Dec. 27, 2008
In today's portion of Miketz –
that we read as part of the triennial cycle – the seven good years have gone to
be replaced by famine - a famine so pervasive that it has reached beyond the
borders of Egypt (Mitzra'im) into the land of Canaan
Both the beginning and end of this section are framed by the phrases - let us go to Egypt (Mitzra'im) that we may live and not die.
Within this small section we see Jacob (Yakov) re-asserting his place as head of the family; we see the brothers recalling their treatment of Joseph (Yosef); as odd as the actions of the Egyptian vizier must seem to them - the filter they are using (their feelings of guilt) justifies his behaviour in their eyes. And we see that Joseph (Yosef) must also confront his feelings towards his brothers
I'm drawing on a number of different commentaries including one by Shefa Gold who in her turn has drawn upon Hasidic tradition – she describes Miketz as the story of how we got into that state of enslavement in the first place. And that this portion of Miketz holds the key to that enslavement.
before addressing these points
I want to look briefly at some of the archeological evidence that supports the presence of Jacob (Yakov) and his family in Egypt (Mitzra'im)
Several years ago Professor Barry Frank (Dorshei Emet) spoke on the Joseph cycle using David Rohl's A Test of Time
The book was initially Rohl's doctoral thesis, he re-examines the available archeological data using a different time frame than is usually applied to the Biblical time-line. By adjusting the time frame a number of Biblical events, previously dismissed as not fitting the information available are suddenly supported by archeological data
For example, using what he calls the conventional or orthodox chronology Solomon is dated to what archeologists call Iron Age IIA. Dame Kathleen Kenyon speaks about the general impoverishment of Iron Age IIA:
"Archeology has provided us with little direct evidence of the glories of Solomon's court, ... away from the capital, the civilization was not of a very high order, nor are there striking signs of economic prosperity .... the sites ... do little to illustrate .... Solomon's .... activities as a merchant prince. Almost no recognisably imported objects have been found in levels of this period in Palestine proper."
However with Rohl's new chronology the times of Solomon are pushed back to the Late Bronze Age which archeologists note was a time of great wealth. For example, in the Megiddo excavations a royal treasure was found that included gold vessels, jewellery and ivory plaques; among the ivories are found a number of Egyptian motifs, including papyrus plants, lilies and lotus flowers, as well as palm tress and winged sphinxes.
The archeological data available strongly supports the Biblical account of Solomon's grandeur and his liaison with a Pharaoh's daughter.
How does Rohl come to his new chronolgy - one aspect of his calculations is the rereading of the Joseph story.
According to the Torah text as we presently read it, Shmot 12:40 says the "lifestyle the Israelites had endured in Egypt (Mitzra'im) lasted 430 years."
Josephus, writing his history of Israel the Antiquities of the Jews, stated that
"When the Israelites left Egypt (Mitzra'im), it was 430 years after Abraham had entered Canaan, but 215 years only after Jacob(Yakov) had moved down to Egypt (Mitzra'im)."
Josephus noted that his source documents were once housed in the Temple, documents which were most likely destroyed by the end of the first century, and most certainly not available to the copyists from that time on, though older translations of the text contain the previous understanding. .
Rohl notes that when one examines the Septuagint (translated by Greek Jews from the Hebrew to Greek in the 3rd century BCE the passage Shmot 12:40 states "And the sojourning of the children of Israel, which they sojourned in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, was 430 years."
Also, the Samaritan version of the Chumash retains this particular accounting of the length of the sojourn in Egypt (Mitzra'im)
Rohl ascribes the missing clause to scribal emendations.
Using the years according to sources outside of the Chumash, the Exodus take place not ca 1280 BCE, but rather ca 1447 BCE
Rohl notes that using this chronology the Pharaoh in Egypt at the time of Joseph's appointment as vizier was Amenemhat III.
In 1844, the Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius discovered inundation records - these records demonstrate that beginning in the reign of Amenemhat III – and continuing after his death into the early 13th dynasty of Egypt, the Egyptians were monitoring the yearly inundations of the Nile River.
It seems that a "good" inundation occurred when the Nile rose to about a peak of 12 metres above its low water level. Records show that during the reign of Amenemhat III the average inundation reached 21 metres - if the Nile reached 17 metres one year or another year this could add to the land's fertility bringing in extra silt from the river and expanding the area of possible cultivation
If however the Nile began to rise beyond the 17 metre mark to 19 or to 21 metres the extra water, aside from destroying whatever is in its path, would take much longer to subside which in turn would delay the planting season – and if this happened several years in a row there would be famine. Which is what happened
Rohl notes that in Pharaoh's dream of the cows - the seven good cows are coming up from the Nile as are the seven lean cows. The good cows in fact represent the good inundations that enable Joseph to set aside surplus, while the lean cows are the inundations that contribute to the famine.
Also there is archeological evidence concerning the town of Avaris in Egypt - in a region called Kessen/Goshen that suggests its inhabitants were not culturally Egyptian; analysis of skeletal remains of livestock indicate that the people living in this area had introduced lon-haired sheep into the area; analysis of human remains indicated that the male population came from outside Egypt (Syria/Palestine), while the women came from a group distinct from the males.
