“Out of the Depths”
By Rabbi Janet Madden, Ph.D. ’11
Positioned as the central episode of the Joseph Narrative, Parashat Miketz can be translated “At The End.” It is an enigmatic title, since this parasha does not in fact conclude the story of a man who lives 110 years. But it is an apt title, since Miketz presents a dramatic series of events and confrontations that result not only in the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers but in the integration of Joseph’s fractured sense of self. Miketz has no petuchah (“open” section); instead, underscoring its theme of unity, it is written as a setumah (“closed”). This unified whole both mirrors the breathless pace of the unfolding narrative that relates Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt and Joseph’s testing of his brothers; and indicates how Joseph’s separate lives and identities finally coalesce.
Much of Miketz turns on the themes of hiddenness and openness, concealment and revelation that echo throughout Joseph’s story—his youthful inability to keep his dreams to himself, his father’s overt favoritism, his brothers’ hidden treachery and subsequent lie to their father about Joseph’s fate, his time in slavery, the lie told by Potiphar’s wife, his time languishing in in prison. In his “Poem on Young Joseph, the Dreamer,” Israeli poet Yair Hurwitz writes of Joseph’s descent “deeper and deeper into his pit.” This is not only the pit into which, several times over, Joseph is physically and symbolically cast. It is also the pit in which finds himself as he is remade—almost reborn—in Egypt, his zenith, the place of his great success. And Egypt is also his nadir, the narrow place in which, but for the appearance of his petitioning brothers, he is almost lost forever. Miketz brings into the open the shimmering symbolism that is the defining feature of Joseph’s life, succinctly expressed as: “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.”
Tractate Berachot 55b states that the realization of all dreams follows the mouth; that is, that the import of a dream depends upon the interpretation given to it. The realization of Joseph’s dreams suggests that his ability to interpret depends on and results in the fulfillment of his destiny. Beginning with the broken relationships between Joseph and his brothers, he experiences “the fracture of his dream” (Hurwitz) as he is sold into exile. The twists and turns that his life will take will not be remotely what he has imagined, and yet, the interpretation that he has uttered will come to pass.
The moment in which Joseph’s youthful dream of sovereignty over his brothers comes true is profoundly ironic. The man before whom his brothers bow bears no resemblance to the 17 year old shepherd he once was. Joseph Zaphenath-paneah speaks Egyptian, is married to the daughter of an Egyptian priest, is dressed in the robes of an Egyptian ruler, and as Vizier, the highest official in Egypt, wears Pharaoh’s signet ring and the gold chain of authority. But the trappings of wealth and power cannot assuage Joseph’s painful desire to emerge from his disguise, to expose what he has kept hidden, to reconnect with his family and, most crucially, to embrace his deepest self. Isolated by his father’s favor and his brothers’ hatred, by his imprisonment and by his subsequent improbable rise to power, the names of his own sons reflect his sense of fortunate exile. Only when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, slowly, fearfully and painfully, does a most impossible-seeming dream begin to be realized: the healing and wholeness that begins in this generation will continue into the next as Joseph’s sons are integrated into their paternal family.
We read Parashat Miketz on the 10th Shabbat after Simchat Torah, often during Channukah, when we come together to eschew isolation, to kindle lights and to rededicate ourselves to faith and tradition and one another. At the time of year when we are enveloped in darkness, the yud that distinguishes this parasha points us toward the bright and powerful dream of emerging from dark and broken places so that we can engage in the work of unifying our broken world for generations now and to come.
Shabbat Shalom; Chag Urim Sameach.