Parashat Miketz: Toward brotherly love

The biblical story of Joseph and his brothers has fired the imagination of all the traditional commentators as well as of gentile novelists such as Thomas Mann.

josef theater 88 224 (photo credit: Roadside Theater)
josef theater 88 224
(photo credit: Roadside Theater)
The biblical story of Joseph and his brothers has fired the imagination of all the traditional commentators as well as of gentile novelists such as Thomas Mann (who wrote the magnificent Joseph and His Brothers trilogy). I would like to attempt to understand the basis for the brothers' hatred of Joseph - beyond the factor of jealousy, which certainly was present but which hopefully would not in and of itself have justified their desire to see him die in the pit or be sold into slavery - and from that context interpret the significance of Joseph's initial meeting with Pharaoh. I would suggest that the key lies in Rebekah's fundamental disagreement with her husband, Isaac, concerning their twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Isaac (according to the Malbim) desired to make a division between the birthright - which is the patrimony of the carrier of the mission of Abraham, the medium through whom peace and redemption that will come to all the earth (as a result of his teaching of ethical monotheism, a God of love, morality and peace, Genesis 12:3) - and the material gifts and political domination which are the means by which the birthright can be disseminated. Jacob was taught by Rebekah that it is sometimes necessary to use the hands - aggressive weaponry, manipulation and domination - in order to make Good triumph in a world where citizens often choose Evil. This may be justifiable as long as the long-term goal remains a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with the God of loving charity and moral justice taking center stage. Once this dream is forgotten, however, supplanted by the quest for material blessings, Jacob must leave Laban-land and return to his ancestral country and mission (Genesis 31:10-13). Now comes the next generation, with its crucial question of leadership. Joseph, eldest son of Jacob's beloved wife Rachel, is clearly the favorite, the son who receives the coat of many colors - symbol of familial leadership and, for these descendants of Abraham, the bearer of the birthright mission. But what is Joseph's dream? Sheaves of grain in a field, with 11 sheaves bowing down to his. Is this not a far more materialistic vision than that of Israeli shepherds? Is this not a dream of political domination emanating from physical blessings, to the exclusion of a moral and God-centered birthright? (Gen. 37:7,8). No, conclude the brothers, Joseph is hardly worthy of the birthright and its concomitant blessings. But then Joseph has a second dream - this time of the sun, moon and stars bowing down to him (ibid, 9). Here at least he adds the heavens to his dream of earthly prosperity - the heavens which in Jacob's dream symbolized spirituality. But that God is not at center stage in Joseph's dream; Joseph himself takes center stage. On the one hand, Jacob scolds his son, but at the same time he suspends judgment, deciding to "watch" and see the ultimate direction of this special son's vision (ibid 10). Perhaps Egypt and the heavens will lead to the universal Abrahamic vision of world redemption. The brothers, however, are convinced that unless this political and materialistic dreamer is out of the picture, the entire Abrahamic goal could be aborted. Fortunately, however, Joseph changes as a result of his many trials and tribulations. He has suddenly been made aware of the deep enmity of his brothers - in no small measure due to his own arrogance and lack of self-awareness, but fueled by his father's favoritism - and slowly begins to realize that one's destiny is a combination of one's own ego and the direct involvement of God. Hence, when he does stand before Pharaoh, it is with the recognition that if indeed he correctly analyzes Pharaoh's dream, "It is not by my own power; only God can provide the answer to the satisfaction of Pharaoh" (Gen. 41:16). Yes, Joseph has come a long way. He is indeed fulfilling a great part of the Abrahamic vision by teaching the planet's most powerful leader about the God of Israel and the world. But will he also be able to unite his own brothers with a new shared dream of ethical monotheism and world redemption? Does he understand that the message to the world must emanate from a united Israel within the Jewish homeland? All this remains to be seen, as the drama of Joseph and his brothers continues to unfold. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.