Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
The painful past casts a long shadow on parashat Miketz. A father’s insensitive treatment of his sons–and the resulting sibling rivalry–form the backdrop to this tale. Though the women are never explicitly mentioned here, Jacob‘s relationship to his sons’ mothers underlies his attitude toward their children. Among his wives, Jacob loves Rachel only, paying scant attention to Leah and the sisters’ maidservants.
Likewise, Jacob dearly favors Joseph–Rachel’s firstborn–showing little evidence of affection toward his other children. Blind to the difficult family dynamic he engenders, Jacob had sent Joseph alone to check on his brothers (37:13-14), setting up a situation rife with the potential for disaster. Joseph’s ensuing disappearance does nothing to stop Jacob from now favoring yet another son, Benjamin, Rachel’s second (see 42:4).
But healing and transformation also begin here. A hint of what is to come is encapsulated in the name Joseph chooses for his first son, Manasseh, “For God has made me forget all the troubles I endured in my father’s house” (41:51). Clearly Joseph has not forgotten his troubles if they form the basis of his son’s name. Rather, it seems that the past is no longer a burden to him. He is able to thrive despite the horrors he suffered in the pit where his jealous brothers threw him (37:24). The name of Joseph’s second son, Ephraim, expresses this forward movement: “For God has made Me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (41:52). His marriage to Asenath indeed bears fruit: their children will become tribes of Israel.
A New Relationship
Joseph soon enables his older brothers to achieve a new relationship with their past as well, creating a set of circumstances that provides them with the Opportunity to respond to favoritism differently. That would represent true teshuvah (literally “return”), as the medieval Spanish rabbi and philosopher Moses Maimonides describes it: teshuvah has occurred when a person, confronted with the opportunity to commit a transgression anew, refrains from doing so–not out of fear of being caught or failure of strength (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah §2.1).