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Parashat Miketz 5780 — 12/28/2019

Parashat Miketz 5780 — 12/28/2019

Bereishit 41:1-44:17

The Torah often records dialogues in a rather telegraphic fashion; there is often quite a bit of subtext that needs to be elucidated just to understand the surface meaning. Or haChaim does this on the basis of halachic discussions in the Talmud that would only take place centuries after the events, as we have seen in previous parshiyyot. He has two very long discussions in our parashah along these lines that I would like to outline briefly.

The first instance occurs during the exchange between Yosef and his brothers, where Yosef accuses the brothers of being spies. At first, Yosef imprisons all of them for 3 days. Afterwards, he imprisons Shimon and sends the others home with food and with instructions to bring their other brother, Binyamin, to Egypt – this to prove their innocence, as it was a claim they had made that could be verified (that they were 12 brothers, one who was gone – Yosef – and Binyamin, who had stayed with his father).

Or haChaim’s analysis of this interaction centers around an interesting halachah. If a group of Jews is captured by bandits or by soldiers, and they threaten to kill the whole group unless they hand over one of their number to be killed, it is forbidden to hand over anyone. It is considered murder, and one must allow oneself to be killed rather than to violate the prohibition against murder (the same goes for idolatry and sexual immorality). If, however, the bandits specify the one whom they want, it is permitted to hand that person over. (This is simplifying the discussion.) The reasoning is as follows (see the end of the 8th chapter of the Jerusalem Talmud tractate Terumot): If the bandits specify a person, that person will die whether he is handed over (only he dies) or not (everyone dies, including him). He is not being sacrificed to save the others. This logic does not hold if the captives get to choose one of their own, because in that case nobody is certain to die – perhaps they would choose someone else!

In our case, Yosef ostensibly wants to test the brothers’ truthfulness. He implies that if they are lying, they will all die. He proposes that one of them remain hostage, while the others go get their brother. If they are lying, this is equivalent to telling them “choose someone to be killed.” This the brothers would not do. If they were not lying, there was no real reason to fear that any of them would be killed, so they allowed Shimon to be imprisoned while they went for Binyamin. Or haChaim’s alternative suggestion is that Yosef singled Shimon out, in which case the brothers could hand him over whether they were liable to be killed as spies or not. On the other hand, although the rest of the brothers could escape Egypt this way (had they been lying about their other brother, Binyamin), they would eventually have had to return in any event because of the famine. Egypt was the only game in town when it came to food.

Now the brothers begin debating the reason for the misery they were going through. Since the sale of Yosef was always uppermost in their minds, they assumed that this had something to do with the sale of Yosef. First they eliminated the possibility of their harsh judgment of Yosef as the cause. The Midrash tells us that the brothers formed a Rabbinic Court and found Yosef guilty of trying to usurp the leadership of the family that rightfully belonged to Yehuda. They held that his dreams of dominion in the previous parashah were indicative of his plans and were not prophetic. They held this to be sufficient evidence to convict Yosef of the capital crime of rebellion against the king. Since the death sentence against Yosef was justified, they were confident that their predicament was not due to their verdict.

It is not clear how literally one should take this Midrash. Although one of the seven Noachide commandments is to establish courts of law, and it was clear that such courts must have existed for society to run smoothly, and we have law codes from other, nearby nations from the same historical period, nonetheless, it is unlikely that these courts functioned in the same way that Rabbinic Courts functioned at the time of the Talmud. Further, is knowledge that Yehuda is to be king at some time in the future (and only after the reign of King Shaul, from the tribe of Binyamin) enough to brand Yosef a “rebel” today?

Another alternative is to read the text more or less literally, as a violent outburst of rather petty jealousy, especially on the part of the sons of Leah, against the son of Rachel, perhaps mirroring the rivalry between the two sister-wives themselves. This the Sages will not do – it is axiomatic that the characters from the Patriarchal Age are almost perfect, with even their mistakes enjoying some plausible rationale. It is also possible that the characters are archetypes and their actions and interactions are mirrors of the self-interacting dynamics on the level of Unity which gives rise to creation. I’m not insightful enough to figure out what those dynamics are.

The second interesting halachah that Or haChaim discusses arises in the context of Yehuda’s importuning his father to send Binyamin to Egypt when they go to buy food (and confront Yosef, still not knowing, of course, that it is, in fact, Yosef). Yehuda offers to be a guarantor for Binyamin’s safety: I will be a guarantor for him, you may demand him from me; if I don’t bring him home and stand him before you I will have sinned against you all the days (43:9). The Midrash tells us that when the Jews left Egypt they carried not only Yosef’s coffin with them, but the coffins of all the tribal ancestors. In Yehuda’s case, his bones rattled around in the coffin, indicating that his soul had not come to rest. But he did, in fact, bring Binyamin back and stand him up in front of Ya’akov! Why is he considered to have sinned against his father “all the days” (this phrase being taken to mean in the World to Come as well as in this world)?

Apparently the reason is a halachah stated by R. Yehuda (no relation) in the name of Rav (who lived a good 1500 years after the Exodus): A ban that is conditional [takes effect anyway even if the condition is not fulfilled] and requires annulment (Makkot 11b). It is not clear to me why this should be the case. Granted that one can create reality with one’s words, and the greater the individual, and the deeper level of consciousness that their thoughts and speech come from, the more powerful they are, but why should a condition, coming as it does from the same deep level of consciousness, not also create a reality, a contingent reality based on somebody’s (perhaps a third party’s) free-will decisions?

