Between the Lines—Mi-ketz

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman


Genesis 40:23–41:1

The chief cupbearer did not think of Joseph; he forgot him. / At the end of two years' time, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile . . .

Genesis Rabbah 89:1

ויהי מקץ שנתים ימים (איוב כח) קץ שם לחשך זמן נתן לעולם כמה שנים יעשה באפילה ומאי טעם קץ שם לחושך שכל זמן שיצר הרע בעולם אופל וצלמות בעולם דכתיב (שם ) אבן אופל וצלמות נעקר יצר הרע מן העולם אין אופל וצלמות בעולם דבר אחר קץ שם לחשך זמן נתן ליוסף כמה שנים יעשה באפילה בבית האסורים כיון שהגיע הקץ חלם פרעה חלום

At the end of two years' time . . . (Gen. 41:1). [It is written:] He sets bounds for darkness . . . (Job 28:3)—[God] set a definite period of time for the world to spend in darkness. What is the proof? He sets bounds for darkness [to every limit that a person may probe, to the stones of thick darkness and the shadow of death] (ibid.). For as long as the Evil Inclination exists in the world, thick darkness and the shadow of death persist in the world; once the Evil Inclination is uprooted from the world, thick darkness and the shadow of death will no longer be in the world.

Another interpretation: He sets bounds for darkness . . . (Job 28:3)—[God] fixed a definite period of time for Joseph to spend in the darkness of prison. When the appointed time came, Pharaoh dreamed a dream that led to Joseph's release.

During the outreach classes I lead for The Jewish Theological Seminary, I have recently fielded questions about evil and suffering with what seems to be greater frequency each week. Is there a connection between the decreased hours of daylight and my students' concern about why bad things happen to good people?

Ten years ago, when the winter solstice immediately preceded the first night of Hanukkah, I learned that this week's Torah portion, Mi-ketz, always coincides with this "festival of lights." Not until this year, however, did I discover the midrash above, which provides a link between the increased physical darkness experienced by most of world Jewry (and by our ancient Sages) at this time of the year and the spiritual darkness of Joseph's unjust imprisonment in Egypt. Perhaps our primal fear of nighttime and its dangers triggers other feelings of dread about mortality and suffering.

It is striking, then, to consider the parallels between Joseph and Job suggested in this midrash. Both men innocently suffer due to the jealousy of an adversarial force and afterward must explain the meaning of this fall from grace. Joseph declares to his brothers that "it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you . . . God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance" (Gen. 45:5, 7). No less extraordinary are God's deliverance of Job from affliction and the protagonist's response after chapters of protest speeches: "I know that You can do everything, that nothing proposed is impossible for You . . . Indeed, I spoke without understanding of things beyond me, which I did not know" (Job 42:2–3).

Both of these biblical men survived tremendous anguish and somehow regained faith in life, family, and God by finding light after a period of profound darkness. They overcame their respective adversities by uncovering meaning in their suffering and in their perseverance. Let us similarly illuminate the darkness around us during this holiday of rededication to tradition. May we draw from these examples of personal transformation to lift our bodies and spirits from gloom to wholeness.