A very large tomb was discovered at Avaris which is believed to have been the temporary resting place of Joseph prior to the removal of his bones by Moses.
I want to now return to the record presented in Miketz
This section, as already noted, opens with Jacob (Yakov) asserting his authority over his sons - and telling them to stop looking to see who was going to make the first move but to get down to Egypt (Mitzra'im) where there was grain available for purchase.
While the Torah does not tell us how Benjamin (Binyamin) fared amongst his brothers (if their disdain of Joseph (Yosef) transferred itself to Benjamin (Binyamin)) but it is telling that Jacob (Yakov) does not permit Benjamin (Binyamin) to go with his brothers (even though Benjamin (Binyamin) is himself a married man with a large family to support)
"Joseph recognized his brothers as soon as he saw them"
Had he been dwelling on when they would appear? Did the dreams that he had once shared with them come into his thoughts more frequently now that the famine had begun - he certainly must have been expecting to see them at some point as the famine grew worse – we are not told that he was surprised to see them; and with the trappings of power and prestige there was little possibility of his brothers recognizing in the vizier of Egypt (Mitzra'im) the callow youth of 17 that they had sold into slavery.
Rabbi Shefa Gold writes about this moment as Joseph's (Yosef's) spiritual challenge.
On the one hand, Joseph (Yosef) attributes his ability to interpret dreams to G-D, whom he also acknowledges as his source of strength, and this carries with it the responsibility to be compassionate and just;
on the other hand, Joseph (Yosef) has been invested with the power and wealth of Pharaoh, and is expected to defend the system which has given him dignity, a new family, and immense control over his fellow beings.
The challenge to be just and compassionate while wielding power carries with it intense conflict when faced by those who once abused you
Rabbi Gold comments that Joseph (Yosef) is still carrying old hurts and that what is unhealed can become an obstacle in the pursuit of justice – the compassion that is within is suppressed as old patterns of behaviour assert themselves - and we see this in Joseph's (Yosef's) toying with his brothers.
Gold comments that "Even though the "Spirit of God" is in us, we spend most of our time listening to the command of Pharaoh, who has put the ring on our finger and the gold chain around our necks."
The exchange between Joseph (Yosef) and his brothers is strange - spies do not enter a distribution area for grain en masse — while one or two spies could conceivably use a large caravan of people to enter into a country undetected and check out the land in that fashion, showing oneself to the Second in Command of the Egyptians (Mitzra'imi) would not qualify one as good spy material - --
- the notion that these men are anything other than what they say seems absurd - and yet the brothers participate in this conversation on account of their guilt - the harassment and their harsh treatment is "deserved" so they do not challenge Joseph (Yosef) or his line of questioning and later when they relate the conversation to their father they are unable to tell him the truth as to why they submitted to Joseph's haranguing and provided him with so much unnecessary information about their family situation.
By revealing their situation they have provided Joseph (Yosef) with the "key" to play them along a little more and perhaps to also satisfy himself that his brothers are truly remorseful for their past behaviour towards him.
And when the brothers return home minus Shimon - what is Jacob's (Yakov's) response "everything is happening to me" - his brief spurt of re-assertion exerted; he is once again the passive recipient of everyone else's actions.
When the family has used up most of the grain brought back from Egypt (Mitzra'im) the brothers confront Jacob (Yakov) with the fact that they cannot return for more grain unless Benjamin (Binyamin) is with them.
Several commentators address the fact that when Reuben (Reuven) offers his two sons in payment should anything happen to Benjamin Jacob (Yakov) continues resisting, but when Judah (Yehudah) takes responsibility Jacob (Yakov) finally agrees to let Benjamin (Binyamin) go.
Reuben (Reuven) has four sons and has not experienced loss; Judah (Yehudah) however has lost two sons and understands on a deeper level what sending Benjamin (Binyamin) away means for his father. Jacob (Yakov) can trust Judah (Yehudah) to look to Benjamin's (Binyamin's) welfare.
Rabbi Gold comments that within Joseph (Yosef) the two sides of his father's legacy are revealed. The side of Jacob, the schemer, plays the game of getting even, while the side of Israel, the God-wrestler weeps with the glimmer of a love that transcends bitterness.
Even as Joseph (Yosef) is inviting the brothers to lunch with him, he has decided to test them still further.
Rabbi Gold defines enslavement as the complete identification of the ego with the material world
and this is drawn from the teachings of the first Gurer rebbe, the Chidushei Ha'Rim.
Joseph (Yosef) represents the world of plenty - through his office he has literally broken the power of the various semi-independent chieftains and centralized all political control under Pharaoh.
Gold comments that because of the system Joseph has set in place, the wealth of the land is redistributed and the people become completely dependent on Pharaoh. As this system of dependency evolves, whoever is at the lowest socio-economic level becomes vulnerable.
No longer are the peasants working plots of land for themselves and their chieftain. Now they are in thrall to a bureaucracy that is indifferent to their well-being.
Eventually it will be Joseph's own people who will also suffer and be enslaved by the system of power and wealth that he himself set in place.