Let's recall where we left off last week. We learned that the cupbearer did not remember Joseph after he was redeemed and that indeed he forgot him. BUT we were left hanging as to what exactly happened.
This week, in just a few words, the tale picks up with the phrase, "at the end of two full years,....". We could just skip and skim over those words, or we could go deeply into them. If we do the latter, what kinds of powerful and poignant questions come to mind? What was it like for Joseph to be in prison for so long? How did he handle this degradation, unjust and painful as it must have been? The cupbearer failing to remember and indeed forgetting probably "added fuel to the fire" by serving as a constant reminder of his having been abandoned and seemingly forgotten by his brothers.
In what ways may he have grown or resolved problems or developed virtue, strength, etc.?
I've told you about when the sages of old would prepare midrashim - stories about what they imagined "between the lines" in the text. Now it's your time to be a sage.
We know what happened to Joseph when he was younger, when he was thrown in the pit, what he did for Potiphar upon arriving in Egypt, how he interprets the dreams of the cupbearer and baker, and we know what he does later for Pharaoh when he comes out of prison, and beyond, especially with his family.
Given all that, and briefly, anyone who wants to give it a try, tell us your best story of what happened to and for Joseph during the 2 years in prison that passed by without written account, and mostly how he was changed
(We think of the pain and disappointment to Joseph. We know that he was down for quite a long time and that this was unjust. And we wonder and are quite curious about whether he became dispirited or grew in spirit. Further, we realize again that our destiny often plays out not as we plan or wish but as Providence would have it. We either bemoan this or we accept it. So, for Joseph, we wait to see his response. And, among the many things we learn here, we think about God's work in the world and focus on how we respond to it.
It will not be the cupbearer remembering; it will be God! And it may be the full two years for us to find the innermost truth, and then God will let us burst out. Tzvi Freeman writes, "That is when He gets the tastiest essence of your juice squeezed out from you."
We have our hopes and our prayers. We do our part with our desires and plans. God does His. We act in freedom. Yet, we know, too, there is providence. This phrase, "after a full two years," teaches us that there can be a gap in time as well as consciousness between the two. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says so beautifully, "Mikets is the space we make in our minds for the things not under our control. The name of that space is faith."
Through much pain and deliberation, there must have been a testing within himself, much as the testing to which he'll put his brothers and father. Was this a sort of extended wrestling? He came out of it, able to go face to face with himself and with Pharaoh and his needs, and importantly with his brothers and father. He struggled with beings human and divine, was injured, but rose to live out his destiny!)
I. Read 41:1-4 and 17-21.
This is Pharaoh's first dream, as told first third person to the audience and then to Joseph. There's a difference in the two. What is it, and what might it mean?
(The lean cows eat the healthy ones AND looked as bad as before. Is it that there is a lasting bad effect in the latter and simply uncertainty afterwards in the former? One suggests the possibility of a lasting depression (that is, that the lean cows ate up the healthy ones and endured in lean manner, and the other suggests perhaps an openness to the next phase being something new altogether.)
II. Read 41:25-32
A. Joseph, with God's support, interprets Pharaoh's dreams. What does he say? What meaning does he give to the dreams? Be imaginative and reflect upon what must have happened in moments of Joseph's life during the time he was down that may have informed the interpretation he provided to Pharaoh for his dreams?
(He has God with him. He is brilliant and has vision. His experience shows how the bad can follow the good and then how the good can return. He must have had a reservoir that he could call upon when he was down. Indeed he may have built it up from strength he had in good times.)
B. What knowledge do we have from life experience that evidences such stark transitions?
("To everything, there is a season." Seasons change. Life and Death. Good times and bad. Cycles in the economy. Times of high spirit and low.)
C. What do you make of the similarities of the motifs in Joseph's dreams and those of Pharaoh, and that there were two for both?
(There are connections in life. A purpose, a relatedness that we may not understand until later on, ties that weave our experiences together with others' and ours later on. All this suggests a connecting tissue God uses in our lives rather than a randomness that sometimes appears to be the case. This is a very important lesson, maybe even more important for us moderns, in a story in which God's role is more "behind the scenes.")
III. Read 41:33-36.
A. What is Joseph's plan? What's the theory of action? Explain its soundness in economic terms. In spiritual terms?
(Save in good times for plenty to draw from in lean times. Or earn and save while young for times when old. When holiness is revealed, we hope the light that is lit in our hearts will shine when times get darker or tougher or when holiness seems distant.
B. Read 41:37-49. Two questions: Why do we think Pharaoh reacted so positively to Joseph's interpretation? Why did he give Joseph such significant authority?
(He may have had a fear of a decline, a famine (physical or spiritual), as leaders tend to, and been anxious not to have either an explanation or a sensible plan of action. Joseph's explanation "felt" exactly right, and his plan made sense, and was practical and wise.
