Mikketz: how knowledge and understanding still requires wisdom if we are to avert environmental disaster

 

Pharaoh dreams of seven fat healthy cows feeding by the river, which are devoured by seven sickly cows; then of seven full and healthy ears of corn devoured by seven thin ears of corn, in each case the devourers looked no fuller or healthier for what they had consumed.  Joseph, the interpreter of dreams, is summoned from prison in order to explain the Pharaoh’s dreams.

They are, he announces, dreams of warning of what God is about to bring to Egypt; seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. There are two dreams because of the speed in which events will begin.

Joseph then goes further than his brief. He is brought to interpret the dreams, but having done so he adds to the narrative- a chutzpah that could have had terrible consequence

“Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint overseers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. And let them gather all the food of these good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. And the food shall be for a store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.

But luckily Pharaoh is impressed. Having asked (rhetorically) if such a man can be found to fulfil this plan, he turns to Joseph and says:  As God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be greater than you.’  And Pharaoh said to Joseph: ‘See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.’

The three qualities –da’at (knowledge), binah (discernment) and chochmah (wisdom) come together in this verse indicating that Joseph doesn’t just know what the dream is saying, but that he can imagine the devastation indicated and can formulate and carry out a plan to mitigate it.

The dreams tell the very worst scenario – not only will extended famine come after the good years, but it will consume every aspect of those good years, they will not be remembered or even be able to be imagined – so say the classical commentators noting that when the sickly cows/corn absorb the healthy ones, there is no increase in well-being, no noticeable change at all. The desolation will be so complete it will be as if there was never anything else.

But the intervention of Joseph, with his combined knowledge, discernment and wisdom, was enough to keep Egypt, and even the surrounding areas, fed in the years of famine. The all-consuming famine was survived by the people – albeit they lost control of their land to Pharaoh as the price they paid for their food.

The Maharal of Prague teaches that the solution to the problem of famine in the dream was itself provided in the dream. The fact that the sickly cows and corn absorbed their healthy counterparts was a key to resolving the oncoming disaster – because it taught that there must be work done in the first seven years that would enable the next seven to be survivable. For him preparation in the face of oncoming devastation would enable the people to survive. His teaching primarily addresses the lacunae in the text – why would Joseph overstep his position and offer a solution? How does Pharaoh know that his interpretation was correct, and recognise both the importance of his plan  and the scale of his abilities? But the teaching gives us hope. We can prepare, we can begin to imagine and to mitigate the oncoming changes in our world. We can ensure that people have the resources to survive and sustain ourselves come what may.

In today’s world we once again face droughts and famines, as the global climate changes and watercourses dry up or rain washes away fertile soil. This is something we know, and we are beginning to understand the longer term consequences of much of our activity of the last century. We have both da’at and binah – knowledge and understanding. But is seems to me we have not yet taken on board the need for wisdom.  Joseph had a plan that did not stop the famine, but did mean that no one went hungry – he was proactive rather than reactive. He could imagine the worst case and worked to avert it. It is a lesson – an a quality – we need to acquire quickly if we are not to be overwhelmed by our own environment.

 

mikketz – seeing ourselves as foreign may enable change; or, how a new perspective can open up a new life

By the time the family of Jacob came to Egypt to find food, their brother Joseph is unrecognizable as the good looking, spoiled young lad who was thrown into the pit at Shechem. He is thoroughly Egyptianised.  His name is changed to Zaphenat Pane’ach, his style of dress is Egyptian, he has an Egyptian wife Asenat and native born children. He has status in the community as right hand man to Pharaoh. It is highly unlikely that the brothers, who think that their brother Joseph had most probably died in the intervening 22 years since they last saw him, will suspect Zaphenat Pane’ach of being anything except he court official he apparently is, yet we have the verse early on in their meeting   – ”And Joseph saw his brothers and he recognised them, but he made himself strange (unrecognisable) to them. (42:7)

ז וַיַּ֥רְא יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־אֶחָ֖יו וַיַּכִּרֵ֑ם וַיִּתְנַכֵּ֨ר אֲלֵיהֶ֜ם

Va’yar Yosef et echav, va’ya’kireim, va’yit’nakeir alei’hem

There is a peculiarity of the Hebrew language here – the Torah expressing two opposite meanings by employing the same Hebrew root  נכּר  in two different grammatical voices – one meaning to disclose an identity, to recognise someone, and the other meaning to conceal identity/ to be a stranger/ to be unrecognisable.

