Weekly Torah Talk on Miketz 5773

on Wednesday, 12 December 2012. Posted in Torah Talks

Affirming Identity

In this week's Torah portion of Miketz, we are in the midst of the fabulous story of Joseph, now shorn of his Technicolor dreamcoat and locked away in an Egyptian prison.

And here dreams play a central role— not for the first time in Genesis, and not for the first time in the Joseph story. In Miketz, Pharaoh, the king of Egypt dreams a famous dream: seven fat cows emerge from the Nile River, and then are eaten by seven skinny cows; then seven fat ears of grain are devoured by seven lean ears of grain. What does it all mean?

None of the Egyptian king's brilliant advisers and counselors can help him; apparently his cabinet selection team has failed him. In desperation he turns to a forgotten Hebrew prisoner who once helped his chief wine steward—that is, his bartender—when he was in jail with him.

Joseph is dragged from prison, cleaned up, and brought to the Pharaoh, perhaps the most powerful man in the world at that time. He hears the dream, and correctly interprets it as prophesying seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Giving full credit to God for being his only source of insight, Joseph helps the Pharaoh to save Egypt, and things go well for both him and Egypt. He rises to great prominence—the second in command of the whole country— and the Pharoah's power is multiplied while his people are saved from destruction.

Joseph marries, and has two children. But oddly, his great success, his fame throughout Egypt, and new family aren't quite enough for Joseph. He misses his father, left behind in Canaan, and pines for his younger brother Benjamin, the only living reminder of his dead mother, Rachel. He never expects to see his father and full brother again.

And then, in a plot twist worthy of our finest novelists, his brothers are compelled by famine to come down to Egypt to buy bread. And suddenly the same characters who beat him and sold him into slavery are completely in his power.

What an amazing opportunity for revenge! And in this week's Torah portion of Miketz, Joseph seems to take advantage of that. He teases and torment his brothers—he, fully aware of their identity, and they, completely ignorant of his.

What will happen? As the Torah portion concludes we are left wondering just which way it will all go. Next week we get the answer.

But this week, the issue is clearly delineated: how exactly will an assimilated Jew respond to pressure to hide his identity? Just as the Jews in the days of the Maccabees struggled with tremendous pressure to accept cultural subjugation and give up their Judaism, so too Joseph struggled with hiding his identity or admitting it in public. So too, in a season in which the majority culture can overwhelm us with its songs, foods, and religious trappings, we Jews, too, sometimes struggle to assert our pride in our own Jewish identities.

May we learn from the lessons of Joseph and the Macabees that Jewish identity must be asserted proudly and with commitment, even in the darkest of days.

Happy Hanukkah!

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