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

Turning point. Thoughts on the parashat Miketz

Turning point. Thoughts on the parashat Miketz

Menachem Mirski

The Torah portion for this week contains the famous story of Joseph, Pharaoh and his dreams of seven fat cows that are swallowed up by seven lean cows, and of seven fat ears of grain swallowed by seven lean ears. Joseph interprets the dreams to mean that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of hunger, and advises Pharaoh to store grain during the plentiful years. Pharaoh appoints Joseph governor of Egypt. Joseph marries Asenath, daughter of Potiphar, and they have two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

Since our biblical story first shows us Pharaoh’s dreams, and then tells us about the real, according to its narrative, events which closely related to those dream visions, we must immediately ask the following questions: What is the connection between Pharaoh’s dreams and reality? Was the Pharaoh a prophet? Was Joseph a prophet? Or maybe they were together “one prophet”?

This question is answered in the verse 25 of this chapter (Bereshit 41):

And Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same: God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do.

Since the dreams concerns affairs of state – the need to prepare for the coming calamity – God revealed it to the chief of state. And since it was a Divine communication, God wished to reveal its interpretation through His own servant, rather than the wizards of Egypt.

Pharaoh was concerned about this dream and this is a clue for us (Bereshit 41: 8). He was so frightened that he commanded all Egyptian fortune tellers and wise men to be called. He was at least as worried as if he knew what the dream was prophesying: that its content is not really about the seven years of abundance, but the following seven years of famine, as noted by Nachmanides:

For the truth of his [Joseph’s] word was not known until the years of famine began, since the years of plenty were not something out of ordinary.

It was the fear of Pharaoh that made him decide to get the advice of the sages. In fact, periods of famine (or using modern analogy: the economic crisis) occur periodically. Pharaoh had to be an enlightened man and he must have known that situations like that had happened in history or perhaps crop failure and famine disaster had already occurred during his reign earlier.

The symbolism of both pharaoh’s dreams is in fact quite simple and, as Joseph himself notes, it is one dream (Bereshit 41:25). We have the river Nile, on which the prosperity of Egypt depends entirely. We have crops and cattle, and therefore vegetation, including animal feed and animals themselves. All this is human food, the foundation of human existence with which something disturbing happens in this dream. Also, the external features of cows symbolize issues that are perennially connected with each other: prosperity and beauty as well as poverty and ugliness. In times of widespread prosperity, people become more beautiful to one another, both internally and externally, whereas in times of poverty and great misfortune the entire „inner ugliness of man” becomes, usually, widely revealed, and the beauty, especially the internal one, becomes a much rarer phenomenon.

Josef, apart from the fact that he quickly read this symbolism, is, according to our story, a man of extremely strong character. Despite the fact that really hard times are approaching, once again we see him calm and rational, and invariably cunning:


Accordingly, let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt.

(Bereshit 41:33)

Why did he say that? The first thought that appeared in my mind while preparing this drasha was the following: he had himself in mind. A moment later, I discovered that this opinion was already expressed by the medieval commentator of the Bible, Nachmanides, in his commentary on this verse. Joseph must have viewed as providential the sudden and dramatic manner in which he was brought before Pharaoh. He still had faith in the fulfillment of his adolescent dreams (Bereshit 37:5-9) and felt that the long-awaited turning point in his destiny had finally arrived. If so, he had to utilize this unique opportunity. He did so by offering his counsel. His advice was so relevant and wise that Pharaoh was enormously impressed.

Before the years of famine came, Joseph became the father of two sons, whom Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, bore to him. Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.”

(Bereshit 41:50-52)

At the same time, Josef got rid of the trauma that had constantly affected him. It disappeared completely when his first son was born. Why? To put it colloquially: Joseph simply grew up. He gained a position, set up a family and adopted full responsibility for everything in his life. From a materialistic and practical point of view, he did not have to do it. Having such a high position in this ancient, patriarchal system, he could lead a ‘rakish’ lifestyle, having many wives and concubines and not being obliged to take direct responsibility – besides the material one – for his family and offspring. It was the prospect of difficult times that made his entire situation serious.  What I believe is that it was the sum of all these events that brought this turning point to his life and made this young man a real man. I also think that this lesson made him later able to forgive his brothers. We are dealing here with a somewhat paradoxical situation: precisely because of the fact that he took up a fully adult life and took full responsibility, not only for himself, but also for others, his youthful dreams were realized.

This story gives us example how a one conversation or one meeting can diametrically change someone’s fate. It also shows how crucial is the proper awareness of the place and time and the ability to use them. This history teaches us that in order to radically change our individual fate it is often enough to be simply vigilant and open to what is happening in the world around us; that it is crucial and at the same time completely sufficient in certain circumstances.

But this story also teaches us that we must not waste our resources; it teaches us something that humanity has been trying to learn for centuries and still cannot learn it.


Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski