Thoughts on Parashat Miketz

Menachem Mirski

How should we live? On what basis should we make life choices? Should we trust God, ourselves, or maybe other people, for example those from the government? Or maybe we should trust only some people, or for example experts and science and technology?

Of course we can find answers to these questions in the Torah and Rabbinic literature. Last week’s Torah portion ends with the story about Joseph interpreting the dreams of the cupbearer and the chief baker. According to the prophecies conveyed in both dreams the chief baker will be sentenced to death, whereas the cupbearer will be restored to serving at the Pharaoh’s court. Joseph knows that this will happen, that’s why he asks the cupbearer:

But think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place. (Gen 40:14)

In this week’s Torah portion we read that Joseph had to wait for two years to get out of jail:

After two years’ time, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, when out of the Nile there came up seven cows, handsome and sturdy, and they grazed in the reed grass. (Gen 41:1-2)

Why is the Torah even mentioning this? Why did 2 years have to pass before the Pharaoh had a dream that only Joseph could explain?

According to Midrash Bereshit Rabbah Joseph had to spend two additional years in prison because the Divine plan for the world and the people of Israel had to be fulfilled. But the Midrash adds one detail: these two years correspond to the two words that Joseph “inadvertently” said to the cupbearer:

But think of me… and [mention me] to Pharaoh… (Gen 40:14)

Joseph was punished because these words show his desperation, and at the same time his lack of faith in the Eternal. Joseph sinned because he did not have trust in the Eternal, but instead he was relying on one, ordinary person (which actually sounds quite rational, considering the possibilities and limitations and the strengths and weaknesses of an average person). Joseph was punished because he was a tzadik, and Adonai medakdek im tzadikim k’chut ha’saara – Adonai is scrupulous with tzaddikim even to a single hair. The essence of being a tzadik is therefore extraordinary scrupulousness and completely  entrusting God with one’s life, in every aspect of one’s life. Everything comes down to fulfilling God’s law and to faith in the Eternal; since everything that happens in our lives comes from Him (including of course various punishments and rewards). But on the other hand in the rabbinical tradition we have a clear doctrine stating that we should never, especially in difficult situations, expect that a “miracle will happen” and we shouldn’t rely on such faith:

A person should never stand in a place of danger saying that they on High will perform a miracle for him, lest in the end they do not perform a miracle for him. And, moreover, even if they do perform a miracle for him, they will deduct it from his merits. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 32a)

So is there a contradiction between these two concepts? No, if we define more precisely what faith in God is. First of all, faith in the Eternal does not come down to believing in miracles. The great majority of paths that God shows us in our lives do not have a miraculous or supernatural character, but are rather completely ordinary and natural. Relying on miracles is perceived as “testing God” and is forbidden:

Do not try the LORD your God, as you did at Massah. (Deuteronomy 6:16)

Actually in Massah the Israelites did try God: while standing in front of the Horab Mountain, waiting for Moses to miraculously retrieve water from the rock for them, they asked:

“Is the Eternal present among us or not?”  (Ex 17:8)

Let’s go back to the questions we asked at the beginning: How should we live? On what basis should we make life choices? Should we trust God, ourselves, or maybe other people, for example those from the government? Or maybe we should trust only some people, or for example experts and science and technology?  Certainly we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket and not leave everything to God, whom we should nonetheless trust. So in each situation we should have a multi-prong approach and have several alternative plans. We should trust both people and ourselves, as well as science and technology, but consider each of them with prudence and necessary critical thinking.

Trusting God entails mainly fulfilling His commandments. And when it comes to our expectations towards Him, then yes, we can expect from God help in every life situation. But we shouldn’t expect that God’s answer will have a miraculous, supernatural character or that it will be exactly as we wish. God usually offers us many different solutions; they are not always what we’d imagined they would be, although they often come close. Joseph trusted one possibility; a possibility that God didn’t actually consider in His plans.

God’s answer can come in different shapes: for example the Eternal gives us wisdom as well as inspiration and motivation to act and He removes the obstacles standing in our way. But in order to access His help and protection, we must open our hearts and minds to the world as widely as possible, so that we can notice everything that the Eternal has planned for us, since everything that happens around us is an element of the Divine plan – usually an element “which is not aware of itself”.

