Thoughts on Miketz for 5771

By | December 4, 2010

(This is not a typical post for my blog. Those of you who aren’t Jewish can feel free to skip it.)

My bar mitzvah was December 18, 1982, the second Shabbat of Hanukah, parashat Miketz. Each year on the anniversary of my bar mitzvah, I read part of the Torah reading (the first four aliyot is all I’ve managed to learn in all these years), and each year, I see something new in this remarkable parasha. This year I noticed two things I’d never noticed before.

Money in their sacks

Why did Yosef return his brothers’ money to them when they left Egypt the first time, without Shimon? The essence of his plan was for them to be forced to return with Binyamin when they ran out of food, and they would have had to do that even if he had kept their money.

One possible explanation is that he did so to “disomfit” them, to increase their unease and fear and thereby pressure them to reveal their true character. However, I find this explanation lacking, because surely the acts of holding Shimon prisoner and of (later) framing Binyamin for the theft of his divining cup, was sufficient for that purpose.

Another, related explanation is that Yosef hoped to ascertain whether the brothers were now honest men by seeing if they would return the money on their second visit. However, this explanation is also lacking, because (again) their true character was revealed by their reaction to Binyamin’s frame-up. Returning the money was simply not necessary.

In fact, I think Yosef’s reason for returning his brothers’ money was far more noble than either of these. Yosef had been separated from his beloved father, who loved him dearly and was crushed by his loss, for 23 years. In that time, Yosef had done nothing to ease his father’s suffering. He had done nothing to honor his father as our tradition demands.

After all that time, along came his brothers, with money that was in part, if not entirely, their father’s. They came not only to buy food for them and their wives and children, but also for their father, for Yosef’s beloved Ya’akov. Yosef could not reveal himself at once, because as his dreams foretold, they first had to be tested to redeem themselves. Even then, with his brothers in front of him, his father would continue to suffer.

Yosef wanted to do something to honor his father, and so he did the only thing he could: he refused to take his father’s money, and instead viewed it as an honor and privilege to be able to provide for his father in a time of need.

Halacha does not require a child to spend his/her own money to support a parent. Yosef was not required to give his father food and return his money to him. Nevertheless, he did so to honor his father. The alternative, making his own father pay him money he didn’t need for food his father needed to survive, was simply unthinkable to him.

Money in their sacks, take 2

Yosef was not only a righteous, god-fearing man. He was also a very smart man, and his plan for testing his brothers to reveal their true character was meticulously planned in the few seconds he had to decide what to do when his brothers first appeared before him in Egypt. A small aspect of the Miketz story makes the cleverness of Yosef’s plan amazingly clear.

Consider this… After the brothers’ first visit to Egypt, which went quite poorly by any measure and ended with one of them being held in captivity, they discovered to their chagrin on the way home that for their money had been returned to their sacks. Eventually, they had to go down to Egypt again to buy more food. Put yourself in their shoes: after what happened the first time, what would they have done before leaving the second time?

They obviously would have checked their bags to make sure that their money had been successfully left behind this time. And yet they didn’t. Why is that?

We see the answer in the events leading up to their second departure. Yosef had the brothers brought to his house, and there, he served them a large meal. According to the text, “And they drank, and were merry with him.” That translation is somewhat loose. The Hebrew is quite clear: they got drunk. Judging from the tone of the text, they probably got very drunk. Here’s what happened next:

1 And he commanded the steward of his house, saying: ‘Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put every man’s money in his sack’s mouth.

2 And put my goblet, the silver goblet, in the sack’s mouth of the youngest, and his corn money.’ And he did according to the word that Joseph had spoken.

3 As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away, they and their asses.

It is worth noting that the text does not say that the brothers slept. It would be reasonable to interpret this as meaning that they partied until dawn. (Insert image here of the brothers downing drink after drink while Yosef keeps pouring his into a potted plant.)

The Talmud teaches that a man’s character can be learned “מכיסו, כעסו, וכוסו,” i.e., from his pocket (how he spends his money), his anger (how and about what he gets angry), and his cup (i.e., how he acts when he’s drunk). Therefore, one might suppose that Yosef got his brothers drunk to see what they would say and do with their inhibitions lowered. However, I find that explanation lacking for the reason I’ve already mentioned: the only critical test was how they would react when Binyamin was accused of taking Yosef’s cup.

I think Yosef got his brothers good and drunk to ensure that when they were unceremoniously kicked out of his house at dawn the next day, they would be too tired and too drunk (or hung over) to remember to check their bags before leaving.

I admire Yosef not only for the righteousness which made it impossible for him to accept his father’s money in exchange for food, but also for the cleverness which enabled him to create and carry out such a perfect plan for his brothers’ trials and ultimate redemption.

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