The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Portion of Miketz, 1996
Rabbi Dr. Pinchas Hyman
Department of Talmud
Joseph, Egypt and Individual Providence
The division of the Chumash (Pentateuch) into portions to be read aloud each week during the synagogue service seems to derive from the practice of Jews in Babylonia in the Talmudic period. These weekly study units are designed to strengthen our Jewish consciousness in general through an emphasis upon Jewish spiritual and educational messages. These messages are highlighted by literary means--structure, juxtaposition, symbolism, irony and so on--which enable its audience to grapple with them and internalize them. In the present Portion, Miketz, such literary devices are particularly noticeable.
Initial examination of Miketz indicates that it deals with Joseph's career in Egypt; how he makes his way from prison to the royal palace, where he is appointed vice-regent with full responsibility for the Egyptian economy. In juxtaposition to this rise, the Parasha describes his brothers' decline: they must "come down" from Canaan to buy food in Egypt and finally they are enslaved to its brutal vice-regent (whom they of course do not recognize as their brother Joseph).
Joseph ascends unexpectedly and miraculously, from slavery to power, and the brothers' decline from greatness to misery in a similar fashion. This drama of an exchange of situations is played out against the background of a deteriorating Egyptian economy. The overall impression made by the narrative is that the events which take place on the macro level in the Egyptian economy are in fact the work of the Creator, watching over His creation in order that certain lessons may be learnt on the micro level - Joseph and his brothers. The general, here, exists for the sake of the particular, the public for the individual. The same message hovers over the entire story of Joseph and his brothers, when against their will they are brought to acknowledge Joseph's glory and merits. Everything that happens, is directed towards the fulfillment of the dreams dreamt by Joseph when he was still a lad in Canaan. This is in order to show us that the spiritual world represented by those dreams stands above and beyond the material world. Our concrete world is pulled along by a spiritual mission, and not the other way around. Joseph's story illustrates the spiritual import enveloping the life of a Jew and his or her community, environment and world.
As noted, Parshat Miketz communicates on three levels: the realization of Joseph's dreams, the reversals of position experienced by him and by his brothers, and the story of Joseph's family against the backdrop of an Egyptian and International economic crisis. These developments move in these directions. From the world of the spirit (i.e. of dreams) to the larger world of the material, and from there to the world of the individual and his life story.
Several unique vehicles, designed to bring out this dynamic, operate within the structure of the narrative. The story of Joseph's rise and his brothers' fall can be shown schematically, as below. The broken lines represent those parts of their lives which are not specifically described in Miketz, and the two arrows indicate the directions taken by the lives of Joseph and of his brothers as they exchange situations. The numbers 1-7 stand for the seven divisions of the Portion, known as aliyot (ascents), since for purposes of public reading each Torah portion is divided into seven parts and seven people are given the honor of being "called up" each Shabbat as the reading from the Torah proceeds.
The brothers - up The brothers - down Joseph down Joseph - up Opening of story End point of story
As this diagram demonstrates, the first three aliyot describe Joseph's rise to greatness and the three last aliyot of his brothers' fall. The point where they cross comes in the central (fourth) aliya. The first aliya (Gen. 41:1-14) describes Pharaoh's two dreams and the summoning of Joseph from prison. The second aliya (41:15-38) contains Joseph's interpretation of the dreams and Pharaoh's enthusiastic response. The third aliya (41:39-52) describes Joseph's appointment as vice-regent and his marriage and establishment of a family. These three stages reflect the three levels described above:
1) Divine Providence moves Pharaoh, through his dreams, to reflect on his situation; 2) the national plan for Egypt is born and entrusted to a Jewish counselor; 3) and the outcome is that Joseph rules over the economy and is in a position to receive his brothers later on.
The last three aliyot, describe the decline of Joseph's brothers. In the fifth aliya (42:19-43:15) they bring food home to Canaan and are compelled to return to Egypt, both because more food is required and because their brother Simeon has been left in prison in Egypt as a hostage for their return with Benjamin. In the sixth aliya (43:16-29) they are entertained at Joseph's own table and Joseph lays the groundwork for their final fall, by causing them to appear to be thieves. Thecup is discovered in Benjamin's possession in the seventh aliya (43:30-44:17), and the brothers offer to become slaves to Joseph.
The point where the two meet is the fourth aliya (41:53-42:18), in which Joseph and his brothers encounter one another for the first time in Egypt. It must be noted that the second half of the Joseph-in-Egypt story and the first half of the brothers-in-Canaan story receive less emphasis, for they are less relevant to the overall direction of the narrative, which leads ultimately to exile and slavery in Egypt for all the tribes of Israel.
Clearly, then, the Portion displays a symmetrical organization, the three first and three last aliyot being parallel. But in addition to this major symmetry between the two master-plots, the individual aliyot in the first half are parallel in a number of their details to the individual aliyot in the second half. The first aliya balances the seventh, the second balances the sixth, and the third balances the fifth. Thus in the first pair (aliyot 1/7), Joseph is spoken of before Pharaoh and the brothers before Joseph, with the result that Joseph explains Pharaoh's dreams to him and God reveals to Joseph how his own dreams have come true. In the second pair (aliyot 2/6), people are astonished by Joseph's wisdom: in the first case Pharaoh's, in the second the brothers. Finally, the third pair (aliyot 3/5) speaks of the founding of Joseph's family and the undermining of Jacob's family in Canaan. This parallelism is not accidental, but the fruit of the literary analysis of the sages responsible for the division of the text of the Torah into weekly portions each divided into seven sections.
We may also note that no fewer than four aliyot are so arranged that God is mentioned in their concluding words. Thus the second aliya ends with, "Can there be found such a man as this, in whom is the spirit of God?" (Gen. 41:38), the third with, "For God has made me fruitful in the land of my distress" (41:52), the fourth with, "Do this and live--for I fear God" (42:18), and the sixth with, "And he said, May God be gracious to you, my son" (43:29). The congregation listening to the text as it is read out on Shabbat must reflect upon the master cause of the entire enthralling story: behind the scenes, the Creator's individual providence (hasgaha peratit) directs events towards a specific exalted goal.
Irony also plays an important role in Miketz. Joseph is thrown into a pit in Canaan because he has told his brothers his dreams, and he comes out of the "pit" (bor--the word is also used for "prison") in Egypt in order to interpret Pharaoh's dreams. The brothers benefit materially from selling Joseph, and the material suffering they undergo in the famine leads them to bow down before him to the ground in Egypt. The "coat of many colors" given to Joseph in Canaan arouses their hatred, while in Egypt his ruler's robes conceal his identity from them and he himself presents them with "changes of clothing" (45:22) when they stay in his palace!
In sum, the religious and moral values conveyed by Miketz are brought out means of literary devices. Above and beyond everything that happens, Divine Providence operates. And in the lives of each one of us, in every generation, behind the misery and suffering we may experience, can be discerned the will of the Creator, guiding us towards a deeper awareness and greater attention to spiritual and existential messages.