We have watched Jakob since his early shofar-blowing
days til now - when he teaches us! mazel tov!
Jakob Friedman Slifker Bar Mitzvah D’var Torah December 20, 2014
When I first learned my Torah portion was going to be Miketz, I was really excited. I had studied the parasha multiple times in Jewish Day School. I knew Miketz: the story of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams of cows and grain; his being given control of the food supply in Egypt during the years of abundance and the following years of famine; Joseph’s brothers’ coming to Egypt; Joseph’s holding Shimon captive until his brothers returned with the youngest, Benjamin. I knew the story of how Joseph had returned the gold to his brothers in their sacks of grain, making them fear they would be suspected of being thieves. I knew there’d be a lot to talk about, and I thought I knew the story. In studying with Rabbi Alanna, however, I found that these stories are only half the deal. The other half is way more interesting.
First of all, Pharaoh didn’t just give Joseph control of the food supply in Egypt, he actually gave Joseph the power of a king and “only with respect to the throne [was Pharaoh] superior to” Joseph. In addition, Pharaoh gave him this power immediately after hearing Joseph interpret his dreams. When I read that I thought: there must be more to this. Why would Pharaoh immediately give Joseph this power? He’d only just met the guy, so there’s got to be something else behind his decision. With these questions in mind, Rabbi Alanna and I went and looked at Breishit Rabba and found some fascinating midrashim (which are rabbinic interpretations of the text).
In one midrash, we learned about what happened before Joseph’s meteoric rise to power -- in the time between Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dream and his being granted the power of a king. According to Rabbi Eliezer, after Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, Pharaoh told Joseph, “before I can give you all this power, you need to show me that you know the fifty languages of the world because a king must know all the languages.” (I don’t know exactly why he needed to know all these languages, but a certain 8 ½ year-old I know suggested that a king has to be able to have control over any people he might meet, and those people might speak different languages). Our midrash teaches that that night, the angel Gabriel came down from heaven, taught Joseph the 50 languages, and told him what he needed to do to pass Pharaoh’s challenge. The next morning, Pharaoh tested Joseph and he aced the test. 50 languages? No problem. Then Joseph surprised Pharaoh by saying, “but I also know another language.” He then spoke in the language of his people, Hebrew. At this point, Pharaoh instructed Joseph not to tell a soul that he knew this language. Why? Because Pharaoh did not know Hebrew, and he was concerned that his people would no longer respect him as their king and would rebel. Joseph agreed to keep this secret. And it seemed like that was that. But Rabbi Eliezer wasn’t quite finished. In the next parasha, we learn that Joseph wanted to bury his father in Canaan (Jacob’s final request) and that Pharaoh refused to let him go. In response, according to our Midrash, Joseph threatened Pharaoh, telling him, “If you don’t let me go, then I’m going to tell everyone in Egypt that you don’t know a language that I do, which will undermine your power and allow me to usurp you.”
This Midrash brings up something that seems to contradict the stories I thought I knew so well. In my education at Jewish Day school, I was taught to view Joseph as a hero. Yes, when he was younger, living with his family in Canaan, he shared some dreams that seemed to suggest that he thought he was better than everyone else. But our lessons didn’t focus on Joseph’s pride, but rather on how these dreams led to his brothers’ mistreating him and selling him to the Ishmaelites. Quite simply, his brothers were bad, and Joseph’s supposedly selfless actions in Egypt made up for any character flaws. But I was nine; I was in fourth grade, and this was just another Torah lesson.
Now, as a thirteen year-old, who’s beginning to discover my own opinions, I see Joseph differently. Rather than viewing him simply as a hero, as a selfless and kind leader, who distributes food to anyone who needs it, I’m left with questions. Is Joseph really a good leader? Or is Joseph a selfish, power-hungry man, more interested in wealth and control, than in the well being of his people?
One way of beginning to address these questions is to ask other questions: Is Joseph really in charge of his own actions? Or is God the one in control? If God is the one in control, then is God merely a voice in Joseph’s ear directing him or is God moving Joseph like a pawn, controlling everything Joseph says and does?
