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Parashat Miketz 5776 — 12/12/2015

Parashat Miketz 5776 — 12/12/2015

Bereishit 41:1-44:17

It happened at the end (miKetz) of two years’ time (41:1)

The commentators give numerous explanations for the two-year delay between the freeing of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and his bringing Yosef to the attention of Pharaoh.  The “standard” explanation is that Yosef should have had enough faith in Gd that he would be released from prison at the proper time, and shouldn’t have asked, even begged, for the cupbearer to intercede for him.  While for any of us, who are on a lower level of faith in Gd, it is a positive mitzvah to use our own activity to get out of a negative situation, for someone at Yosef’s exalted level, it was improper.  While he might have recognized that in some way the cupbearer and his dream was going to be Yosef’s ticket out of the dungeon, he should have left it to Gd to work out the details.  (And, as it turned out, no action was needed on his part at all – Gd did arrange the whole thing.)  In this view, the extra two years were a punishment for Yosef’s inappropriate behavior.

R. Steinsaltz takes a different approach.  He points out that the cupbearer was probably correct in not blurting out, on his first day back on the job, something about this Hebrew slave kid in the prison who was a whiz-bang dream interpreter.  Timing is everything.  You have to wait till Pharaoh is in a receptive mood.  You have to wait till he’s not busy with affairs of state.  Probably most important, you have to wait till the information is relevant.  If Pharaoh isn’t having an issue with his dreams, why would he care about a slave who can interpret them?!?  It is only after two years that the right opportunity presented itself, and one could even say that the cupbearer seized the first chance he had!  In this view, the two years wasn’t a punishment at all – it was just the right time.  (I know one could argue that Gd arranged for the right time to emerge two years later than it might have otherwise.  We are not discussing mathematical proofs here – we are talking about different approaches to a text that can lend itself to multiple interpretations!)

Whichever approach we prefer, we do find the concept of a ketz, a proper time, a time that is bashert, for any particular event.  In fact, everything works out at the proper time, unless we apply our own limited intelligence to the matter and try to hurry things along, or try to delay things that we think we don’t want.  In that case, Gd goes to plan B and gets us to where we need to be by a roundabout path.  According to the first approach above, that is what happened to Yosef.  Reflecting on my own life over the past year I see numerous instances where Gd needed plan B or C or D, and I have also found numerous instances where the situation was sensitive enough that I was not allowed to have certain information or take a certain path, so that I was protected from messing everything up; circumstances that I thought at the time were disappointing, I see with 20-20 hindsight that all the elements for a succesful resolution were just not in place yet.  This has taught me patience.  Growing up in New York did not teach me patience.

R. Steinsaltz points out that this idea that a preordained time is sometimes not a preordained time has a long history in Jewish thought (and in Scripture).  The Egyptian exile was supposed to last 400 years, but it’s clear from Scripture itself that it was considerably shorter.  The Midrash tells us why: the Jewish people had sunk to such a low spiritual level that if they had not been redeemed when Gd redeemed them, they would not have been redeemed at all.  The flip side is that  the Redemption from Egypt was not a “complete redemption.”  Moshe Rabbeinu was prevented from leading the people into the Land of Israel, and we have had to suffer various exiles and periods of bondage since then to “make up” for the lost time.  The period from the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) to the present is one of those exiles.

The most outstanding example of this principle is the coming of Mashiach and the final Redemption.  Isaiah quotes Gd saying “I will hasten it [i.e. the Messianic age] in its time” (60:22)  The Talmud asks, if Gd will hasten it, it will come before its [preordained] time.  If it comes at its preordained time, obviously Gd didn’t hasten it.  How is the contradiction to be resolved?  The answer given is that if Israel merits it, it will come early.  If not, it will come at the preordained time.  This is in a way the converse of “at the end of two years.”  Instead of an inappropriate action’s delaying some outcome, we find that merit can hasten an outcome.  Indeed, there is a principle that a favorable prophecy will always come true (if the prophet is genuine – how can we tell?  That is a tale for another day!) but an unfavorable prophecy can almost always be abrogated by sincere repentance (see the Book of Jonah for an excellent example).

In the case of the final Redemption, there is a price to pay for not “hastening” it by improving ourselves.  That price is increased turbulence, violence, and all kinds of negativity will be raining down on us if Mashiach comes in the course of time.  These times will be so bad that one Talmudic Sage said “may Mashiach come soon and may I not be alive to see it!”  Presumably he preferred watching from a safe perch in the World to Come.  Incidentally, when any physical substance undergoes a phase transition (e.g. water boiling) the time immediately prior to the phase transition is characterized by increased turbulence and disorder.  The social “phase transition” we will be going through will be a sharp discontinuity between our materially oriented world to a spiritually oriented reality of which we can only have a vague glimpse or hint.  The bigger the discontinuity, the bigger the disruption, and the more painful the transition.

The solution is to reduce the disconnect between our current reality and the coming reality.  The coming reality will be much more spiritual – we will understand and experience that the primary reality of our life is our soul, our inner, infinite essence.  All the issues of the body that we get so worked up about will soon lie “mouldering in the grave” – why should we be worried so much about them?  The more we can bring our thinking in line with this ultimate reality now, the more we will enjoy our current state, and the easier will be the transition to the glorious future!

Haftarah: I Kings 3:15-4:1

The Haftarah is the famous incident of the “judgment of Solomon,” where he detects the real mother of a disputed child by threatening to kill it.  There are two connections to the parashah.  First, Solomon’s great wisdom is given to him by Gd in a dream (Pharaoh’s dream).  The second connection is the wisdom itself – Solomon has a deep, intuitive understanding of human nature, and Yosef has a deep, intuitive understanding of nature itself, and the way it impinges on human consciousness.  In both cases, this wisdom comes from Gd, as is explicit in the story of King Solomon, and as Yosef tells Pharaoh, “Not I!  Gd will see to the welfare of Pharaoh.”  This idea that wisdom comes from within is quite profound.  We have probably all had the experience of seeing an extremely creative person come up with an astounding insight or an entirely new perspective on some existing object (Picasso’s “Bull’s Head,” made of a bicycle seat and handlebars is a wonderful example) and thinking, “Where did he get that from?!”  The answer is that in many cases the thinker or the artist couldn’t tell you themselves – it just came bubbling up from inside.  But in truth, we all have infinity inside ourselves, the unbounded source of creativity that structures the entire cosmos is contained, in seed form, in our own souls.  Truly, if we were able to tap into that on a consistent basis, we too would have the wisdom of Solomon or of Yosef!