Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Mi-Ketz: Joseph rises, his brothers bow

As usual, before getting into this weeks parsha, I have a few things to mention. Sort of random in nature but significant enough I feel like sharing.

1) I waited at the bus tonight to go to the Post Office, which was closed when I got there (I could have sworn there were holiday hours, but alas, it closed at 5). So I waited for yet another bus at a stop with a man who talked to me about the wrestling match he went to last night and to a woman there with her toddler, Amit. It seemed like she was speaking Hebrew, but at times it also sounded German. But then, as Amit grew wrestless and began toddling about, she started singing to him -- in Hebrew. She must be Israeli, I thought. Mind you, I only learned Amit's name after I heard her singing in Hebrew. Not that Amit would have given it away, anyhow. Then my suspicion was cleared as a woman in a kippah showed up at the bus stop with a menorah and the two struck up a conversation about Hebrew school. I desperately wished I could have struck up conversation in Hebrew. Alas, as I've said, my speech is limited. I suppose I could have said, "At mavinah ivrit?" But then I would have sounded stupid. I also could have said "Ani mavinah k'tsat ivrit!" But then she would have looked at me like "Um, congratulations."

2) The other thing I want to share is about giving. Now, I have my own money problems and am not rolling in the dough, but I'm not broke enough that I live in a shelter and can't afford dinner. There is a program in D.C. for homeless individuals to help put together a newspaper called "Street Sense." They give out the issues on streetcorners. I walked into the CVS in Dupont, faithfully not making eye contact, as I try to do with a lot of panhandlers. But on my way out, I gave in. I gave them a $1 and said "happy holidays" in response to the man's "My, that sure is a festive blazer for Christmas!" (My coat is red, btw.) Now, the only reason I share this is because of the incredibly, incredibly warm feeling it gave me as I walked away. I smiled, I glowed, I felt happy to help. For the longest time in college, I would give leftovers from restaurants to the homeless. But never money. I was told by one friend that I should give the begger the benefit of the doubt -- despite my sentiments that "they could be buying booze and cigarettes with that dollar I give!" I've struggled with this, even though I know that it's a mitzvah to give to those without when I am blessed with so much (even when I WAS living paycheck to paycheck). Around this time of year, I'm used to the Salvation Army and bell ringers. I tend to pack those things with quarters because I know where the money goes. But this year, in D.C., they are few and far between. So I guess I will give in the best way I know how. And NOT just because it makes me feel so warm, but because it's the right thing to do.


This week's parsha involves Joseph interpreting Pharoah's dreams about the cows and corn. Joseph rises up, his brothers pay him a visit, and he tests them.

+ First, some interesting tidbits on Egypt. In the Torah, Egypt is Mitzrayim, the root of which is metzar, meaning constriction, distress or boundary. Appropriate, I think, for the context of the last and next three parshas.

+ I have often mentioned those who seek G-d only when faced with adversity. Sometimes people will ask G-d to help them when they NEED something or ask G-d why he has forsaken them when someone dies or is injured in some way. So many, I think, struggle to dedicate themselves entirely to HaShem because they do not compromise. So many view their relationship with G-d as circumstantial and based on a "what can you do for me" philosophy. And it cuts both ways. People sometimes donate money and then say, "Okay G-d, I gave money, now let my brother live." But it doesn't work that way. Commentary on Gen. 41: 5 says the following: "We must store up resources of faith, even as the Egyptians stored grain, to nourish us spirtually when events turn from us." Brilliant, nu?

+ In Gen. 41: 10, why does the cupbearer speak to Pharaoh in the third person? Then again, in Gen. 41:25, Joseph speaks to Pharoah in much the same manner. It almost sounds like he is addressing another audience, telling the audience what he TOLD Pharaoh -- "It is just as I have told Pharaoh" (Gen. 41: 28). Afterthought, in the comments on Gen. 41:34, it says that Joseph continues to emphasize "Pharaoh" so as to not raise suspicion about creating a new focus of power. I'm not sure if I agree with this. It's overly excessive at times and sounds less like "Joseph told Pharaoh" than "Joseph told some people what he told Pharaoh."

