Parashat Miketz 5779

Joseph: Is He Greater than the Patriarchs?
A D’var Torah for Parashat Miketz
by Rabbi Isaac Mann

As the lights of the Hanukah menorah grow from day to day, so does our fascination with the story of Joseph in the Bible (which we read about in the synagogue on Hanukah) increase from year to year. What is it about this story, the longest in the Torah, that we never tire from discussing and thinking about?

While there are many answers to this question, most of which relate to Joseph’s character, a new thought came to me that I would like to express in this D’var Torah, and it starts with a question. Why is it that Joseph, who the Rabbis referred to as Yosef ha-Zaddik (see, e.g. Yoma 35b) – Joseph the Righteous – never received any communication from God, not even from an angel, as did his forebears, the Patriarchs, all of whom merited assurances or directives from the Almighty. But having the status of a Patriarch was not a prerequisite for receiving a divine message. Surely, Joseph was no less worthy than Hagar, to whom an angel appeared twice to give her instructions as well as hope about her son’s fate (see Gen. 16:7-12 and 21:17-19). Would it not have been appropriate for God, or at least an angel, to appear to Joseph as he was in the pit or in the caravan to Egypt or in jail and reassure him that he will be protected by the Divine, similar to the assurance that Jacob received before his descent to Egypt (Gen. 46:2-4)?

One approach to resolving this conundrum may be that Joseph’s greatness and his elevation to the status of a zaddik came about because he never wavered in his faith in God and in his righteous and ethical behavior. And this was not due to any prophecies or divine missives that he received from Above, but rather from his own innate character. Joseph rebuffed Potiphar’s wife’s advances because he knew it was wrong to sin against the Almighty and against one who trusted him so fully that he put him, a slave, in charge of his entire household. Interestingly, the Torah expresses Joseph’s refusal to commit adultery in the reverse order from what I just mentioned – “…How could I do this wicked thing [to my master], and sin before God.” (Gen. 39:7-9). First and foremost was his deep-rooted sense of the moral and then his connection with a righteous God (cf. Abraham’s pleas to God to save Sodom and Gomorrah). Therefore, by not having the Lord appear to Joseph, the Torah enhances Joseph’s greatness, for he is shown to be a true zaddik from within, so to speak.

Along the same lines, but in a more profound sense, Joseph did not need to have God or an angel speak to him at certain junctures in his life, for the Almighty spoke to him in a sense all the time. In Potiphar’s house, as mentioned above, God’s presence was felt in his refusal to commit carnal sin. In the prison, when he was told of the dreams of Pharaoh’s courtiers, he prefaced his interpretations with “Surely God can interpret. Tell me [your dreams]” (Gen. 40:8). When brought before Pharaoh and told that he is a dream interpreter, his response was “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare” (Gen. 41:16). And later when the brothers appeared before him, he released them after three days insisting that he is “a God fearing man” and thus cannot hold them any longer (Gen. 42:18). Even more impressive was his sincere forgiveness of his brothers’ treatment of him, ascribing it all to God (Gen. 45:8, 50:19-21). Joseph thus was so imbued with God consciousness that there was no need for him to have specific directives. In this regard he was greater than his illustrious forebears. Indeed, his constant diminution of self and his insistence that the Divine is speaking through him became infectious to the extent that even Pharaoh would acknowledge God’s providence — “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” (Gen. 41:38-39); see also Gen. 43:23, where Joseph’s steward expresses faith in a moral God, no doubt influenced by his master).

For all of us, or perhaps I should just say most of us, who are not privileged to receive divine communiques like the patriarchs or the prophets of the Bible, we can look upon Joseph as a model for someone who can lead a divinely inspired life. May we be like him and always experience the sense that God is there for us and within us as we follow in God’s path.

Shabbat Shalom. Have a joyous and enlightening Hanukah.
Rabbi Isaac Mann is a former member of AJR’s Rabbinic faculty. He is currently the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.