Shabbat Shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Divine Actions Viewed as the Sum of Human Actions

Divine Actions Viewed as the Sum of Human Actions

Thoughts on Parashat Vayigash

Menachem Mirski

In this week’s Parashat we find the continuation of the famous story of Joseph and his life in Egypt. Joseph puts his brothers who came to Egypt to one final test. He orders his brothers to bring him the youngest one, Benjamin, who stayed with their father, Jacob. Juda begs Joseph not to force them to do that for the sake of their elderly father. Instead, he offers that he can become Joseph’s slave. Not able to hide his emotions any longer, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. Seeing their shame and guilty conscience, he consoles them with the following words:

God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. “Now, hurry back to my father and say to him: Thus says your son Joseph, ‘God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me without delay. 

(Bereshit 45:7-9)

How is this story different from other Biblical stories? In Joseph’s story there are no miracles, no direct Divine intervention. Moreover, no one in this story interacts directly with God; there are no prayers, no petitions, pleading etc., all of which are quite a common theme in the Book of Genesis/Bereshit. In this story, just like in the Book of Esther, Divine actions do not go beyond the realm of human actions (other parallels between these two stories could also be pointed out, such as the idea that the acts and activity of a single person are able to deliver the entire nation from a dramatic turn of events; as well as linguistic and narrative-related similarities etc.). However, what distinguishes Divine actions from human actions (which are part of them) is their depth, long-term perspective and the far-sightedness of the goal they are meant to achieve.

This week’s story is a perfect example of how “short-term” human actions can be part of a more comprehensive Divine plan. Moreover, it shows us that we are often able to discover the true meaning of events only in hindsight, oftentimes only after many years, and then we recognize that they were part of a more comprehensive Divine plan. Also, all such events and Divine actions can undoubtedly be described as miraculous and many times when we experience similar events in our own lives that is exactly how we describe them. Their miraculousness is reflected in the improbable, or very unlikely series of events and actions, which nonetheless form a certain logical and meaningful whole.

The so called “traditional” definition of a miracle – as an occurrence  transcending or contradicting the laws of nature – by no means reflects a traditional Jewish approach. It is essentially a Greek concept, which to a certain extent has been adopted by our tradition.However, in reality in the Hebrew Bible the concept of nature does not appear at all, and therefore viewing a miracle as something “contrary to nature” is a non-Biblical approach. The Bible does not employ the concept of nature, but rather the concept of creation – a process which takes continuously place in the world, which happens every single minute. In this sense every occurrence or action can be viewed as miraculous, and whether they comply with the laws of nature or not isn’t actually of any great significance.

What does all of these mean for us, for our spirituality and our every-day life? For instance, that we do not have to, and in fact we shouldn’t view Divine actions manifesting in our world as inherently supernatural. Something resembling a justification for this view can be found in the Talmud:

A person should never stand in a place of danger saying that they on High will perform a miracle for him, lest in the end they do not perform a miracle for him. And, moreover, even if they do perform a miracle for him, they will deduct it from his merits. 

(Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 32a.)

So, for example, if we are praying for someone’s health, we are not asking for a Divine, supernatural intervention, but rather for example for God to inspire the ill person and everyone around them so that they will undertake actions leading to their successful recovery, and also for God to grant all of them strength and perseverance as they engage in those actions. If we are praying for peace in the world, we are in fact praying for people to stop hurting one another, to stop committing evil acts, different sorts of cruelties and so on – which is so little, and yet so much to ask. Observing the laws of the Torah and following the guidelines reflecting the wisdom of our tradition ensures that if we meticulously follow these rules, then we won’t hurt other people nor commit any evil acts. So little, and yet so much to ask.However, this cannot guarantee that we won’t experience any such wrong doings from other people; as long as there is even one person committing evil acts in this world, there will be at least one other person who experiences wrongdoing.However, both God and the Torah are aware of this and they always take this fact into account. Thanks to this we can (and we do) participate in the process of repairing the world, and we do this every day by performing good deeds, by acting justly and with love towards all those around us.

Shabat Shalom,

Menachem Mirski

Translated from Polish by: MarzenaSzymańska-Błotnicka