Fred A. Bernstein

D'var Torah on Mikeitz

How good it is for brothers to sit peacefully together

Published in Speeches / talks, December 15, 2012


It is a particular honor for me to give this d'var torah -- my first d'var torah -- on Chanukah. I love this holiday because it brings us light -- the light of candles placed in menorahs and lit, often by children, at the time of year when we need light the most.


Last night was the seventh night of Chanukah, which in some communities was marked as Chag haBanot, the Festival of the Daughters. Mothers give their daughters gifts, and daughters who are fighting are expected to make up. It's good that there's a version of the holiday that gives equal time to daughters, because in the Torah portion this week, Mikeitz, there is an awful lot of attention to sons.


In fact, the portion contains the first reference to Ephraim and Menashe, which pleases me because I have two sons, and, like Menashe and Ephraim, they aren't enemies but allies. Despite the fact that Microsoft Word likes to change "Menashe" to "menace," Joseph's sons are generally thought of as the first brothers in the Torah who get along. They are preceded by notorious brothers, like Cain and Abel; we know how that one ended. And Isaac and Ishmael, whose differences are still being played out in the Middle East, and Jacob and Esau, who were also locked in fratricidal struggle.


And Jacob's sons were hardly any better. When Jacob sent Joseph to help the brothers tend their flocks, they didn't welcome him; indeed, they sold him into slavery. Indeed, one of the miracles of the parsha is that Joseph survived slavery and eventually became a grand vizier in Egypt.


The most familiar portion of the Mikeitz deals with how Joseph became a power broker in Egypt. Namely, he was summoned to interpret Pharaoh's dream, in which seven lean cows devoured seven healthy cows, and then seven scrawny ears of grain (somehow) devoured seven healthy ears. Joseph interpreted the dream as predicting seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine.


Freud regarded dreams as wish fulfillment. In this case the dream was Pharaoh's, but the wishes it fulfilled were Joseph's. By predicting that Egypt needed to prepare for the coming famine, he wishes himself into a position of authority, since Pharaoh chooses him to manage the nation's food supply. And he wishes himself into a series of encounters with his brothers. That's because Joseph's brothers will need his help during the famine, and will have to jump through hoops to get that help, and in the process Joseph will get to play some nasty tricks on them.


Really nasty tricks. Joseph, among other things, accuses them of spying; forces them to bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, to him (breaking their father, Jacob's, heart); accuses Benjamin of stealing -- the list goes on. 


On Friday nights, Jews say to their sons, "May you be like Menashe and Ephraim."  We certainly don't say may you be like Joseph and Judah, or Joseph and Reuben, or Joseph and anyone.


What's interesting to me is that Joseph is unable to put an end to the fraternal strife in his generation. But he does seem to be able to make things better for the generation that follows. How does he achieve that? Obviously, Joseph didn't raise Menashe and Ephraim by himself. We know little about Joseph's wife, or the other people who influenced the two boys' development -- there could have been other friends and relatives in the picture, including even Uncle Pharaoh. Imagine the Chanukah presents HE showed up with.


But I'd like to think that Joseph was a good father. and perhaps he understood that the problems in his generation had begun with Jacob's favoritism -- a favoritism that naturally set rivalries in motion. And it wasn't just Jacob. Joseph's grandfather, Isaac, and great grandfather, Abraham, also played favorites (to put it mildly). One thing I can deduce from Mikeitz is that Joseph didn't play favorites with his sons.  


It may be relevant that he didn't have children until he was past 30 -- which was middle-aged in those days. I have been reading a lot lately about the tendency, by both men and women, to delay having children until they're middle aged -- which is being blamed for various social ills. But what about the advantages of being an older parent -- the advantage of time to reflect on what's really important when it comes to raising children? Joseph may have realized that he couldn't throw off the burden of Jacob's parenting -- he was still struggling with his own brothers long after Menashe and Ephraim were born -- but that he could raise children without a similar burden.


Some of us struggle with the question of whether we can be better parents than our parents were. We hope we can, and our hope is strengthened by the parsha, in which Jacob's sons were enemies, but Joseph's sons were allies. That, and the optimism it allows parents to feel, may be the real miracle of Mikeitz.


Thinking of Menashe and Ephraim, and looking out at my two sons, Aaron and Jacob, I think of the words of King David, as translated by my dear friend Eddie Feld: "How delightful it is for brothers to sit peacefully together."  

Hinei matov umanayim, shevet achim gam yachad.

Shabbat shalom.