Mikeitz - Joseph, the last Patriarch
2015 S.H. Parker

Traditionally, we are taught there are three Patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob - and four matriarchs - Sarah, Rebekkah, Leah and Rachel. But such a lack of symmetry is very atypical of Torah.

Taking a traditionalist perspective we have to wonder, why is Joseph's story the longest story in the entire Torah? We also need to ask why does Torah repeatedly tell us that Joseph was Jacob's favorite? In the face of Jacob's extreme reluctance to send Benjamin with his brothers, the issue becomes ... confusing.

The simple answer, and one confirmed by the events in this sedrah and the sedrot following, is that Joseph is, if not "designated," the de facto heir to leadership of the tribe.

On a text-critical analysis, Joseph is the mythic ancestor of a tribe or tribes that unite, covenant, with the tribe(s) of Jacob becoming, respectively, the northern and southern kingdoms, united for a century under David and Solomon. As the epic hero of the Israelite clans, he needs billing on a par with the epic hero of the Judahite clans.

In either case, Joseph is the last epic hero of Israel's foundation story. His story closes the book of Genesis and, hereafter, the focus shifts from the founders to "the people." Joseph is the fourth Patriarch.  

We read, today, of Joseph's ascension in both Egypt and in the tribes of Jacob, first called bnai Israel in this very sedrah (42:5).

The ascension in Egypt

Pharaoh dreams. His magicians (i.e., priests) cannot divine the meaning. Pharaoh identifies these dreams as important and feels compelled to have a "reading."

The chief of the drink-stewards ("cupbearer"), a mere two years after his promise to Joseph, refers Pharaoh to Joseph.

We get a significant historical marker here. We are told that Joseph shaves. Whoever wrote these stories down would have no reason to know, since western Semites were short-bearded and wore their hair close-cropped, and every reason to reject "and he shaved."

Full-body shaving was practiced by Egyptian priests (along with circumcision and abstaining from eating fish). Joseph is acting the priest to Pharaoh.

Joseph interprets the dreams. Pharaoh likes the interpretation.

Having done what he was asked to do, Joseph promptly oversteps - not surprising, given his previous behavior - and offers Pharaoh advice: appoint "overseers" (the same word that will later be rendered "taskmasters") and "five" the land. Joseph recommends a 20% flat-tax on the grain harvests for the next seven years to lay up stores against the coming years of famine.

Again, we have a significant anachronism. To provide seven years of stored grain, you would expect a 1/7th levy, not 1/5th. This represents an over-taxing of almost six percentage points. One would really expect the writer to use the 1/7th figure. Of course, if you foresee that "Asiatics" (what the Egyptians called western Semites ... Canaanites ... us) will come down to escape the famine - as is well attested in Egyptian records and as in fact happens at the end of this sedrah - setting aside a bit more does make sense.

The next thing we know, Joseph is appointed second-in-command. From convicted sex-offender, albeit wrongfully, to "second only to Pharaoh" in an instant!

How can this be? An Asiatic appointed COO over Egypt? Do we not read a bit later in the sedrah that the Egyptians working for Joseph had to be seated at a separate table, when Joseph does lunch with his brothers, "the Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews because that is an offensive thing to Egypt"? (N.B.: "offensive," here, is the same word later used to characterize male-male physical relations, in the later case, with no specification as to who is offended.) I don't think so ... unless Pharaoh is also an Asiatic and it is the Egyptians who are the subject people.

Another thing: we are given one of the rarest bits of information Torah ever gives. We are told that Joseph was 30 years old at the time of his ascension. We are given a time-marker. We have absolutely no clue who the Pharaoh was; Torah has, as it continually does, gone out of its way to hide any information that would allow us to refer to the Egyptian "King Lists." Torah does not want us to know who he was; he was unimportant, of no consequence.

But we now know that it has been 13 years since Joseph left Canaan.

The famine starts. Joseph is now 37 and the father of Menashe and Ephraim. And Egyptians come to Joseph to buy grain. They buy back the very grain Joseph has been collecting from them the past seven years.

Did any of this happen? Did a Canaanite rule in Egypt? Unfortunately, this part of the story breaks off to be resumed in next week's parsha, Vayigash.

Joseph's ascension over his brothers

The bulk of Mikeitz details Joseph's torturing of his brothers, the mind-games he plays and the psychological warfare he wages against them.

Make no mistake. Despite numerous commentators through the centuries noting how Torah does not hide the deficiencies of its heroes, despite centuries of commentator's apologias and other forced explanations, Joseph does follow in the footsteps of his progenitors and we must say it plainly, Joseph is not a very nice guy, not at all.

Just a few examples will suffice: Abraham gave his wife to another man, not once, but twice. He was willing to stand up for Sodom and Gomorrah but not Sarah. Isaac, quiet Isaac who, by remaining in the land, formally staked the clan's claim to the land, also gave his wife away, though "only" once. Jacob ... well, there's no need to reiterate his deceits. Now Joseph spends weeks, perhaps months, messing with his brothers' heads, psychologically torturing them with no apparent end-game in mind.