The reason I’m asking these questions is because, in reading Miketz in preparation for my bar mitzvah, I noticed that when Joseph was interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, it’s not exactly clear who’s talking -- Joseph or God. Joseph doesn’t just say, “Well, God told me the meaning of your dreams.” He talks about God and Pharaoh in the third person, and it’s not clear where Joseph fits in. Before Joseph explains that the dreams of the cows and the grain symbolize the years of abundance and famine to come, he says, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same: God has told Pharaoh what he is about to do.” That’s pretty clear. After explaining the dreams, however, he then repeats himself, saying, “It is just as I have told Pharaoh. God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. [...] The matter is determined by God and God will soon carry it out.” Here, when Joseph says “I,” it’s not clear whether he means himself or God. Is Joseph equating himself with God, just as his brothers thought he was in his earlier dream about the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him? Or, is God speaking through Joseph to tell Pharaoh what God’s intentions are?
If this lack of clarity reflects Joseph’s desire for power, then it proves my original theory: Joseph is selfish and more interested in power than in the well-being of others. On the other hand, if God is speaking through Joseph then maybe some of Joseph’s apparent selfishness is not his fault. His seeming desire for power is really God moving Joseph like a pawn for some greater purpose unknown to Joseph and to us. Why is God putting Joseph in this position of power? Why does his being in this position of power allow Joseph to forgive and to help his brothers? … Why do I keep asking questions and leaving them unanswered?
Here’s my point -- one of the things I’ve realized in writing this D’var Torah and in studying for my bar mitzvah is that sometimes the things I thought I knew contain more layers, more complexity, and more depth than I ever realized. I don’t yet know the answers to all the questions I’ve posed here -- although I hope they’ll lead to thoughtful discussions among all of you (at lunch). But what I do know is not to be complacent, and to always be ready to ask questions and to be open to new answers. As Ben Bag Bag used to say about the Torah, "Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don't turn from it, for nothing is better than it." Part of growing up for me means taking responsibility for myself and my own learning. I know that in the Jewish community, by becoming a bar mitzvah, I take on the responsibility of myself and my own choices. I need to think about my own choices in terms of selfishness, power, and the greater good -- no matter who’s directing me. I know that I have to take this responsibility seriously because I can’t blame my parents anymore (at least according to Jewish tradition).
My Mitzvah project grows out of my parasha. Since Parshat Miketz deals in part with storing and distributing food for the hungry in times of need, I realized that I wanted to do something related to food and hunger relief. As part of my project, I recently helped organize a food drive through the synagogue for Philabundance, the region’s largest hunger relief agency. In fact, the centerpieces for the luncheon later are baskets we made with the food we collected and which will be donated. For the other part of my project, I worked with the Jewish Relief Agency, or JRA, where I packed and delivered boxes of food to people in need. Why did I do these things? That’s a question that I will answer. I did these for my project for two reasons. First, because Miketz revolves around food and hunger. But secondly, and more importantly, I wanted to use my power and choices to help others. According to Reconstructionist Judaism, God doesn’t choose Jews to be performers of God’s commandments, rather it is when we choose to serve God (typically, through the mitzvot), that we are brought close to the Divine.
Maybe Joseph was prideful; maybe God was telling him what to do. At the same time, maybe the whole story of Joseph and God didn’t even really happen. Maybe it’s just a story. So what really does matter? What matters to me is that I was influenced by this story to help feed the hungry. Maybe it’s just a story, but I think all of us should use the Torah to influence us to do good things in the world, to interpret it and to find the lessons that are waiting there for us when we’re ready to hear them.
I would like to take a few minutes to thank all of the people who have helped me on my journey to becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Thank you to all the people who have traveled long ways and in two cases overseas to be here: my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who came in from Boston, New York, and Florida. Gina from California. Gabi from Tel-Aviv. Zsuzsi from Budapest. Thanks to my friends for making me laugh and to my dog, Phineas, for giving me constant smiles. Thanks to my tutor, Rebekah, for making me not completely fail at this, Rabbi Annie and Rabbi Alanna for rehearsals and my D’var, my teachers from PJDS for teaching me pretty much all the Hebrew I know and helping teach me how to think about Torah, and to the whole Dorshei community for providing me with a wonderful Jewish home. And, finally, thanks to my amazing parents who supported me all the way, helped me through all my struggles, and kept me from going completely crazy, so that I could be here today.