Bar Mitzvah of the Week
December 16, 2017
Parshat : Mikeitz Genesis 41:1 - 44:17
Joseph interprets Pharaoh's two dreams and predicts seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine. (41:1-32)
Pharaoh places Joseph in charge of food collection and distribution. (41:37-49)
Joseph marries Asenath, and they have two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. (41:50-52)
When Joseph's brothers come to Egypt to buy food during the famine, Joseph accuses them of spying. He holds Simeon hostage while the rest of the brothers return to Canaan to retrieve Benjamin for him. (42:3-42:38)
The brothers return to Egypt with Benjamin and for more food. Joseph continues the test, this time falsely accusing Benjamin of stealing and declaring that Benjamin must remain his slave. (43:1-44:17)
For more information and resources on this portion, click here.
When my Torah portion begins, Joseph, son of Jacob, is at rock bottom – he is in jail in Egypt. He is living a nightmare that started when his brothers sold him for 20 pieces of silver because they did not like him: they did not like that he was a “dreamer”; but mostly they did not like him because he was their father Jacob’s favorite son.
While in jail, Joseph develops a great ability to interpret dreams. When the Pharaoh has a complicated dream and nobody else can interpret it, the Pharaoh’s cupbearer has an idea to hire Joseph for the job.
The Pharaoh tells Joseph about his dream in which seven skinny and ugly cows go and swallow seven fat and handsome cows. Joseph explains to the Pharaoh that the dream means that there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. The Pharaoh is so thankful that he decides to promote Joseph to be second in charge of Egypt, and responsible for saving food during the seven years of plenty to feed the people during the seven years of famine.
One day during the Famine, Joseph’s brothers come and ask Joseph for food - but they don’t know its Joseph. Joseph recognizes who they are, but doesn’t tell them that he is their brother.
Joseph only accuses them of being spies. He gives them a little bit of food but requires them to bring back his brother Benjamin if they want more food. Benjamin is the youngest of Jacob’s sons and Jacob’s new favorite son. Also, Joseph also holds Simeon, one his other brothers, in prison while the others get Benjamin.
Then, when his brothers return with Benjamin, Joseph frames his younger brother: he plants a wine cup in Benjamin’s bag, and then has him arrested and put in jail for being a thief.
My Koshi Question is: What kind of person and brother is Joseph?
Though the question seems simple, the answer is not.
Rabbis disagree on this point: was Joseph was simply taking revenge? Or is he is also caring? Joseph was complicated.
He did a lot of mean things to his brothers:
• He accuses them of being spies
• He doesn’t reveal his identity
• He tells them they cannot have food unless they bring their brother back
• and then later he frames his brother for robbery and puts him in jail
And Joseph is mean to Jacob too: he held one of Jacob’s son’s hostage (Simean) and refused to provide food to Jacob’s family unless Jacob would put his youngest son, Benjamin, at risk.
However, throughout all of the mean things Joseph did as revenge, Joseph also did show some mercy. For example:
• Joseph was originally going to take 9 of them as prisoners and send one to get Benjamin, but then he showed some mercy and made only one brother stay behind.
• Also, when he sent them back to tell Jacob they needed to bring Benjamin, he gave them food and also gave them their money back.
As much as Joseph wanted to take revenge, he also wanted to help his family. He kept changing his mind. Overall, I think Joseph was more vengeful than caring to his brothers.
But the Torah says you shouldn’t take revenge. Torah teaches: “you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge.” Torah discourages us to want to hurt others the way they have hurt us, teaching: “Do not, say, I will do him as he has done to me”
It seems like Joseph is doing exactly what Jews are not supposed to do. He certainly was not acting kind. But considering that his brothers tried to kill him and then sold him to strangers, it would be strange if he immediately embraced them and forgot the whole thing. His desire for revenge seems totally normal. It’s human instinct.
The way I understand Joseph’s action is that he was a real person: he was not perfect, and he did not always do the right thing. With his actions, Joseph teaches me that nobody is perfect, and furthermore that sometimes we fight with the people we love – including our brothers. And so the portion is teaching that we are human, that we might not do everything the exact right way all the time.
Joseph is a great Jewish patriarch in the Torah and I think his story also teaches that you don’t have to be perfect to be Jewish.
Finally, the story is important to me because it is about brothers. Joseph’s brothers were probably worse to him than mine are to me. Well maybe not. But eventually, Joseph finds a way to forgive his brothers, and his brothers forgive him. As with Joseph, I know that when I fight with my brothers, the instinct for revenge always comes first, but doesn’t last long. We always forgive each other and move on.
Overall, the story of Joseph teaches me more about forgiveness than revenge.