Monday, January 02, 2006

Parashat Miqqetz - I Wake to Sleep

BS”D

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I can not fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

(from “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke)

Va-yehi miqqetz shnatayim yamim – Bereshit 41:1. “And it was at the end of two years.” Mi-qetz, meaning “from the end”. Shnatayim, meaning “a pair of years.” Or – the words are spelled identically –: “And it was, upon awakening from a pair of sleeps…” Mi-qetz, meaning, “upon awakening”, and Shnatayim, a pair of sleeps. Twin sleeps. The sleep of Yaakov, wherein the sleeper sees vivid images, potent visions. Yet, upon waking, he does not know whether they were prophecy, or mere dreams. Now recast in the twin dream-sleeps of Pharaoh, sleeps from which he wakes twice.

Chapter 41, verses 1-4, recount the dream of the fat and the lean cattle. At verse 4, “and Pharaoh woke.” 5-7 recounts the dream of the fat and the lean stalks, whereupon, “and Pharaoh woke, and behold: a dream.” Two wakings, two sleeps, but only one dream.

Here begins the complex process of reuniting Yaakov and Yosef. Both father and son have had immense gifts of power foist upon them, and both have struggled and erred in trying to wield that power. Both, indeed start out unaware of the power that dwells in them. Yaakov, who never is quite certain whether G-d has made him a promise, or whether he is merely imagining things. Yosef, who foolishly shoots off his mouth, spilling his dreams before his brothers, swaggering before Potiphar’s wife and bragging that he is the most important man in the household – so important there is nothing he can not possess, except her. If the sin of Mizraim is taking what one sees, Yosef’s own version of this is that he speaks what arises in his mind, without an intervening process of contemplation.

The narrative parallels and inter-echoings of the Yaakov / Yosef story proliferate. Yaakov’s own life outside of Canaan is bracketed by a pair of dreams: the dream at the beginning of Parashat Vayetze, and the dream at the end of the Parasha wherein, Yaakov recounts to his wives, G-d tells him to return to Canaan. Yosef’s seven years plus seven years are foreshadowed in the two times seven years his father must slave for his two wives. Both father and son rise to prominence in a land ominated by another, and remain under the control of that other. Both men are separated from their own fathers for twenty-two years. Yosef is seventeen years old when he is sold into slavery in Mizraim. Yaakov is reunited with his son and spends the laft seventeen years of his life with Yosef in Mizraim. In both narratives, there is a significant – and nearly fatal – delay of two years. In Yaakov’s case, it is his settling in Shechem, rather than returning directly to his father’s side. In Yosef’s case, it is the two years spent in prison in Mizraim.

Yaakov’s successes happen at night. The whole of Parashat Vayetze is read, Midrashically, as a single long night, as a sustained dream. It opens at sunset, and closes at sunup. Yaakov’s twin awakenings are in space – he returns after his extended Night of the Soul and is astonished to run into a pack of angels, and he names the place Mahanaim. Yosef’s successes occur by day. He does not live in the world of dream, but in the retelling and the interpreting of dreams. His twin awakenings are in time – At the end of two years of days. Together – and only together – they are complete.

The Zohar quotes the word Qetz – the same root – from the Book of Job, 28:3. The first three verses of this chapter are images of the various metals yielded up by the earth – brought forth from below ground: silver, gold, iron and copper. These are, of course, the four metals representing the stages of the soul in Plato’s Republic. The bringing-forth from below ground is equivalent to the emergence of the philosopher from the darkness of the cave into the sunlight. From the relatively easy state of ignorance, to the highly confusing state of wisdom. The difference between Ignorance and Wisdom is characterized by the seeming simplicity of recognizing objects in the shadows of ignorance, versus the confusing diversity of the world when revealed by the light of day. Is equivalent to Yosef emerging from the hole where he has languished for two years. The Lubavitcher Rebbe points to the fact that Rashi, commenting on Yosef’s release from prison (41:14) emphasizes the use of the Hebrew word Bor – Pit, as being the same as the Pit into which Yosef’s brothers threw him, in that there was no water in it. Water, the image of Torah, was lacking from both the Pit in which Yosef almost died, and the Prison in which he likewise might have wasted away. The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that, in one sense, Yosef’s brothers are bringing him down to their own level – while they were masters of Torah, Torah did not dwell in their hearts to the extent it dwelled in Yosef’s. In another sense, the salvation of Mizraim, which was ultimately to be the salvation of Bnei Israel, and the creation of ‘Am Israel, was contingent on Torah, on Yosef being restored to the Light of Day. A visionary needs light. A Jew needs Torah. In the Pit, there was neither. Yosef must be brought forth.

