Parshat Miketz: Two Strangers Walked Into an Elevator…

Everyone I talk to lately is communicating, in one way or another, that we’re all tired of living with COVID.  The cracks are starting to show.  I heard recently of a young pregnant woman who was at the hospital for her monthly appointment.  She was alone in the elevator when it stopped and a stranger got in.  The stranger looked at the pregnant woman and said, ‘what a terrible time to have a baby’.  She caught herself and followed it with ‘of course, babies are blessings.’  In normal circumstances I would question whether this stranger, with such poor judgment, has a driver’s license, and would I want to be on the road with them…but it’s COVID and the cracks are starting to show.

So, as the winter progresses, and the days get shorter, we need to remind ourselves that the Jewish world is a resilient one.  We roll with the punches.  Chanukah just ended, and the dreidels reminded us that when teaching Hebrew was prohibited, we put letters on toys, pretended to gamble, and taught our children the Hebrew alphabet.  It may not be historically true, but our Jewish world is not defined by a historical moment, it is about meaning and growth.  When we couldn’t gather in shuls, or have holidays together, we figured out how to zoom, and we taught the skill to anyone in our family who didn’t know how to use the technology.  We then zoomed so much that we coined the new Yiddish word, ‘oysh-ge-zoomed’, to tell someone we’ve had too much.  That’s how we roll.

But, these are the times when nuance defines everything.  We figured out the major stuff, now we need to remember that the handful of words spoken in a tired moment have the same impact as it always had.  The Sages told us to be mindful of our words, and that message couldn’t be more relevant than now.

The Sages also told us that the wise person is one who learns from everyone.  With that in mind, this week’s Torah portion, parshat Miketz, describes Joseph and his rise in Egypt.  We’re all familiar with the trials and tribulations of Joseph landing in a prison in Egypt, and how he uses his dream interpretation skills to end up standing before Pharaoh.  There is much we could learn from Joseph.  

It starts in his childhood, he teaches us that if you torment your siblings, they can get together and make your life miserable.  In Potiphar’s house, Joseph shows us that the ancient world also had times of sexual harassment, so best not to be alone behind closed doors with people who hold all the authority.  In prison, Joseph learned that the power never sits with the dreamer, it sits with the dream interpreter, and so he shifts his skills.  Before he is brought to Pharaoh, the text says he is hurried out of ‘the pit’, referencing the prison, but it is the same word as the pit his brothers threw him into.  His identity of victim stayed with him until he could see it was a choice and he could leave it behind.  Once ‘raised from the pit’, Joseph is washed and given new clothes.  Never underestimate the impact of washing our bodies, cleansing our minds and souls, and putting on new clothes.  It sounds mundane but it is transformative.  Yet, Joseph’s greatest life lesson for us occurs in his conversation with Pharaoh.

Joseph stands before Pharaoh and interprets Pharaoh’s dreams beautifully.  But then he proceeds to do something we would all want to teach our kids to do.  He applies for the job he wants, not the job that’s available.  Joseph could well have continued to be the royal dream interpreter, but he outlines a greater vision to Pharaoh.  Joseph creates the job, outlines the requirements and then applies for it.  

Pharaoh accepts everything Joseph has proposed and moves beyond it.  Pharaoh gives Joseph an Egyptian name, Egyptian clothes and an Egyptian wife.  All the fatherly duties that are absent in Joseph’s life.  Pharaoh has created more than an allyship with Joseph, he is creating a familial bond.  The Pharaohs of Egypt were brilliant strategists.

Years later, Jacob, Joseph’s father, will eventually reunite with Joseph.  Through the entire emotional text of their reunification, and their subsequent years together, we anxiously await the moment when Joseph tells his father what all the brothers did to him.  Surely, Jacob must have wondered how Joseph got to Egypt, but he never asks.  The moment never arrives, Joseph never tells Jacob of the betrayal at the hands of his brothers.  Moments of truth can be devastating and damaging beyond repair.  Judaism compromises the moment of truth in favour of peace in the family, in favour of peace in general.

So we navigate our lives today, and we know that we will get COVID under control and come out the other end of this.  Many people will be looking for jobs that have been lost, and many families will have shaped new and powerful values that will continue to stabilize them.  But right now, we know that these are challenging times, and the cracks are starting to show.

Remembering to learn from every person, we should keep Joseph in our thoughts and his understanding of using words to create opportunities and bonds while shying away from the words that convey unnecessary hard truths.

Whether in an elevator, or walking on the street, greeting a stranger with wishes of health and strength is perhaps the truer Jewish moment of how we roll.

Rachael is taking a vacation until January 3rd. She looks forward to sharing her next blog with you on Friday, January 8th, 2021. In the meantime, we invite you to join Rachael for a lecture presented by Kolot Mayim Reform Temple on Sunday January 3rd – Mussar & Tikkun Olam: Is There a Commandment to Build Bridges. All of the information can be found here.

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