Parashat Mikeitz 5783

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Mikeitz
By Rabbi Ira Dounn (’17)

How is the arc of your own story bending right now?

I think about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quote “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” often, particularly when a desired outcome hasn’t yet been achieved. MLK is reminding us to have hope despite the slow pace at which it seems progress sometimes occurs.

To this point, Joseph has had a tough life. Although originally the favorite child, Joseph’s brothers act on their intense jealousy, throw him into the pit, and sell him into slavery. His position as a slave in Egypt is initially comfortable and successful, all things considered, since “G-d was with Joseph” (Gen. 39:2). But after he is falsely accused of sexually assaulting Potiphar’s wife, back down into “the pit” he goes and he is thrown in jail. Our Torah portion begins at the end of a full two years in jail.

“Who shall be exalted, and who shall be brought low?” (Unetanah Tokef)

The tour I took during the summer of 2003 of Robben Island, the famous South African jail where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years of his own jail time, was one of the most impactful in my own life. While in jail, Mandela prioritized his own education and the education of other inmates. I cannot help but imagine that G-d was with him as G-d was with Joseph in our parasha, Parashat Mikeitz. Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom” is so similar to Joseph’s. Like Mandela who went from Robben Island to the head of the South African government, Joseph is catapulted from jail to the second-in-command of Egypt. The vicissitudes of his own life continue in dramatic fashion from the lowest lows to the highest highs and back again.

I would argue that Joseph is profoundly impacted by these experiences. As a child, perhaps he was a bit too excited by the notion of his brothers and father bowing down to him. Maybe it was a bit too much about him. By the time that Joseph is called before Pharaoh to interpret dreams, it is not at all about Joseph: “Not I, but G-d will bring an answer to bring peace to Pharaoh” (Gen. 41:16). Joseph’s transformation is extraordinary – once it was all about Joseph. Now it has nothing to do with him.

Paradoxically, the narcissistic impulse gets him thrown down and put in his place. But the humble impulse gets him elevated: “”Will we find anyone like this, a man in whom there is the spirit of God?” (Gen. 41:38).

So we see Joseph’s character transformation, his own coming into himself, his teshuva.

We also see the brother’s character transformation, particularly Judah’s transformation. In last week’s parasha, Parashat Vayeishev, the Joseph story is interrupted to focus an entire Aliyah on Judah’s story and his “demotion”– וַיֵּרֶד יְהוּדָה (Gen. 38:1) – which is the same “low” and “high” language as the pit and the jail used for Joseph.

The climactic moment of Judah’s teshuva, his own character transformation, is also particularly fitting for him. Judah is the one who convinces his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery. He is the ringleader – the one who everyone listens to and respects. But Judah either doesn’t see it or doesn’t use it properly. He could have just ended the whole charade, gotten Joseph back out of the pit, and they could have all moved on with their lives. But instead, because of Judah’s suggestion, Joseph is expelled from his family and Jacob suffers the unimaginable pain of what he thinks is the death of his son.

So when Judah approaches one of the most powerful people in Egypt to advocate for Benjamin, to defend him, and to offer his own life as a trade in the beginning of next week’s parasha, Parashat Vayigash, this is a complete transformation too.

Judah goes from selling his younger brother (Joseph) into slavery to giving up his own life for the sake of his younger brother (Benjamin). He goes from being swayed by the negative impulses of his brothers, to standing firm against the tremendous power of Egypt.

Joseph goes from thinking the world revolved around him, to thinking the world revolved around G-d. He goes down when he thinks too highly of himself, and he goes up when he acts humbly.

One of the most important lessons of the Joseph (and Judah!) stories is that change and transformation is possible. We are not doomed to always be who we have always been. Teshuva is possible. Character development is possible. The arcs of our own stories are long, but they can bend towards something better. They can be very long walks, years in literal or figurative jails, but at the end there is redemption.

Such is also the lesson of Hanukkah, that in these darkest of days, we shine light to the world. We remember that soon the days will be brighter and longer. We know that no matter how bleak or hopeless things may seem, transformation and teshuva are possible.

Just as Joseph and Judah exemplify in these stories, so may you see your own story to its successful end. May you transform in all the ways that will lead you to become the best version of yourself. And may you be a light to those around you, shining the way and showing them that personal transformation is possible too.
Rabbi Ira J. Dounn is the Senior Jewish Educator at the Center for Jewish Life – Princeton Hillel, and the teacher of AJR’s Experiential Education course this semester. He was ordained from AJR in 2017, and lives with his wife and children in Highland Park, NJ. He can be reached at [email protected].