Why is Yosef brought forth, after all? Pharaoh is troubled by his dream and calls to his side all the counselors and magicians of Egypt. At 41:8 we are told, “no one would interpret them [the dreams] for him.” The text is always translated to state that no one knew how to interpret. But that is not what it says.

Clearly, the advisors and magicians know full well what Pharaoh’s dream means. Indeed, Pharaoh calls his wise men together, but does not demand an interpretation – the text tells us that Pharaoh was troubled by his dream, not that he did not understand its meaning.

Pharaoh is the temporal ruler, but also a divinity of Egypt. The Nile is the eternal divinity of Egypt. When the temporal divinity faces the Eternal Divinity, it is clear which shall dominate. Pharaoh is troubled because he knows he is faces forces he will not be able to control. And which of Pharaoh’s advisors wanted to be the one to step forward and tell Pharaoh, “Obviously, you’ve only got seven years left before you lose control of the kingdom”? But the word Poter – Interpret – is also used Talmudically in the sense of resolving a difficulty. Pharaoh was not looking for an interpretation – everyone knew the throne was precarious, and that a couple of years of bad weather would spell disaster for the royal house. No, he was looking for a way of preventing this from happening. For, in the world of agrarian Egypt, watered only by the Nile, a poor harvest – followed by social disaster – was a certainty. The issue confronting Pharaoh was not whether there would be a calamity, but how to prevent the consequences from destroying the social structure. And, especially, how to hold onto the throne.

It took a bold, a daring and brilliant upstart to hit on the solution. Someone with a sharp wit and nothing to lose.

When, at 41:9, the Cupbearer addresses Pharaoh, he gives us an insight into the tenuousness of earthly power. Why did Pharaoh throw the Cupbearer and the Baker into prison? And why into the prison belonging to the Chief Butcher? The Butcher, the Baker, the Royal Wine-Maker… what are we to make of this? The story suggests a palace intrigue, in which intimates, close members of Pharaoh’s household, who were attendant upon Pharaoh’s person, conspired together to do away with the monarch. Who would replace him on the throne? We know that this was not the only time in Egyptian history that this occurred. The Gemara quotes the tradition – also brought down in the Zohar – that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was not an hereditary king; that he was a military man who, after defeating the enemies of Mizraim, took the throne.

This fits nicely with what we know – or believe we know – about the Hyksos dynasties that ruled Egypt for over a century, culminating in the Egyptian victory and the final expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt in 1567 BC. The Hyksos invaders had established dynasties ruling Egypt with what appears to have been a relatively enlightened attitude, maintaining the Egyptian language, culture and religion. Still, their presence irked the people of the land, and Egyptian nationalist and ethnic feeling brewed resentment that culminated in the successful military campaign of Ahmose I. It is likely that the Pharaoh of Yosef’s time was a Hyksos ruler, and consequently a man wise enough in the ways of statecraft to value an alliance with another obvious foreigner – valued it, indeed, to the extent of ordering Yosef to bring his extended family to settle in Egypt, where they could form a Fifth Column of support for the Throne. There is another aspect of this relationship, mirrored in the history plays of Shakespeare: hereditary kings – even those, like Prince Hal, of the first generation – wear their royalty differently from those who – like Hal’s father, Henry IV – took the throne by force. Hal, after becoming King Henry V, is permitted a long philosophical ramble on the vagaries of war – this while standing on the battlefield at Agincourt. But he would never have echoed his father’s famous line: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. The Hyksos King understands the intricate chess game of power and statecraft; the successor, who took the throne by force, sees every man as a potential assassin.

And so Yosef is brought forth from the dungeon. In a scene to be replayed in the Esther narrative, he is shaved and bathed and dressed and dragged before Pharaoh, where the powerful sexual aspect of the story resurfaces. Pharaoh gives Yosef his ring. He then takes a special gold collar and places it around the neck of the nubile virgin – at 41:42 the gold chain is given with the definite article: clearly this is a symbol of known significance: Yosef is Pharaoh’s private property. Rashi blows this point wide open with his commentary on 41:45 – that Potiphar desired Yosef for himself for sex, and that Potiphar emasculated himself in despair after Pharaoh married Yosef to Osnat.

