This week’s parsha portion finds us back in Egypt with Joseph. After Pharaoh has a few unsettling dreams, The National Cup-Bearer d’Egypt (a guy whom Joseph had helped when they were jailed together, and who then forgot all about him) suggests to Pharaoh that he get a reading from the imprisoned Hebrew. Joseph is released, cleaned up, and presented to the Pharaoh, who recounts two dreams – seven emaciated cows devour seven plump cows; seven shriveled stalks of corn devour seven juicy stalks of corn.
Joseph pauses, and then tells the Pharaoh that his two dreams portend the same thing: seven years of bounty, followed by seven years of famine.
Joseph then takes things a step further – he suggests a plan that will help Egypt avoid this fate. By saving up the grains and produce of the plentiful years, they will be able to coast through the famine unscathed. Joseph reminds me here of the world’s first Certified Financial Planner. . .
Pharaoh thinks this sounds like a great plan, but doubts his capacity to follow through with it. So decides to make Joseph in charge of all of Egypt, cut his hair, give him a priestess for a wife, and tell all hungry whiners to go speak to Joseph.
Throughout the bountiful years, Joseph makes sure to create stockpiles of nuts, grains, bread, produce. The storehouses of Egypt are overflowing with food. Then the famine strikes, and it is bad. World-wide bad. So bad that the Caananites – i.e. Joseph’s brosephs – start to starve, too. But in Egypt? Things are fat, happy, and well-organized. Joseph has rationed out the food so well that not only are the Egyptians full and content, but they’re able to share their food with neighbors. So, the Caananite brothers of Joseph are sent to Egypt to collect their rations.
Upon arriving, Joseph recognizes them immediately, and he begins to put them through a series of psychological tests to see whether they are still scumbags. He forces them to leave one brother behind, return to Canaan, and come back with their youngest brother Benjamin – his only full brother. Will they leave one of their own behind again? Yes. Simeon is tied up and left in Egypt while they try to persuade their father to let them take Benjamin back with them. (Minus ten points.) As they get ready to leave, Joseph has their bags filled with money. When they open their bags while trodding along through the desert on their donkeys, they’re horrified. How did it get there? What should they do? Will they be accused of stealing and lie? Will they admit that someone put a little extra sumpin’ sumpin’ in their russacks when they return? In fact they do – and they also bring extra money along when they return to Egypt, to apologize for the confusion. (Plus ten points.) But the lie to their father about why they have to bring Benjamin with them, claiming that Joseph demanded to know whether they had a younger brother, when in fact they just offered up the information like morons (Minus five points). After a meal in Joseph’s house where he lavishes inordinate amounts of attention and wine on Benjamin – the youngest son – and the other brothers just take it, making no objection (plus five points), he sends them on their way, but stuffs a chalice in Benjamin’s sack. Ten minutes after they leave, he sends a servant to accuse them of stealing it. When the chalice is found in Benjamin’s sack, he is condemned to die. But his brother, Judah – the very one who created the plot to murder Joseph many moons ago – begs for his own life to be taken, in order to spare Benjamin. (Plus fifty points!)
We’re left with this cliffhanger, and a lot to think about.
Two things struck me about this week’s passage. One is Joseph’s emotion. When the brothers first come to Egypt Joseph condemns them as spies, in order to imprison and test them. while the shackles are being prepared, they start bitching and moaning about how they’re always punished, and this is obviously recompense for that one little time that they tried to kill their brother but then sold him into slavery. Why must they always get the short end of the stick? Won’t God stop smiting them already?
Not knowing that Joseph can understand their Hebrew (believing him to be an Egyptian) they go on and on about how this is payback for that whole Joseph-mess. Reuben – the brother who had tried to save Joseph, but is as powerful a character in the Bible as a wet bagel – cries “I told you to spare him, but you wouldn’t listen, you wouldn’t listen!”
At this Joseph, frowning and angry and Pharohic, excuses himself politely from the room, closes the door behind him, slumps against the shut door, and starts to sob. He finally pulls himself together and returns to the main room to oversee the imprisonment of his brothers, with a stern face.
Again, when the brothers return with Benjamin in tow and they are getting ready for lunch, Joseph, upon seeing his full brother – who resembles his own mother – steps out to go grab something from the other room, starts weeping and gulping and sobbing in the pantry, splashes cold water on his face (this is literally what is described in the Bible), takes a deep breath, and returns to the dining room pretending to be fine.
There was something really poignant and human to me about these two moments in the parsha. I know I have had these moments – where inside my soul was shrieking, my insides were firecrackers, my tears were smashing down the doors to get out of my eyes. But I had to find a way to hold my face together and keep its various parts and pieces from trembling; I had to speak without my voice shaking, had to smile without letting a sob escape my open mouth, had to breathe quietly without gulping, hiccupping, or hyperventilating. There is something about this that lends credence to Joseph’s tests of his brothers – which I would otherwise find to be sadistic and masturbatory – since it is evidently so damn hard for him to hold it together while doing it. And yet, he plods along.
The second thing that I really took note of is what Joseph chooses to name his sons, once he gets married to an Egyptian mademoiselle. He names them Manasseh, or “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my paternal home,” and Ephraim, meaning “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.” These names are bittersweet – things are better, but he’s forgotten his home. Life is fertile, but it’s in the land of affliction. So while things are good, they are also somewhat sad; they are better, but only after enduring exile and affliction. But nonetheless, they are better.
Finally, the third thing that stands out to me in this passage is the self-pitying attitude and endless moaning and kvetching of Joseph’s family. When they are overheard by Joseph, they are not repenting for having tortued and enslaved their brother – they are whining about being punished by God. And when their father, Jacob, is informed that he’ll have to let his youngest, Benjamin, go to Egypt as collatoral, since his sons were accused of being spies, and one of them is still left imprisoned there, his response is, to say that they are being punished unfairly, and to wail “These things always happen to me!” Not Gee, I hope my son Simeon isn’t being tortured in jail, or Why do these things keep happening to us? Or, Hmmm, maybe I should go with them to make sure everything is OK, or Wow, I wonder what we did to deserve all these lousy circumstances – what can I do here? Instead, it’s me me me, it’s self-pitying without taking any responsibility, it’s assuming it’s all coming from outside without ever looking inward. No wonder this family keeps getting screwed over – they treat others terribly and then blame the universe.
But where will their salvation come? Not in apologizing – but in changing their behavior. Once they stop lying, complaining, blaming, and shifting around, and start to act differently – which involves taking responsibility and putting their necks on the line – things start to shape up.
So I’m thinking about these three things:
1) Putting on a brave face, and enduring discomfort in order to reach a desired end;
2.) Giving a name to – and honoring – the fact that things do get better, although they may be bittersweet.
3.) Looking at “bad things that happen” – and they will never stop happening – from the perspective of “how can I act differently to make these things happen/make them hurt less?” instead of “why is the universe punishing me?”
Taken together, I think these three provide a lovely way of dealing with the difficulties that inevitably will hurt and tangle us over and over again in life. They’re not punishment; they’re tests, and you can choose how you act. They’re not forever; hold on, keep a brave face, and continue. They will get better, even if it is bitter; and when they do, make sure you find a way to commemorate it.
Those are my takeaways – what are yours?
Have a great weekend!