No, the patriarchs are just not very nice people....

So. Jacob sends 10 sons to Egypt to "buy a little food." They present themselves to the Governor, Joseph, requesting permission to buy grain.

This strikes a true historical note: permission to enter the country, permission to conduct business when in the country, permission to leave were all required. Entry visa, business license and exit visa were all issued by the governor. This is well attested in Egyptian documents.

Joseph recognizes them, though they don't recognize him. Why should they?-It's been 13 years, Joseph is shaven and made up and dressed in the Egyptian style. But, instead of greeting and forgiving them, instead of confronting and chastising them, instead of rejoicing in the fulfillment of his first dreams or reveling in his brothers kneeling to him, he accuses them of being spies - mind games - and demands that the remaining son, Benjamin, be brought to him. Our story teller makes it clear that Joseph (somehow) knows the distress this will cause within the family. Mind games. 

And, just for chuckles, Joseph tosses the bunch of them in prison for three days. Mind games.

Privately, or so they think, the brothers confess their guilt over their treatment of Joseph. In other words, the brothers are represented as associating their current predicament with their earlier treatment of Joseph and Joseph, as we shall see, does not in any way relent but proceeds to escalate.... Mind games.

Joseph has the brothers' money put in their sacks and arranges it in such a way that they cannot help but discover it but not until they are well on their way home. Mind games. The brothers get all ferklempt ("What is this that God has done to us?"). They are clearly stressed, as they tell their father "The man ... spoke with us hard." They know who is causing their tsuris and they understand that there will be more trouble from "the Lord of the land."

"And they were afraid." And well they should have been. There is much more to come.

Well, famine being what it is, Jacob's camp runs out of food and, after much sturm und drang and many pasukim, the Patriarch finally comes to grips with what he must do, send Benjamin. He tells his sons to "take some of the best fruit" as a "gift," baksheesh.

There's a famine. But "take some of the best fruit?"

They also bring double money.

Again, as protocol requires, they present themselves to Joseph. Joseph has them brought to his house, though the brothers do not know why. They are, however, clearly terrified. Mind games.

While feelings for Benjamin are mentioned, Joseph continues his PsyOps by seating them in correct age-order which, our text points out, the brothers notice with surprise. Mind games. But the feelings aroused by seeing Benjamin do not stop him from not only repeating the return of their money but framing Benjamin for theft of his divining goblet!

We're now way past mind games. Joseph is psychologically torturing his brothers. He has exacted any measure of retribution he may have, in his narcissistic fantasies, thought he was owed. He has passed into cruelty.

And the sedrah ends.

There are a number of interesting parallelisms - a literary technique found throughout Torah but especially so in Genesis -  to previous incidents in Joseph's story:

Joseph's first dreams have come true. His brothers have bowed down to him and are subordinate to him.

Joseph imprisons his brothers. The word for "prison" is the same as "pit," into which they had thrown him.

Reuben, as the eldest, chief of the delegation, should have been the one imprisoned after the first visit to buy grain. But, he opposed selling Joseph and was not present. Simeon, the second oldest was present and responsible and it is Simeon who is imprisoned in recompense.

At the luncheon, the first thing that Joseph says is to inquire if they are well ("he asked about their shalom"). Earlier, the brothers could not even speak shalom to him.

The total number of money bags stuffed into the sacks is 20. This is the number of coins paid for Joseph.

But does this come to teach us anything? Is there not some higher message for us here?

The traditional rabbinic drosh is that God was in control, sending Joseph ahead to help protect the family. This is what centuries of commentators would have us believe: out of evil comes good.

Of course, this is pious and patent nonsense.

"Good from evil?" In the world after Auschwitz....

Furthermore this "lesson" is contradicted by the facts: The eastern Nile delta had been a western Semitic enclave for centuries. Starving Canaanites didn't need protection. They only needed permission to enter. At most Joseph might have been able to get better land for his family (at the expense, of course, of another family).

When I had the opportunity to talk with you about the six days of creation, I mentioned that "beginnings tell us about essences."

Our beginning is four utterly imperfect men. Abraham, the obedient, with occasional flashes of moral defiance. Isaac, the resolute. Jacob ... well, I'm not quite sure what Jacob's virtue was, though he was a conniver par excellance. And, Joseph, the subjugator of the Tribe of Israel and, next week, of Egypt. You would not want to be on the wrong side of any one of them.

If we insist on more than family legends here and, unfortunately, the historicity of this account cannot really be addressed until next week's sedrah, perhaps it is nothing more than I said at Shavuot:

I couldn't even feed myself. I had to go down to Egypt to beg Pharaoh to purchase food to survive.

I am the least of the nations. I come from very ... unpleasant fathers.

I come from nobody. I couldn't provide for myself or my family.

But. Look where we have come to ... the conscience of the world, the constant reminder of God's voice on the stage of history.

And does that have any implications? Assuredly. It means that making good come out of evil is my personal responsibility.