Joseph’s purpose in concealing his identity and putting his family through so  much anguish is the subject of a great deal of rabbinic commentary. After all, he charged his brothers with espionage, incarcerated Shimon, demanded the presence of Benjamin in Egypt and finally framed Benjamin as a thief before admitting to his brothers his true identity and inviting the whole family to stay with him in Egypt.  It is pretty horrible to read this apparent abuse of power, and the traditional commentators have had a hard time refuting the charge that Joseph’s motives for such behaviour were vengeful and cruel. They bring three separate explanations for his unbrotherly conduct:

The first is that he manoeuvred in this way so as to bring about the realisation of the dreams he had had in his youth – the dream that his brothers and father would prostrate themselves before him. The second is that he was attempting to teach his brothers the lessons of his own experiences which they had brought upon him by allowing him to be sold into slavery, framed as a criminal and imprisoned. And the third –  that he devised the various experiments and tests so as to assure himself  of their complete change of heart and their repentance.

None of these explanations fully satisfies us about what was in Joseph’s mind when he treated his brothers so roughly, but the end result is worth noting, for it becomes clear that the brothers have indeed changed since they last saw Joseph. They no longer hate Rachel’s sons,  and they are solicitous of their father’s feelings. The way is paved for one of the recurrent themes in bible- for brothers to become reconciled after a period of estrangement.

So what is going on in this verse where Torah uses the same  verb to express the double event of Joseph recognising his brothers  while hiding his own identity?   The pun draws the eye and ear to the text of this verse, yet Joseph’s actions in the rest of the chapter seem to throw no light on why he did what he did – hence the energy used for the rabbinic apologetics – something important must be happening here, and we must try to find out what it is.

Let’s look at the situation from a different angle:-

Joseph recognises his brothers, but he cannot know them, for 22 years have passed since he  last saw them. He already had a foreign persona, and the brothers, described in the text both as Joseph’s brothers and as Jacobs sons will be unable to perceive their relation in Zaphenat Pane’ach: – they will only able to relate to the young vain Joseph as they remember him, not the powerful figure second only to the Pharaoh who sits before them.

Joseph makes himself even more foreign וַיִּתְנַכֵּ֨ר and puts his brothers into uncomfortable situations before finally revealing himself. The extreme foreignness is  the prelude to the reconciliation.   It is almost as if the difference between Joseph and his brothers 22 years earlier, and their situation now has to be exaggerated to prove that all the protagonists in the story are now quite different people  – so that their arguments can be resolved and put into the past;  and only then can reconciliation take place.

Far from revealing himself immediately – “look at me, I’m the same Joseph you lost”, Joseph has to show his new characteristics and persona “look at me – I’ve changed”

The brothers too must display how much they have grown and changed. Sometimes, when a fight and a separation have been too hurtful, it is necessary for a period of separation to be followed by proof of change, before  reconciliation can be attempted and the situation resolved. With all the other stories of brotherly argument and reconciliation, this proof of change was not needed, presumably because the hurt was not quite so life changing as what had been done to Joseph.

It seems that here in the final story of sibling rivalry and reconciliation, we have an extra dimension to our understanding of necessary change  before reconciliation can take place – each side must show they are no longer the people who had been in conflict earlier in their lives but have deepened in their understanding of the other and grown in maturity.  Consequently the extra need for “foreignness” or “strangeness” is emphasised in the story. Joseph is no longer the youthful and untested dreamer who had so hurt his brothers with his arrogance and certainty. And they, having lived with the guilt of his disappearance and the grief of their father,  are no longer his hate filled siblings.

We are reaching the end of the secular year – always a good time to take stock of our lives. And it is a good time to look at our own hurts and estrangements,  as individuals and as a community and as a people, and to question how far we are along our journey towards reconciliations of the hurt and the damage we harbour.  We can look within the Jewish world, with its politics and power games, and we can look at the behaviour of Israel both internally to its peoples and externally to its diaspora, and we see much work to be done, much change to happen before the Jewish people become our best selves.

And each of us as individual human beings has our own list of hurts with which we have been unable to deal yet, and maybe we need to change ourselves before we can begin to address them – we like Joseph, need both to recognise the other and also change ourselves.

Le’hit’nacher – to make ourselves different, to hide parts of ourselves and to develop and prioritise other charcteristics within ourselves, to make ourselves foreign to our past faults. It is all part of the small steps we make towards reconciliation and resolution of our hurts and our mistakes. It is something, like Joseph, we can choose to do, even if, like Joseph, we do it in small steps and out of some fear that nothing has yet changed for us from the outside.

Mikketz means “at the end of”. Every new step has the possibility of ending something with which we are familiar or comfortable – it is why the fear of change is so strongly rooted in us.  But to follow Joseph’s example, to make ourselves different, foreign, changed from our usual narratives – it seems that we might bring an end to some of our hurts, and open a door for ourselves into the future.

sermon given at lev chadash milano 2017