Lessons for Humanity from the Weekly Parshah
y Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

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Torah Reading: MIKETZ Gen. 41:1-44:17


The exile of the Children of Israel in Egypt and their subsequent redemption and exodus are the paradigm of all exile and redemption, physical and spiritual. The chief oppressor is Pharaoh, King of Egypt, a figure first introduced in the Torah several parshiyos earlier, in LECH LECHA (Ch. 12, v. 10ff). Famine had forced Abraham to go down to Egypt, the "nakedness of the earth" (just as in our parshah, famine forces his descendents down to the same place). Egypt is the stronghold of MITZRAYIM, second son of the accursed Ham, who had "uncovered" his father Noah's nakedness. In the same tradition of sexual immorality, Pharaoh, representing the evil, self-seeking aspect of earthly power, kidnapped Sarah, embodiment of the Indwelling Presence of G-d, until a divine plague forced him to release her. According to tradition, Sarah was released on the night 15 Nissan, the date of the later Exodus of her descendants from Egypt.

Our parshah of MIKETZ traces the successive stages in which the snare was laid to force Jacob and his Twelve Sons to follow Joseph down into exile in Egypt in preparation for the ultimate redemption of the Children of Israel years later on that same date. The net is artfully prepared by Joseph, who alone of all the sons of Jacob had the power to stand in the House of Pharaoh. Joseph is the archetype of the Tzaddik who enables us to survive in This World. Having been drawn down to Egypt by Joseph, the Children of Israel are eventually redeemed by Moses, who, having been brought up in the House of Pharaoh, had the power to stand there. Moses is integrally linked with Joseph, and thus Moses "took the bones [= the essence] of Joseph with him" up out of Egypt. Moses is the Tzaddik who teaches us the path leading through the wilderness of This World to the Land of the Living -- the Land of Israel.

This World is but a dream. Pharaoh is dreaming. Pharaoh is the "back-side" (PHaRAO = ORePH, the back of the neck) -- the external appearance of This World as opposed to it's inner "face", the inner spirituality and meaning. The outward appearance is frightening: plump prosperity turning into wizened waste.

Pharaoh is the worldly ego. "So says the Lord G-d, Here I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great crocodile [=primordial serpent] lying down in his rivers, who says: 'The river is mine, and I made myself' (Ezekiel 29: 3, from the Haftara of parshas VO-ERO which recounts the plagues sent against Egypt). Pharaoh thinks he is all-powerful -- "I made myself" -- but in the end he is humiliated by G-d's plagues, which show him his limitations. As yet his downfall is still far-off -- a distant vision, a bad dream. Yet already Pharaoh is being humiliated. The dream is terrifying. Pharaoh's own magicians and wise men are helpless: they cannot give meaning to his dream. The only one who can help Pharaoh is "a man who has the spirit of G-d in him" (Gen. 41:38), the truly righteous Tzaddik: Joseph.

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Temporal leaders may imagine they are pulling the strings, but the underlying forces that drive human history are great global cycles of success and decline ("Seven years of plenty" / "Seven years of famine") that are in the power of G-d alone. Likewise, G-d alone has the power to send truly wise leaders to guide us through these cycles to a better end.

While Pharaoh is the archetype of the self-seeker, Joseph is the archetype of self-discipline. The latter is the virtue needed to get through This World successfully. Pharaoh knows how to consume to gratify the self here and now -- to live the dream of This World. This may work as long as the river keeps flowing. But Pharaoh does not know what to do when the flow stops. He is unprepared, because Pharaoh is PARU'AH, undisciplined. He does not know how to conserve and save for lean times.

Pharaoh's self-seeking is rooted in the fundamental flaw of Adam: KERI, spilling the seed in vain -- waste. Thus it is said that the sparks in the seed spilled by Adam fell to Egypt, where they had to be rectified in the generation of Joseph and in the generation of Moses. The rectification in the generation of Joseph was accomplished by the DISCIPLINE which Joseph brought to the country. Joseph used the Seven Years of Plenty to teach the Egyptians to put limits on IMMEDIATE CONSUMPTION AND GRATIFICATION in order to SAVE for the FUTURE. (Similarly in the generation of the Exodus, the Children of Israel, incarnation of Adam's spilled seed, were rectified through the building of Pharaoh's "store-cities".) We must all learn how to set limits to the physical gratification we receive from this world in order to make the best use of our time here to acquire and "save" Mitzvos and good deeds. These are our TZEIDAH LA-DEREKH, the "sustenance for the way" that leads to the Land of the Living, the Future World.

