Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Who are you going to call on? / Miketz

Joseph has both a knack for doing things extremely well yet running into terrible trouble. He is Jacob’s favorite son, but as a result incurs the hostility of his brothers who sell him into slavery in a foreign land. He earns the trust of his master, Potiphar, and comes to be entrusted with running the household, but attracts the sexual attention of Potiphar’s wife and ends up in the dungeon prison falsely accused of rape when he rejects her advances. The chief jailer, recognizing Joseph organizational skills and efficiency, places Joseph in charge of the prison, but even after interpreting correctly the dreams of Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and baker, Joseph languishes two more years in prison. Here’s a condensation:
After two years’ time, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile… The chief cupbearer then spoke up and said to Pharaoh, ‘I must make mention today of my offenses… A Hebrew youth was there with us [in prison], a servant of the chief steward; and when we told him our dreams, he interpreted them for us, telling each of the meaning of his dream. (Genesis 41:1, 9, 12)
Some commentators wonder why Joseph languished two additional years in prison between the time he interpreted the cupbearer’s dream and the day he was hauled out to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.

One answer offered is that after interpreting the cupbearer’s dream, Joseph asked twice to be remembered to Pharaoh – his double request was superfluous.
But think of me (z’khar’ta’ni) when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me (v’hiz’kar’ta’ni) to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place. (Genesis 40:14)
But if the first request is legitimate and only the second is superfluous, shouldn’t Joseph be imprisoned only one additional year? The two requests each bought him an extra year in jail because, as Rav says in Berakhot 58b tells us, “The dead one is forgotten from the heart only after 12 months.” Hence, Joseph brought the additional two-year stint on himself.

In contrast, midrash Beraishit Rabbah 89 explains, “Joseph had been given a specific time to spend in the darkness of the prison,” suggesting that the two additional years were part of a larger plan conceived in Heaven. In fact, Joseph confirms this thinking to his brothers:
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. (Genesis 45:4-5)
By now you may be yawning and thinking: Goodness, it’s just a plot element that heightens the tension when Pharaoh experiences what are clearly prescient dreams but cannot find anyone capable of interpreting them. Yes, I’m inclined to agree wholeheartedly, but it raises an interesting underlying question: What do we place our trust and faith in? When we are in narrow straits, facing danger, on the horns of a life dilemma, do we turn to God or do we rely on ourselves, or some combination? That, of course, is a question the Maccabees faced. Do they rely on God to redeem them from the might of Antiochus Ephiphanes IV and his armies? Or do they develop their own fighting skills and employ wit and strategy to wrest control of the land from the Hellenists?

There’s a very surprising passage in the Talmud on Berakhot 10b. We’re told that King Hezekiah – lauded as a righteous king – sequestered the medical books of his day so people would not rely on them rather than praying to God to heal them. Even more shocking, the Sages register their approval of this action. Yet what Jew would forego medical treatment, claiming that God who made illness possible, will affect a cure?

Let me share a teaching of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook that resolves the contradiction. He taught that there are two types of trust in God. One is the faith that God will perform a miracle when it is needed. The other – which the Maccabees employed and which works for many of us – is to trust that God will help us in our worthy endeavors. Hence the expression, “God helps those who help themselves.” Can we strike that healthy balance?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

1 comment:

  1. If you're interested in Rav Kook, this should be of interest to you