Parashat Mikeitz: The Sons of Ya’akov, Am Yisrael

Parashat Mikeitz picks up right in the middle of the grand saga of Yoseph’s life. After having shared his prophetic dreams of glory with his family, and having been clearly favored by his father for reporting on his brothers, these brothers sold him into slavery. This section begins with Yoseph’s rise to power in the Pharaoh’s court as a dream interpreter, and the eventual appearance of his brothers in search of relief from the famine that had stricken the region. In this narrative, we see one of the greatest pieces of family drama in the Torah. Packaged in this story is a glimpse into the very nature of human experience and relationship.

Yoseph’s seat of power in the Pharaoh’s administration, and his adoption of Egyptian dress and custom, prevent his brothers from recognizing him. While the drama plays out we get a rare view of both sides of the story. The Torah is renowned for its pregnant silence in the background of ostensibly emotional scenes, most notably in the near silence between Avraham and Yitzhak during the Aqeidah, but here we are given a candid view of emotion attempting to be hidden by Yoseph and his brothers. We are not only shown Yoseph’s private tears in response to seeing his brothers and finding out that his father is still alive, but we are also shown many of the individual brothers’ responses to the situation they are in.

Throughout the rest of the parshah the narrative is one of manipulation, personal growth, and the beginnings of familial reconciliation. Dramas play out within the family between the patriarch and the many sons, and between Yoseph and his brothers. The most striking aspect of the whole process is the emotional development and exchange of these characters. Simultaneously, we get little to no hint of God throughout. God is evoked only in the speech of the characters and does nothing to intervene or affect the story. Instead we have pure human drama laid bare before us.

Rashi, the 11th century French interpreter of Torah, picked up on this trend as well. He noticed a slight grammatical switch in one line (Gen. 42:3). Rashi noticed that when the brothers decide to go down to Egypt to retrieve food, they are counted separately as Yoseph’s brothers, as opposed to Yaakov’s sons. Rashi sees this as hinting at the fact that each of the brothers had his own personal reaction to the situation due to their own individual relationships with Yoseph. This development of individual characters in their own private relation to their situations shows just how lost in ourselves we can get.

In a way, this is the first time we’re shown the truly individual aspect of human life in the Torah. Although the brothers are together, and Yoseph has his Egyptian helpers, these characters are all shown trapped in their own individual lives. Yoseph can not break character, the brothers individually try different ways to figure out how to work around the series of events orchestrated by Yoseph, and all the while all are struggling with the guilt and hurt of their past actions. This complex interweaving of personal responses to a collective past, from Yoseph’s alienation and hiding from his brothers to his brothers’ confusion and guilt,  is a parallel to our own relationship to Judaism.

In our story today we can see the roots of the conflicts in the Jewish world, be they personal or cultural, within our families and our relations between denominations. Guilt and lack of understanding, and the attempt to hide both of these emotions, pervade all of the conflicts that I have experienced within the contemporary Jewish world. These are the very themes underlying every moment of the drama between Yoseph and his brothers. I have certainly played both the part of the one hiding behind the other culture while trying to tease out the intentions of my more traditional brother, and I have played the role of the traditional element attempting to understand the hidden agenda of my hiding brother.

At the end of this week’s portion very little is resolved, but Yehudah, the brother whose idea it was to sell Yoseph into slavery, accepts responsibility for his brother Binyamin in the face of Yoseph’s demanding him as a slave. This one step into responsibility that ends the Parshah is the beginning of the end of the lies and deceit surrounding the brothers. Yehudah’s step in the right direction, displaying loyalty and the bravery to take responsibility for his brother rather than selling him into slavery, shows us our own path to resolution within our lives. In spite of our differences and the histories we may have, Am Yisrael is a family. It is a family with many facets which often clash and disagree. Today we are just like this first generation of the nation of Israel, Israel’s direct sons who are the main characters of this Torah portion. In this story, they show us that we needn’t agree, or be exactly the same, but that we must be responsible for each other, and have the bravery to display this responsibility. The future of today’s Jewish family has yet to be written, but let us use the example of the sons of Yaakov, the sons of Israel, to reconcile Am Yisrael once again.

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