Parashat Miketz: You can come home again

Our relationship to God will always be bound up with our relationship to our family, to the Sabbath and festival table in our childhood home.

Joseph, despite his brothers' callous behavior in casting him into a pit, despite having been sold into Egyptian enslavement, and despite Mrs. Potiphar's failed seduction and subsequent prison revenge, once again lands on his feet. He even manages to emerge as CEO of Pharaoh's kingdom, specifically minister of agriculture and administrator of the emergency food supply for all the nations of the world. We are left, however, with one agonizing question: why, at this high point in his career, does he not contact his grieving father in Israel and inform him that he is alive? He could dispatch a messenger as easily as we make a phone call or send a fax, and he must understand that he would be giving the aged patriarch a bit of nachat. To answer our question, we must first analyze the peregrinations of our patriarchs and their lengthy absences from their parents. Our Bible seems to be teaching that a great part of the birthright involves a profound relationship with the God of the Covenant, and that such a personal God is virtually impossible unless the heir apparent has honestly discovered who he really is, what kind of life he is capable of leading and really wants to lead, and has laid to rest the tensions he has felt in his relationship with his father. One must be at peace with oneself and one's earthly father before one can relate in depth to one's Father in Heaven. In order to find that peace, one must often leave one's father's house and live for a time with oneself. We have already analyzed how Isaac didn't return home with his father Abraham after his traumatic near-sacrifice (akeda) atop Mount Moriah; his God is called the "Fear of Isaac" (Pahad Yitzhak, Gen. 31:53), his having felt terror when Abraham lifted the slaughterer's knife to his throat. He wanders to and from Beer-lahai-roi, overcome with the jealousy of his more dynamic elder brother Ishmael, whom he fears his father loved more than he. At the end of the day, however, Isaac realizes that his father accepted God's command that he banish Ishmael, and that despite the other children born to Keturah (Hagar), still gave everything of substance that he had, materially as well as spiritually, to Isaac (Gen. 25:5); he is then able to tend to his father (together with Ishmael) at the end of Abraham's life and take his place as the next patriarch. God, however, and probably his father Abraham as well, remain a source of fear for the passive Isaac, continuer par excellence of his father's pathways to God and humanity. Jacob, when he leaves his father's house after deceiving the blind patriarch in order to acquire the blessings, stipulates that he will return to establish a "House unto the Lord" only if he is able to "return in peace" to his father's house, and if the familial God of the Covenant (YHVH) will become his personal God (Gen. 28:21, 22). Jacob has great difficulty with the father who loved (only) Esau. He desperately desired his father's favor, and gladly acquiesces to Rebekah's plan that he disguise himself as Esau to obtain it. Indeed, from that moment on, and especially during his two decades with the dean of deceivers, Laban, Jacob throttles the voice of the "whole-hearted man, a studious dweller in tents" with the rapacious and hypocritical hands of Esau. During all this time, while Jacob is trying to be who he's not, God is never portrayed as his God; He is only portrayed as the God of his fathers (Gen. 27:20; 28:13; 31:53). It is only after Jacob completely disgorges Esau by leaving Laban and vanquishing his brother's spirit during a nocturnal wrestling match with himself that he makes an altar to his own God in his own name, "the Lord God of Israel" (Gen. 33:20). And at the end of this long journey, he is finally able to forgive his father for favoring the older twin who spurned the birthright, and can feel his father's forgiveness for having deceived him. Jacob can finally come home to his father in peace and establish himself as the next patriarch. Now we return to Joseph. The Bible has told us that he is the clear favorite of Jacob, for whom he is the wise son of his old age (Gen. 37:2,3). His existential self seems bound up in his father's doting love. At an early stage in his development he is given the birthright with the coat of many colors. The familial traditions and responsibilities seem to be a perfect fit for this beautiful, intelligent, ambitious and charismatic son of a father's most beloved wife. And then jealous siblings cast Joseph into a pit, threatening to end not only his dreams but also his life. I would suggest that in that pit the son not only felt the jealous hatred of his brothers, but also recognized the foolish favoritism of his father which fanned that jealousy. He vows that if he ever gets out alive, he will never contact his father or his father's house again! He works hard to forget these formative years, and names his eldest son Manasseh, born to him from Asenath, daughter of the Priest of On, because the God of the universe "has enabled him to forget all his toil and his father's house" (Gen. 41:51). He speaks and acts Egyptian, estranged from his father as well as from the covenantal God of his father (YHVH). He certainly has no thoughts of contacting his past until he sees his brothers, remembers the blameless and beloved Benjamin, and hears from Judah how his father is grieving for him. After all, if indeed his father was guilty, it was because he loved too much. The lesson is clear. Our relationship to God will always be bound up with our relationship to our family, to the Sabbath and festival table in our childhood home. If these memories are filled with love, we will always return, no matter how far we may have wandered. And until we return, we cannot be true to ourselves, to the essence of God within us. Only when we return in love to our earthly parents can we return in love to our parent in Heaven. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.