Part of Or haChaim’s discussion centers around the “proper” way to make a condition on one’s statements. The prototype of such conditions is found at the end of the Book of Numbers, where the tribes of Reuven and Gad make a deal with Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe sums it up as follows: If you go across and fight for the Land with the other tribes, then you will get your inheritance on the east side of the Jordan River [which is what they had asked for]. If you don’t, then your inheritance will come on the west side of the Jordan with the other tribes. This so-called “double condition” is required for the condition to take effect, at least according to some opinions. In most cases, of course, we can figure out the negative from the positive: If I do X then Y, and if I don’t do X then not Y. In the case of the tribes of Reuven and Gad, we don’t have the same symmetry: If you do X then Y, and if you don’t do X then Z. Z is the default, that they would inherit with the other tribes on the Western side of the Jordan, but one might assume that if they didn’t do as they promised they would inherit nothing at all! It would therefore seem that this specific case cannot form a basis for a general rule.

Nonetheless, the halachah is that a conditional ban (excommunication) requires annulment. If this is the case, and if the Patriarchs (including the tribal Patriarchs) followed the entire Torah, why did Ya’akov not annul Yehuda’s vow, especially when he fulfilled the condition!? Or haChaim’s answer goes into the various positions and distinctions made by the various Sages of the Talmud, in order to figure out what Ya’akov’s and Yehuda’s halachic opinions were. In the event, of course, it turns out that Yehuda’s conditional ban did go into effect, for his bones rattled around in their coffin until Moshe prayed for the ban to be annulled, and Gd annulled it.

The ultimate purpose of halachah is to align our thoughts, speech and action with Gd’s Mind and Gd’s Will. Originally, our forefathers were able to intuit what the halachah should be, but with the passing of time, each generation became weaker and weaker in that ability. Gd had to lay things out more and more clearly for us – first in the Written Torah, then in the Mishnah, then in the Gemara, then in the Codes and the Rabbinic literature. Perhaps what Or haChaim is doing by projecting later halachic discussions back into the lives of the Patriarchs is to validate the halachah as it developed against the purer intuition of the Patriarchs. Perhaps it is to make sure that we don’t try to use our own, weaker intuition and get led down the primrose path.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Mekeitz

We have two sayings that help inform this parshah:
“Gd is in the details”;
“The Whole is Greater than the Sum of the Parts.”

In this parshah, Joseph, an unwilling representative to Egypt-Mitzraim, the Land of Restrictions, from Canaan, the Land of Synchronicity, of Harmony, successfully interprets two dreams of Mitzraim’s ruler, Pharoah, and is given de facto control of Mitzraim.

This is Harmony bringing the parts together so they can make a Whole.

Joseph correctly interpreted Pharoah’s dreams of seven fat cows devoured by seven lean cows and of seven healthy stalks of wheat devoured by seven lean stalks to mean that seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine and therefore, Mitzrayim should store up during the fat years so it would have enough to last through the lean years.

Joseph’s Harmony was so great that Pharoah recognized the validity of Joseph’s interpretation and Joseph’s integrity was so great that Pharoah gave him control of organizing the stocking up, organizing which gave him de facto control of the kingdom.

Meanwhile, Harmony in Canaan had already been disturbed by Jacob’s failure to raise his children so that all felt equally loved – even though each might have different skills, some might be wiser, some more skilled in battle, some more skilled in leadership, in peace….

Jacob has failed to completely attend to detail and to reveal Gd in the details of everyday life and relationships in Canaan: Canaan was only partially Canaan, only partially and superficially, The Land of Synchronicity.

And the Harmony was broken further by the sons not learning to flow with Jacob’s behavior and to give love from their side to raise themselves and him to the level where they could feel Full Love, no matter what the surface appearance.

This resulted in betrayal of Jacob’s trust, selling Joseph into slavery, lying to their father, and, eventually famine in Canaan – a solid breakdown of the Plenty that exists when Canaan is Whole, functioning to bring all details into synchronicity, into harmony, and to Reveal Gd as the Wholeness, the Totality, which brings Complete Synchronicity, The Wholeness that is Oneness, of which all the parts are Expressions.

With the famine in Canaan, in Synchronicity, Jacob’s sons had to go to Mitzrayim, raised by Gd through Joseph, to a land of Synchronicity, Fullness.

And they will abandon the land Canaan to settle in Raised Up Mitzrayim, until eventually Wholeness breaks down there and several hundred years later, they need to escape restrictions, return to Canaan within themselves and to the physical land of Canaan. Of this we will learn more in the next Parshah.

This Parshah teaches us, that even in the midst of the ups and downs of life, we can maintain our purity, our Joyful and Reverent Daily Routine, so that we can Love Gd with all our Heart and Soul, Love our Neighbor as Our Self, and fill the fragments, the details, with Harmony, fill limits with Wholeness.

Of course, there are deeper levels of interpretation: All is Gd’s Plan as Joseph later tells his brothers. There are no mistakes in Torah, no villains, no heroes, only Gd telling stories to teach us how to integrate the fragments of life into Wholeness– and at the deepest level, Torah is Gd Humming Torah within Himself, within The Self, our Self, the Only Self.

To this we in our community are rising: Joy and Love, which we have a lot of, radiate a lot of, share a lot of are signs of the return to Wholeness, Teshuvah. Gd, the Self, Is Joy, Is Love.

Baruch HaShem