Further, there was a sense, as we often see among those who are not ordinarily believers, that they know they're dealing with a man of God. Indeed this is the first expression of the notion of "a man in whom there is a spirit of God."
Pharaoh, of all people, seems to understand that it is God Who shows a problem, redeems, uses a person of discernment as an instrument who brings solutions through chochmah, wisdom. And Joseph induces Pharaoh to see and promote God's ruach (spirit!). Pharaoh wraps all this up by bestowing an Egyptian name meaning, "God Speaks; He Lives" on Joseph. Wow. This doesn't last, as we know. And it is a shared sense of God in the sense of Elohim (not, at least not yet, HaShem, to be sure). But it might show promise for the distant future.
Also, look again at 49. Recall the promise God made to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the sand on the seashore. Why might the Bible use the same metaphor here? What might countless descendants and countless grain here have in common?
(Both are gifts of God. Both sustain God's plan. Both are evidence of life. Both spread God's sovereignty.)
IV. Read 41:51-52.
What do we think of these names?
(Naming a first son, Manasheh, with the intent that the boy makes him forget his problems, including at his father's home, is interesting. Could he really forget? Maybe it's the wrong and the pain that he wants to find a way to forget. Perhaps there is a disappointment with his father as well as anger at what happened from his brothers.
(This is a story with recurring motifs of forgetting and remembering!)
Some say the forgetting is manifested in Joseph's adopting Egyptian ways of clothes, look, and in the formation of family. This turn is an especially fascinating topic in the Jewish mind. Joseph was the most successful Jew "in the Diaspora" in the Bible and, thus, a possible sort of model for Jews in later times who live in the Diaspora. This is a topic for another day.
But I want to show that it is not so much that Joseph forgets. The translation of Manasheh's name has other possibilities. Listen to this:
Amos Funkenstein and Robert Alter read it completely differently! They argue the root is n-sh-h, which far more commonly means "to hold in debt." So, they suggest the far more satisfying and complementary idea of "to relieve from the condition of debt." That is, Manasseh is one who released me from the debt of my hardship and my father's house." Pretty cool!
The second child's name, Ephraim, commemorates God making him "fertile in my land of affliction." This certainly fits better with the alternative translation of the first son.
Jews still bless their sons on frequent occasions as were M and E blessed. Why would we recall these boys in special blessings?
V. Chapter 42
A. Read 42:11 and 13. A lovely foreshadowing: they are indeed all sons of the same father and 12 brothers. This statement is literally true, though they're not aware of it. They're just sorely in need of reconciliation!
B. What important fact do we learn in 42:21?
(We learn something we didn't know when we first encountered the plot - that Joseph had pleaded with them when they degraded him and they did not listen!!!)
VI. When Joseph is quoted by the brothers to Jacob in 43:3 as saying that he would not see their faces without their bringing his brother, what impact did he know this would have on Jacob?
(His own experience with his own brother, no? The lesson Jacob learned so painfully in his own life has not yet been taught to or learned by his sons, but will soon through this painful process and the reconciliation it will effect. Could there also be a sense of hurt that Joseph felt toward his father for not having taught his sons the lessons he knew, thus causing the pain and the need for this difficult process?)
Read Reuben's response to Joseph in 42:37-38. Read Judah's in 43:8-10. What's the difference? Why does Judah's soothe Jacob and portend a possibly felicitous end to the story?
VII. Read 43: 29-32. The pathos is remarkable. Why does Joseph cry? Why do they eat separately?
(He sees himself in Benjamin? His mother? Or, in pain, he sees the brothers putting the vulnerable youngest in jeopardy? Back in 42:24, Joseph cried just before he detained Simeon, suggesting that this test pained him (even for the brother who treated him most harshly), especially when he put brothers in the same place he had been. He knows the pain he himself is about to create for Benjamin in the next test?
This placement of one in the position of the other is the teaching and learning process of ethics, but that doesn't make it easy. How often do we cry when we are teaching others, including especially our children?
What a visible sign of the present state of separation that none of the three parties can eat together at this time. Or is it just a matter of rank?)
VIII. After several tests, punishment through positioning, experience of relational anxiety and pain, Joseph brings to bear the final test. All of which rely on (and ultimately teach) a fundamental ethical principle of the Text - of seeing oneself in the place of the other with the aim of creating a mutuality of caring and loving the other as oneself. There is no surer proof of teshuva than confronting the same set of circumstances in which one sinned and consciously and clearly avoiding erring again.
Joseph has a valuable goblet placed in Benjamin's bag and has it revealed as if a theft. He then watches how the brothers deal with the youngest in real trouble. Judah steps forward to suggest they all are equally responsible, saying in 44:16, "God has found out your servants' crime" (this could be taken to refer to this episode but also to the crime toward Joseph, no?)
Joseph says that only the guilty should be responsible. And we're awarded with a suspenseful break until the next episode!!
Come back next Sunday to see how this remarkable story is resolved!
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