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Parashat Miketz

December 13, 2006

Joseph, Hannukah and Conservation
By Irwin Huberman

Tradition tells us that it is the responsibility of the Children of Israel to act as a ‘light unto other nations’ (Isaiah 49:6). This week’s Torah portion, Miketz, read on the second Shabbat of Hannukah, provides us with two sparkling examples of how to use that light.

How lucky we are to live in America where few of us worry about lack of food, or fuel to warm our homes. With winter upon us, there is a tendency to take these precious things for granted.

But this week’s Torah portion provides us with a reminder of how fragile our good fortune is. Joseph is brought out of captivity to interpret two of Pharaoh’s dreams. In the first dream, (Genesis 41-17) Pharaoh describes how seven scrawny cows consume seven plump cows, but in the end the first cows remain thin.

Pharaoh slides back into sleep and dreams a second dream. He envisions seven shriveled stalks of corn which consume seven healthy stalks. The victorious stalks remain scrawny.

Joseph provides Pharaoh with an immediate interpretation, one which none of the monarch’s wise men and magicians were able to deliver. In so doing, Joseph provides the world with one of the first examples of conservation.

Joseph tells Pharaoh to expect seven plentiful harvests, followed by seven years of famine. It was a powerful message. In ancient times there were no supermarkets or worldwide food distribution. If the land ceased to provide food for one year, never mind seven, famine and death would envelop the region.

Joseph organizes an extensive storage system. For seven years, people will use what they need, and the surplus will serve to feed the people for an additional seven years.

It was under these conditions that Joseph’s brothers later ventured into Egypt on behalf of their father Jacob to secure precious food for their families.

Joseph had the vision to plan for the future, and instituted a system where precious resources were used responsibly. In the end, Joseph’s vision proves to be correct, and mass starvation is averted.

The late Rabbi Avraham Pam, former dean and Rosh Yeshivah of Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Torah Voddath suggests that Joseph realized that during times of plenty people tend to waste. Indeed, we can picture during prosperous times in Egypt, great feasts and unneeded crops rotting in the field.

The actions of Joseph teach us never to take for granted the abundance that we enjoy, and even though famine and starvation are unlikely to affect us in America, there are people in our midst who do face hunger and hardship.

The extras that we enjoy can be used to perform acts of tzedek, the rebalancing of the world. Supporting food banks within the Jewish and wider community provides us with an opportunity to help others avoid modern day famine.

Our tradition provides us with a second conservation challenge as we approach the end of Hannukah. Hannukah is known as the festival of lights where we are reminded of the great miracle of the season when one measure of oil in the rededicated Temple lasted for eight days.

The image of conserving oil and valuing light form a link with Parashat Miketz. Throughout America, synagogues and other Jewish organizations are using this period to launch various energy conservation programs which involve reducing our oil and gas consumption, installing power saving lights and adjusting our energy habits to help reverse global warming.

In this way, we can all be Josephs; appreciating our abundance and ensuring that in future years we will not lack what we need to survive.

Joseph’s vision and the additional lessons of Hannukah help remind us that we have free choice. We can either consume with abandon and ignore the consequences of tomorrow, or use vision and responsibility now, to feed the hungry and to ensure we have a good and healthy earth for generations to come.