The Wisdom of Joseph: Saving Self and Country

Miketz By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Nov 27, 2013 / 5774

Parashat Mi-ketz opens with Pharaoh plagued by two disturbing dreams pregnant with meaning. One involves sickly cattle consuming healthy cattle; the other showcases parched grain consuming abundant grain. Pharaoh seeks a competent interpreter to make sense of his visions and, thankfully, the redeemed cupbearer remembers the talented Hebrew prisoner (a.k.a., Joseph) who successfully interpreted his dream two years earlier. Joseph is summoned by Pharaoh, and offers a compelling explanation—understanding that Egypt and its surroundings will first be blessed by seven years of plenty and then seven years of devastating famine. In response, Joseph proposes an economic plan to save the country from what would have been certain destruction. So impressed is Pharaoh by his Hebrew servant that he describes Joseph as “a man in whom is the spirit of God . . . a man who is discerning and wise” (Gen. 41:38–39), and places him in second in command over Egypt. How does Pharaoh’s generous complement give us a window into the person of Joseph?

Professor Ze’ev Falk writes,

One should compare this description to that of Bezalal [the artist and architect of the Tabernacle] and to the “redeemer” from the House of David. Concerning Bezalel it is written: “I filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, and with insight” (Exodus 31:3). The building of the Tabernacle is similar to the details of the Egyptian economic plan [to save the country from famine] and in both of the them, the spirit of God is expressed through wisdom and insight . . . It is also similar to the Messiah: “a shoot will grow out of the stump of Jesse . . . the spirit of the Lord will alight upon him: a spirit of wisdom and insight . . . ” (Isaiah 11:1–2)—for redemption requires these same qualities. (Divrei Torah Ad Tumam, 90)

Having matured from his younger years through injustices committed against him, Joseph now emerges with a sense of clarity and humility. Far from taking his dreams for granted and using them as a source of pridefulness, his visions now become life-giving. The interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream will now be put to constructive ends, saving the land of Egypt and its environs. The power of Joseph is that he brings God into the midst of the looming crisis. To be sure, he attributes his insightful interpretation to God (Gen. 41:25). Moreover, by comparing the description of Joseph to both Bezalel and the Messiah, Falk sharpens our understanding of Joseph (and indeed of all of these characters). Bezalel’s goal is to nurture and build a place of God’s Presence—and so too the offshoot of Jesse (the Messiah). Joseph creates his own Tabernacle for God in his life and in the life of Egypt, thereby redeeming a land on the brink of devastation. In so doing, he becomes a shining light in a dark world. May we learn from his example, especially as we kindle the lights of Hannukah and celebrate Thanksgiving over the coming week.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.