Commentary on Parashat Miketz, Genesis 41:1 - 44:17
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 (Genesis 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 Genesis 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 (also spelled Menasheh), “For God has made me forget all the troubles I endured in my father’s house” (Genesis 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 (Genesis 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” (Genesis 41:52). His marriage to Asenath (also spelled Osnat) 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).
Teshuvah is, indeed, a primary theme of Parashat Miketz. The word, too often mistranslated as “repentance,” actually means “return”–to the right path. Whereas “repentance” connotes remorse and self-flagellation, “return” suggests a kind of joyous homecoming. Our mistakes, rather than serving solely as a source of guilt, become also a springboard of opportunity.
Perhaps unwittingly, the brothers had begun the process of teshuvah before meeting Joseph again in Egypt. In Genesis 42:1, at home with their father, they are referred to as Jacob’s sons. Two verses later, on their way to Egypt, we read, “So Joseph’s brothers went down …” Restating classic Midrash, Rashi opines that “they set their hearts on conducting themselves toward him as brothers.” This is an optimistic reading, but the language does suggest a change in their relationship to Joseph-though one that is undoubtedly buried beneath layers of guilt and denial.
Joseph manipulates the situation so that the brothers’ feelings can rise to the surface. Simeon is held back as ransom. Alarmed at the prospect of returning home to their father one brother short, the brothers recall their cruelty of more than twenty years ago: “Oh, we are being punished on account of our brother! We saw his soul’s distress when he pleaded with us, but we didn’t listen …” (Genesis 42:21). Perhaps because they could not hear him then, Joseph’s pleading was not mentioned in the initial narrative (Genesis 37). Now, for the first time, the brothers exhibit empathy toward Joseph. According to Marsha Pravder Mirkin, empathy is the key to teshuvah): “Empathy … is valuing another person enough to listen and hear her voice. It is a halting that then allows us to take action … that brings us closer to becoming the best we can be” (“Hearken to Her Voice: Empathy as Teshuvah,” in Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith A. Kates, eds., Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days, 1997, p. 70).
A New Attitude
When the brothers return to their father in Canaan, a significant transformation has occurred. The first indication is their report of their time in Egypt: the brothers demonstrate a newfound sensitivity to their father’s feelings, sparing Jacob some of the more disturbing details of their journey. Modern Israeli commentator Nehama Leibowitz points out, for example, that they omit Joseph’s original plan to keep all but one of them in Egypt (Genesis 42:16) and the threat of death (Genesis 42:20) (New Studies in Bereshit/Genesis, undated, pp. 471-2).
Then, in the face of their father’s fear for Benjamin’s life, Reuben offers his own sons’ lives in pledge for Benjamin’s (Genesis 42:37). This is an impulsive and ill-conceived gesture-yet a marked change for the man whose idea it was to throw Joseph into the pit (Genesis 37:22). Finally Judah, who had convinced his brothers to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:27), offers to take personal responsibility for the life of his youngest brother (43:9). Clearly, Judah is the brother who has matured and evolved the most.
He and his brothers have made peace with their father’s favoritism. We might imagine that, after Joseph forces them to confront their guilt, they realize that their earlier violent response to their father’s unequal love has not changed Jacob. Aware that hurting Jacob or Benjamin will not get them greater attention from their farther, they come to terms with Jacob’s failings, choosing compassion over anger in their dealings with him.
This parashah ends mid-action, leaving us to wonder: Will Joseph really enslave Benjamin? How will the brothers respond? Will Joseph reveal his identity? The answers are not clear-because neither Joseph’s motivation for putting his brothers through this ordeal, nor their commitment to ethical behavior, are fully actualized until the next parashah. Perhaps the Rabbis broke off the story here to suggest that our choices are moment-to-moment decisions, the path never certain until the time comes to act. This cliffhanger ending is also a signal of hope, because teshuvah is always open to us.
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).
Pronounced: tuh-SHOO-vah, (oo as in boot) Origin: Hebrew, literally “return”, referring to the “return to God” teshuvah is often translated as “repentance.” It is one of the most significant themes and spiritual components of the High Holidays.
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.