The world today is suffering from the catastrophic effects of IMMEDIATE CONSUMPTION on the global ecology in the form of reckless depletion of resources, pollution etc. and on the moral fabric of contemporary society. The model of happiness entertained by most of the world -- CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION -- is unsustainable and destructive, and must be replaced with Joseph's model: that we must "circumcise" ourselves and learn self-discipline. Only by thriftily "saving" Torah and good deeds can we attain true happiness. Thus Joseph told the "Egyptians" to "circumcise" themselves (see Rashi on Gen. 41:55).

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"It is good when manifest reproof stems from hidden love" (Proverbs 27:5).

The essence of good leadership is to teach people to lead themselves -- to take themselves in hand and use self-discipline to attain the good that is available in this world.

Had Joseph revealed himself to his brothers immediately on their first arrival in Egypt, he would have elicited little more from them than superficial expressions of contrition for a sin whose seriousness they still did not understand. "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor" (Leviticus 19:16) -- don't "sit down to eat bread" when your brother is screaming in the pit (Gen. 37:25).

Joseph used his consummate wisdom to engineer events that would put his brothers in the same situation in which they had placed him. As the compassionate leader, Joseph sought to make his brothers draw their own conclusions, knowing that the lessons we learn on our own flesh are more deeply inscribed and instilled than those we simply hear from others.

Joseph engineered events that would force his brothers to "read" and "interpret" for themselves the message of reproof the events implied. So it had been from the beginning. When Joseph dreamed of the sheaves bowing down to him, it was the brothers who interpreted the message for themselves. "Will you surely rule over us?" (Gen. 37:8).

Years later, the brothers bowed before the Egyptian Viceroy TZOPHNAS PA'ANEAH ("Interpreter of that which is Hidden", as Joseph had been named by Pharaoh, Master of the Dream).

"And Joseph saw his brothers and he recognized them, AND HE MADE HIMSELF STRANGE [vayisNACHER] to them" (Gen. 42:7).

In order to chastise his brothers and bring them to genuine contrition, Joseph acted not like a BROTHER but like a NOCHRI, a STRANGER. He clothed himself in the garb of a stranger with a heart of stone, deaf to all appeals.

Joseph's way of teaching and educating his brothers can help us understand how G-d may sometimes have to beat down the walls of people's insensitive hearts by chastising them with enemies that appear strange and incomprehensible to them.

"G-d will bring up a people against you from afar from the end of the earth, like the eagle swoops, a people whose language you will not understand, a people of fierce countenance who will not show respect to the old or compassion for the youth." (Deuteronomy 28: 49).

But like Joseph's indirect, roundabout reproof to his brothers, G-d's reproof has but one purpose: "And they will confess their sin and the sin of their fathers and the treachery that they have committed against Me, that they went contrary [with KERI] against Me; So I will go with them contrary [with KERI, apparently chance events] and I will bring them in the land of their enemies, and then their uncircumcised heart will be humbled and then they will make appeasement for their sin. And I will remember my COVENANT." (Leviticus 26:40-42).

With consummate skill, Joseph brought a series of "troubles" upon his brothers that would bring them to successive levels of self-understanding and genuine contrition. Joseph's first step was to separate one brother (Shimon) from the others and hold him in detention. The brothers read the message: "And one said to the other, But we are guilty over our brother, the pain of whose soul we saw when he pleaded with us and we did not hear: that is why this trouble has come upon us" (Gen. 42:21).

The final stage was when Joseph engineered the framing of Benjamin with Joseph's "stolen" divining goblet (Gen. ch. 44). Still appearing to his brothers as the Egyptian Viceroy Sourcerer, Joseph's choice of scenario was one that had special meaning for the brothers, as they had all (with the exception of Benjamin) witnessed their DIVINER grandfather Laban (Gen.30:27) searching the tent of Rachel, for his stolen TERAFIM (idols).

At last the brothers grasped the complete message. They had stolen their brother and sold him as a slave. "And Judah said, What shall we say to my lord, what shall we speak and how can we justify ourselves? G-d has found your servants' sin."

In next week's parshah we will continue with the beautiful story of how Judah steps forward to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR HIS BROTHER. This was the goal of all Joseph's "reproof".

The above-quoted words of Judah are woven into our TACHANUN (supplicatory) and SELICHOS (penitential) prayers:

"What shall we say? What shall we speak? How can we justify ourselves? Let us search out and investigate our ways and return to You. For Your right arm is stretched out to receive those who return. Please G-d, save us."

Shabbat Shalom! Chodesh Tov Umevorach! Happy Chanukah

Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum




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