Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Miketz

This week’s parshah, Miketz, details Joseph’s life in Egypt.  Joseph is our Jewish ancestor who lives his life blending into the larger culture around him.  He holds his covenantal identity in his heart, but he appears outwardly like anyone else.  

  We love the details of the story because we all want to teach our children to do what Joseph did.  Hearing Pharaoh’s concerns, Joseph describes the job needed to solve the problem, and then applies for that job.  

  In fact, everything goes beautifully until his family arrives.  Joseph must now find a way to blend his worlds into one identity.  Creating an identity that prospers in a dominant culture is challenging enough, but it becomes even more layered when two cultures are vying for our identities.  

  Chanukah is the holiday that speaks to us of a time when we tried blending cultural identities only to find that the dominant culture around us didn’t want the blend – it wanted assimilation.  This week we celebrate recognizing that important difference as we insisted on self-defining.  Chanukah marks a time when we encountered identity questions from the outside as well as from the inside.  One of the strongest lessons of Chanukah is that we do not live isolated from other cultures, but we do not ever forfeit our Jewish core, or our right to define our own identities.  

Eight little candles that remind us of the spiritual strength that lies within each of us as we navigate a complex world of cultural offerings.

      I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,


Parshat Miketz: Two Strangers Walked Into an Elevator…

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.

Parshat Vayigash: The Human Family Blood, Sweat & Tears

I was on vacation with my family for 10 days, together, 12 of us, in one house with one virus we all shared.  Like dominoes, one by one, each of us developed a cough, a fever, aches, pressure in the sinuses…and lousy moods.  Innocent questions of ‘how did you sleep’ were often met with variations of responses from ‘how do you think I slept’, to ‘what did you mean by that’.

We struggled to understand why medicines we can get on the shelf at home were only available by prescription where we were.  In moments of respite, we played games together in one room until someone started to cough at which point we all pulled our shirts over our mouths and noses.  People were sent into their rooms for the duration as others dreamed of bathing in hand sanitizer.  

In the midst of the roller coaster of vacation get-away and sickness overload, I heard someone ask a sibling why they were moody.  The question was posed as: isn’t blood thicker than water? And because we were all stuck in a house together and had already talked about anything interesting, and because…we are who we are… we argued about whether or not that phrase makes any sense.

If it’s a declaration of fact, then of course blood is thicker than water…big deal! (Amazing how being sick robs you of any sense of nuance or compassion).  But the phrase is used to indicate that family is more important than other things. How do blood and water mean that? We all agreed that ‘blood’ is family, but then how does ‘water’ mean everything else?

In my family there are history buffs and the historic phrase ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than water’ was volunteered as a source.  Pooling the information people had, as well as a quick check on the internet (which, by the way, doesn’t know much about the phrase), here’s what we came up with:

  1. The ‘blood of the covenant’ is an image of warfare. Those who spill blood together with you on the battlefield are more your family than your biological family – ‘water’ being the waters of the womb.  Your brothers-in-arms should come first.


  1. The ‘blood of the covenant’ is the blood of the New Covenant, the blood of Christ.  When women would join a convent they were taught that the ‘blood’ of Jesus as redeemer is thicker than their biological families.  The church family should come first.

So, it actually never means that family should come before all else.  It clearly means the opposite!

Yet, there’s no question that it is ALWAYS used with the intention of saying that family should always come first.  But, in a way, it opens the possibility of defining families as those with whom we strike a covenant. It is not the womb alone that defines a family and the pull we feel toward it.

A friend of mine is adopted and she knew from her earliest memory that she was adopted.  Her parents put it to her that she was ‘chosen’. In fact, they explained to her that they felt bad for other families because other parents were stuck with what they got but her parents felt lucky because they got to choose her.  She was told that she was born of their hearts.

This idea of family by choice speaks clearly in this week’s parsha, Vayigash.  Jacob and his family have been brought to Egypt to reunite with Joseph. In fact, it is Pharaoh who commanded that they all come to Egypt.  Pharaoh is not unbiased in this matter. In essence, Pharaoh adopted Joseph when he renamed him, gave him a wife and a job as second in command.  Pharaoh has heard that Jacob, the biological father, is still alive. As the head of an empire family, Pharaoh knows ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’.  Jacob must appear before him.

When Pharaoh and Jacob meet, they both realize they represent different families to Joseph.  Jacob is the family of birth, while Pharaoh is the family of choice. Why else did Joseph never send for his father in all the years of Egypt?  One of Pharaoh’s first questions of Jacob is to ask how old he is (in other words, how much longer do I have to worry about you). Jacob answers by saying ‘I’m old but I come from a line of people of longevity’, (I might be old now, but I’m not as old as I’m going to get – I’m not going anywhere fast).  Interesting response, since earlier Jacob stated that he only wants to live long enough to see Joseph, then he can die. Now, with Pharaoh in the picture, he suddenly indicates he’s got a lot of living to do.

There are many relationships in our lives and we build many families around us.  Some feel the commitment of blood should surpass all else while others feel the commitment of loyalty should define.  The Torah commands us to behave a certain way toward family, without stating that the family of birth is of preference to all others.  Family is a foundation from which we build more families and we define and navigate peace within our families – all of them.

As Pharaoh and Jacob stand facing each other, I can’t help but think each of them, in their own cultural language, is looking at the other and thinking ‘but blood is thicker than water’ and they’d both be right.