lost.

Then he had an idea. He knew which direction he had come from, so he stood the post up aligning the sign for his hometown in the direction he had come from, and from that was able to correctly follow the sign to get to his intended destination.

Information is useless without context. This parshah, which is entirely narrative with little in the way of religious messages or moral lessons, is presented to us like this because it is a piece of our history, and that alone makes it important to understanding our people. If we do not understand our past, we will not be able to understand our present or make the correct choices for our future.

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