Commentary for Mikeitz

13 Jan

This week’s parshah continues the story of Joseph. Twice in the course of his story, Joseph is referred to as an “Ivri;” once in this week’s parshah when Pharaoh’s butler is telling Pharaoh about the man he met in prison who is an expert at interpreting dreams (Gen. 41:12) and once in last week’s parshah when Potiphar’s wife is trying to seduce him (Gen. 39:14).

Aside from Joseph, the only other person in the Torah referred to as an “Ivri” is his great-grandfather Abraham, who is referred to as such in Gen. 14:13. While the word “Ivri” has come to mean “a Hebrew,” as is the source of the Hebrew word name for the Hebrew language (“Ivrit”), a more literal translation would be “one who crossed over [from the other side of the river/mountain/valley etc.].” In essence, it means “someone who isn’t from here.” In its commentary on Gen. 14:13, Midrash Rabah adds a little more importance to this distinction, saying that it calls attention to how different Abraham’s values were to those of the natives of the land he was now residing in.

When Abraham is referred to as an “Ivri” it is soon after he has moved to Cana’an, and Abraham was a wealthy individual, and thus would have been well known in the region of Cana’an in which he had settled. Even if he had tried to downplay the differences between himself and his new neighbors, Abraham would not have been able to escape the label.

Joseph, on the other hand, finds himself in the opposite position, both as a slave in Potiphar’s household and then as a prisoner in Potiphar’s dungeon. While Mrs. Potiphar might have been aware of his origins, he had been in Potiphar’s household for long enough to rise to a position of prominence, and thus likely would have been able to easily adapt himself to the Egyptian culture well enough to hide his origins from most everyone else. But when Mrs. Potiphar tells the guards that it was the “Ivri” who tried to rape her, the text does not mention the guards asking who the “Ivri” is, showing that everyone knew Joseph’s origins. Similarly, in the prison Joseph could have easily concealed his nationality from everyone, but has no qualms about revealing it to the cupbearer in Gen. 40:15. Joseph had every incentive and ever opportunity to hide the fact that he was an “Ivri”– the fact that he was different, but he always chose not to. Even in this week’s parshah, when he is promoted to Pharaoh’s second-in-command and given an Egyptian name, he still uses his real name. He could have made every effort to stifle the knowledge that Pharaoh’s new top adviser was an “Ivri,” but instead he embraced this fact, and was proud to be the “Ivri” that the cupbearer remembered from his time in the dungeon.

Both Abraham and Joseph found themselves in foreign lands where it would have been much easier for them to abandon their values and assimilate to the foreign culture they found themselves surrounded by in an attempt to reduce the stigma of being different, but instead both clung to their Jewish values and faced the challenges that came with that head-on and without fear. So too did the Macabees when their way of life was threatened, and so too must we today when we find ourselves surrounded by a culture that sometimes clashes with our values.

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