Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Miketz

Parashat Miketz

December 17, 2009

By Rabbi Eric Hoffman

In preparing for this D’var Torah I read back into the archives of AJR Divrei Torah on the sedra, initially to avoid repeating themes and references already shared on these pages. Instead, I discovered a treasure of thinking that deserved to be repeated, not avoided. Last year, 5769, Hayley Siegel showed how the tortuous encounters between Joseph and his brothers led to the establishment of trust between them based upon the brothers’ confessions of truth. In 5768, Sanford Olshansky demonstrated the development of Joseph’s character in accordance with the theory of Mishnah Avot 5:21 as a factor in his reconciliation with his brothers. In 5767, Irwin Huberman drew lessons of conservation and the redirection of surplus to help the poor in our midst from Joseph’s master plan for Egypt. In 5766, Michael Rothbaum characterized Chanukah as the Rabbis’ rewriting of Maccabean history from militarism to victory-by-the-spirit ‘ la Zechariah 4:6, and he read Joseph as supplanting the temptation of a lifetime grudge by keeping open the door to his spirit, leaving space for God’s holiness and light to emerge. And finally, in 5765 (the earliest year in our published archive), Yechiel Buchband contrasted Reuben, who recklessly offered his own sons’ lives as surety for Benjamin in Egypt, with Judah, a father bereaved of two sons himself whose plea to save life on his personal surety by bringing Benjamin to Egypt is thereby more authentic and believable.

All of these lessons are reflected in the midrash on the brothers’ surprising reply to Joseph’s famous question, “He asked of them their welfare and he said, ‘How is your father, the elder, of whom you spoke? Is he yet alive?'” [Gen. 43:27] The brothers were not entirely responsive to Joseph’s question: “Your servant, our father, is well. He yet lives.” [Ibid., 43:28] Bereshit Rabbah [92:5] explains:

Rabbi Chiya Rabbah saw a Babylonian. He asked him, “How is my father?” He replied to him, “Your mother has asked about you.” He said to him, “I speak to you about this, and you answer me about that!?” He said to him, “We ask about the living, but we don’t ask about the dead.” Similarly: “How is your father” refers to Jacob; “the elder of whom you spoke” refers to Isaac; “your servant our father, is well; he yet lives.”

Joseph, separated from his family for more than 20 years, asked about both his father and grandfather; his brothers responded only about his father because only his father was still alive. M.A. Mirkin explains: “We ask about the living” means “we respond to a question only when the ones being asked about are living,” and the lack of an answer is itself an answer but better yet is a true word of comfort as here, letting him know that his mother is alive. [Midrash Rabbah (Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1958), loc. cit.]

In this vein, Avot d’Rabbi Nathan 37:13 contrasts the aforementioned pleas of Judah, “I shall be surety for him” [43:9], and Reuben, “You may slay my two sons” [42:37]. “We do not deliver sad news,” say the Rabbis three times in the Talmud [Yoma 77a, Megillah 15a, Avodah Zarah 10b]: here, make your plea with positive words, rise upward from life’s tragedies, move from darkness to light, support not life with death. “Better is one who makes another smile than one who gives another milk to drink” is attributed to Rabbi Yochanan [Ketubot 111b; cf. Gen. 49:12]. “How lovely upon the mountains are the feet of the herald of good tidings: announcing peace, heralding good, announcing victory, telling Zion, ‘Your God does reign!'” [Isaiah 52:7]

“We do not deliver sad news.” Some would refrain, on that, from informing children of the death of their parents. Joseph’s brothers, in their youth, were the diametrical opposite: they manufactured bad news to tell their father. But Judah turned around and Joseph transcended any grudge. Joseph delivered sad news to Pharaoh but with a comforting plan of endurance; thus he tapped into abundance and lifted Egypt out of adversity for the greater welfare. And even in a standoff where the moral score is lopsided, while the brothers silenced their true sad news and found their peaceful voice of truth, Joseph, though whole with the facts, could still grow in character, eventually putting sad news behind him.

Is it any wonder, then, that we follow Beit Hillel and increase the number of Chanukah lights successively each night? The room gets brighter every night, the news gets better, or at least the herald gets closer when we add to the sad news a word of illuminating consolation.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah!


Rabbi Eric H. Hoffman teaches Rabbinics at The Academy for Jewish Religion