+ Oh, and for those keeping score at home, "Pharoah" in Hebrew has a hard "p" -- that is, it is the letter pe with a dagesh, which means it is pronounced like the p in puppy, no like the p in phosphorous. Technically, then, according to a precise translation, it should be pronounced "Par'oh" ... the root meaning or translation is "to lay open or untie." According to, this means "that the goal of Egyptian rule was to break down the defenses in the personality and lay it wide open to the inroads of the yetzer ha'ra -- our selfish instincts." The site's comments also say, "Once this power gains full control, spiritual redemption is no longer possible."

+ Right when I was about to get all flustered that Joseph was changing his name to be Egyptianized and was given a nice Egyptian wife ... I read the commentary. Joseph is given Asenath, daughter of Potiphera, to wed. According to the commentary, Asenath actually is the daughter of Dinah and that she was adopted by the childless Potiphar, thus making her a relative. The discrepency between Potiphera and Potipher is irrelevant, as the rabbis believe this is the same person -- Potipher being who Joseph served in Chapter 39, too. So much as those before him, Joseph marries within the tribe.

+ Joseph and Asenath have two children: Manasseh and Ephraim. Now, before I knew of Ephraim in the Torah, I only knew of Ephraim from that TV show "Everwood." The moment I heard it, though, I sort of decided I wanted it to be the name of one of my children, despite my grand maternal holdbacks. The name means (according to the Torah text) "G-d has made me fertile in the land of my affliction." Living in the Diaspora -- not necessarily a "land of affliction," but definitely a land where things are not always as they seem -- I think this name is beautiful. Additional interpretation of the root describes the word as "fruitful" or "fertile" or "productive." Indeed, that is what the Jews are.

+ Re: The famine. For the nonbelievers out there, I must point out that the famine in Egypt is well documented in Egyptian and other Near Eastern texts (much as the flood story is told in many histories). It takes little for famine to set in, as Lower Egypt relies entirely on the Nile floods caused by a periodic rise during summer months. A shortfall of a mere few inches could cause such a famine.

+ T'shuvah. Here's an important topic. I hope someone reads it, anyhow. I have to admit that this is news to me, but isn't surprising. Words (such as olam) become changed throughout time. Meanings grow or become something that they initially may not have been. T'shuvah is one of those words. First, the term is brought up because Joseph testing his brothers is, in essence, him seeing whether his brothers will commit t'shuvah.

The common translation of t'shuvah is "repentance," which means to "turn away from sin" or "atone" or "to do penitence." While these terms are almost there, they aren't quite what t'shuvah is all about. Shuvah is derived from shuv, meaning to "return." To make t'shuvah is to return to Torah observance. Essentially, t'shuvah is to return to where you once were -- to do this, of course, there has to be a starting point of Torah observance. In that respect, one could say that a lot of Jews are inable to make t'shuvah. But meh!

How does this fit in to Joseph and his brothers? The commentary says that t'shuvah is "finding oneself in a similar situation that needs responding differently." (Ex: From the previous paragraph, if one is presented with a big ole' pork sandwich that they had gotten used to eating every Friday night, t'shuvah might be stopping and responding differently, returning to Torah observance, and rekindling kashrut.) Thus, Joseph needed to know whether the brothers he sent away would return with Benjamin, or would leave the lone brother to anguish in prison, as they had Joseph. Of course, the brothers do respond differently, and have made t'shuvah.

+ Joseph truly is a righteous man. He puts aside his torment and anger at his brothers in Gen. 42:27. It is true that "Revenge is almost always sweeter in the contemplation than in the realization." This, folks, is why I no longer hold grudges. Okay, I take that back, no one is perfect. I can think of one grudge I hold. But given the chance to do to this woman what she did to me, I would not. Why? She is not worth the torment and time, that is why. Given the chance to help her, I would indeed pity her and put aside my long-standing grudge. Make no mistake, she hurt me deeply, but I do not hate her. (In fact, I do not think I've ever hated anyone ... not since I was a kid anyhow. Kids can be mean, though.)

PS: I love the brick testament ...