Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Miketz

Parashat Miketz

December 10, 2015

by Cantor Sandy Horowitz

In a recent conversation with a young student, we were discussing the events leading up to this week’s Torah portion. I asked the student, in the story that results in Joseph being sold and taken to Egypt, who was the real culprit: was it his father Jacob, for showing blatant favoritism? Was it the brothers, whose collective jealousy led them to such hateful acts? Was it perhaps Joseph himself, whose arrogance provoked the brothers? The student’s thoughtful response was that it probably started with their grandmother Rebecca, who had played favorites with Jacob and acted deceitfully on his behalf.

Without realizing it, the student had given voice to the later biblical promise — threat, actually — that God will “visit the guilt of the fathers onto the children of the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me.” Rebecca, Jacob, Joseph’s brothers — three generations of sin.

This phrase occurs several times in the Torah. We first encounter it with the giving of the Ten Commandments, as part of the commandment against worshipping idols. (Ex. 20:5 & Deut. 5:9) It comes up again as the phrase that follows what was to become the “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy,” recited as part of the Selichot prayers: “…forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Ex. 34:7) The underlined phrase is of course not included in the Thirteen Attributes.

The phrase occurs one more time, in Numbers 14:18. When ten of the twelve Israelite spies return from their mission to reconnoiter the land across the Jordan and express the fear that they cannot succeed in taking the land, God threatens to wipe out the entire Israelite community for their lack of trust in God. Moses invokes this phrase as a reminder of God’s mercy, asking God not to visit the sin of the spies on the children of the Israelites. It works; God instead condemns the community to forty years of wandering until the entire current generation has died in the wilderness, with the exception of the two faithful spies Joshua and Caleb.

In this week’s Torah portion we read about how Joseph’s own behavior towards his brothers perpetuates the generational theme of deception which had begun with Rebecca. Representing the third generation of sin, it is he who has the chance to break the chain of iniquity, yet he does not do so.

Through his ability to interpret dreams, Joseph rises to power as Pharaoh’s right-hand-man, and organizes the storing of grain during the pre-ordained seven years of plenty in preparation for the coming years of famine. When his brothers come to Egypt seeking food, Joseph immediately recognizes them, although they do not know him. But now, rather than reveal himself right away, he goes through a series of deceptions towards the unsuspecting brothers, starting with the very fact of hiding his identity. Perhaps he does so in order to assess whether the brothers have outgrown their cruel ways. But these may also be interpreted as the actions of one who, mistreated in his youth, can’t resist the urge to torment his siblings in return. Sin perpetuating sin. It is not until next week’s Torah portion that the chain of deception will finally be broken, as Joseph reveals himself, the brothers are reconciled, and the family is reunited.

One of our greatest modern sins has been perpetuated for more than three or four generations. Starting with the Industrial Revolution, humanity has taken advantage of the earth’s resources, to the point where the survival of our very planet is now in danger. One can argue that at first we had no idea of what the global effects would be of mining, developing automobile and air travel, tearing down forests, digging for oil. That said, knowledge about the depletion of the ozone layer and its ramifications goes back several generations; according to the Environmental Protection Agency, scientists began researching the detrimental effects of fluorocarbons on the ozone layer in the early 1970s.

Shall the sins of our fathers be visited upon our children until it is too late to reverse the damage to the earth? We cannot rely on God’s mercy to save us, this one is on us. To think that there is still plenty of time to reverse the damage we’ve caused, is a sin of self-deceit that must end. Like Joseph in this week’s Torah portion, we haven’t yet broken the multi-generational destructive chain of behavior. We must act soon on behalf of our global family, as Joseph ultimately will do for his.


Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.