The name Pharaoh gives to Yosef – Tzaphnat-Pa’neah – is generally believed to be untranslatable. Rashi says it means “He explains hidden things,” but also says it is a hapax legomenon and can not be fully translated. The second part of the name – spelled Peh, Ayin, Nun, Het – is possibly linked with the word spelled Peh, Nun, Het, Yud, Aleph, derived from a Persian word meaning “Protection”. As to the first part of the name, the Gemara in Gittin (58a) recounts the story of a woman named Tzaphnat bat Peniel. “Tzaphnat,” meaning Bright. The Gemara says, because all men stared at her beauty, which is the paradigm of Yosef, Yefeh Toar – Beautiful of Form. Yosef, who is so beautiful that the Koran tells of women slicing their hands in a daze as they stare at him. Yosef, who is described at more than one place as Beautiful. Yosef, son of Yaakov. And the mysterious woman in the Gemara is Bat Peniel – the daughter of Peniel. Peniel, the place where Yaakov wrestles with the Man and is renamed Israel, and where he limps from the luxation in his thigh. Yosef is renamed Protected Beautiful Woman. The image of Yosef as Pharaoh’s concubine is too blatant. Yosef has been completely transformed, moreso than any man in history. He has changed his name, his clothing, his language, his sexual identity, his family. He has changed his nation. When his first son is born, Yosef severs the final link by naming him Menashe: “Because G-d made me forget all my hard toiling and all my father’s house.” He names his second son Ephraim, “Because G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” And of course, the word for Affliction – ‘Onyi – is also the word for Rape, raising again the sexual brutality of Mizraim.

Yosef’s transformation is complete. And, as will happen with us as a nation, it is only when something has been completely destroyed that it is ready tobe redeemed. Yosef’s transformation and destruction have been accomplished. No sooner does he name his second son that the famine begins, and the next phase of his story begins, the beginning of his redemption.

Of the balance of the Parasha, we shall mentionm only one incident. There is ample narrative depth here to dwell profitably on this one Parasha for years. We will focus only on one action: the imprisonment of Shimon.

At 42:19, Yosef tells his brothers to pick one of their number to remain behind as hostage, while the others go tyo Canaan to bring back Binyamin. Why, then, at verse 24 does Yosef himself select Shimon?

The first answer is straightforward. Halachically, it is prohibited for Jews to select one of our own number for a punishment. If an army besieges a city and their leader calls out, “Send forth one of your citizens, and we will take that one and depart,” the inhabitants of the city are prohibited from selecting one of their number to be sacrificed. But if that same general calls out, “Send forth Ploni ben Amoni,” the inhabitants are permitted to expel him and buy their own survival with this victim.

Similarly, Yosef’s brothers would not be permitted to select one of their number to be bound. So Yosef mst make the selection for them.

But on a more profound level, Yosef says: I recognize you for what you are. You are the brothers who forget your own brothers. If I take one of your number, you will merely go back to your father and say, “We lost Yosef, and now we lost another one.” Alone among the Brothers, Shimon and Levi treat one another as brothers; they treat their sister, Dinah, as a sister. The other eight were also her brothers; why did only Shimon and Levi take revenge for the actions of Shechem?

By imprisoning Shimon, Yosef sets the stage for the Redemption. Though his immense power did not provent hiim from suffering tremendously, yet through his own suffering, he has learned to wield that power within the scope available to him. And, while it has not prevented him from suffering for many years, the ultimate outcome appears to make it all worthwhile. For, humans live for Moments. We have an ability to retroactively make the suffering, the years of wandering aimlessly, of loss and hardship and pain and rejection – of amking all that appear as prologue to our Moment of Glory. And now Yosef’s Moment comes. The brothers bow down to him in the marketplace and Yosef knows, with a clarity never granted to his father, that his dreams were, in fact, prophetic. He must rethink his entire life and read into every incident a greater level of meaning. And with that re-examination comes the beginning of Wisdom.

Shimon was the one who cast Yosef into the pit, Rashi tells us; - is it for this that Yosef imprisons him? Is it merely to take revenge? Rather, it is only through separating Levi from his brothers, from the one person in the family to whom he has a bond of love and identity, that Yosef can ensure that Levi will become the savior of Klal Israel. Amram and Yocheved come from Levi. Moshe, Aharon and Miriam come from Levi. Without the Tribe of Levi, there will be no Klal Israel. There will be no Kohanim, no Leviim, no Mishkan. No Beit HaMikdash. No Korbanot, no Yom HaKippurim. There will be no People to lead out of Mizraim – nor any leaders to lead them.

As Yaakov recognized, the working-out of Destiny requires two things: a clear Vision of that Destiny – the gift of prophecy, perhaps – and a willingness to throw oneself into working to make it come about. The desire to make a reality of a dream. Yaakov and Yosef are two men full of dreams. They are two men who live in a deep well of prophecy. Yet they also live in the world. The Zohar says that a dream uninterpreted is like a letter unopened: the message is there, but has no effect until it is read. But even Prophecy is merely a signpost. It says: if you take this road, this will be your destination. But it requires that we actively take the road.

Otherwise it is a letter that has been read, but not acted on.

Yours for a better world.

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