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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Miketz and Shared Responsibility

In Parashat Miketz, Joseph’s dreams, and his ability to interpret those of others, become his reality. He is called before Pharaoh after all others had failed to correctly interpret his two dreams. Joseph spells out what awaits Egypt over the next 14 years and Pharoah, impressed by what God has allowed Joseph to understand, makes him the second most powerful person in all of Egypt. 

Joseph masterfully goes about his work and prepares the kingdom for years of famine. His family, still residing in the Land of Israel, are not so lucky. The hard times come unexpectedly and they find themselves in dire straits. Jacob, hearing that there is food in Egypt, commands his sons - all except the youngest, Benjamin - to go down to Egypt to try and procure some for the family. 

When his brothers arrive and present themselves to Joseph they do not recognize him. They look upon the equivalent of the Prime Minister of Egypt, adorned in all of the finery that the position would have provided, and do not see their brother who they sold into slavery nearly two decades prior. Joseph, however, recognizes them immediately. All of a sudden, his childhood dreams of his family bowing down to him are playing out in front of his eyes. 

Years prior, Joseph stood as the youngest of 11 brothers. He was powerless to stop them. Now the power dynamic has flipped and he holds all of the cards and from his reaction to seeing them it seems like he might take some sort of revenge. He accuses his brothers of being spies, of coming to undermine Pharoah and called them liars when they said that there was another brother at home with their father. He tells them that if they want to prove themselves, he will allow one brother to return and bring the youngest brother and hold the others in prison until they return. He then throws all ten brothers into a guardhouse for three days. 

At the end of three days he calls the brothers back and changes his offer: I will hold one brother here while the rest of you are allowed to go home and bring back the youngest brother to prove you are being honest. They agree to this plan and while they are preparing and speaking amongst themselves before they part ways, they say among themselves something that Joseph did not expect to hear: “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.” (Genesis 42:21)

All that has happened in the interim in a moment seems so much less significant. All of it is put to the side as these sons of Jacob find themselves standing around the pit, preparing to cast away their brothers so many years ago. 

Rabbi Moses Nachmanides, the Ramban, who lived and worked in Spain of the 13th century, explains their epiphany writing, “they considered the cruelty to be something more worthy of punishment than the actual sale, for he [Joseph] their own brother, their flesh and blood, was begging, throwing himself to the floor, and they did not have mercy.”

In other words, they do not regret selling Joseph into slavery! This may seem shocking but we should pay close attention to what the Ramban is trying to teach us. Selling Joseph is not the greatest sin. Rather, it was the horrible cruelty they showed their own brother, their flesh and blood, as he begged, screamed, pleaded for his life - and they ignored him. 

The Torah is very clearly teaching us this lesson. But, said more correctly, the Torah is really reminding us of a core principle taught already in the fourth chapter of Genesis that is transmitted in form of a question from Cain to Adonai when he asks, “am I my brother's keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) Over and over the Torah will remind us, emphatically, that yes, we are. We are not to look away from the suffering and pain of our brothers and sisters. We are their keepers. 

This message takes on particular meaning in the circumstances we find ourselves in today, both the State of Israel but also the Jewish People around the world. The familial solidarity that I have felt from every Jewish person I have met in London or in the States has been tangible. The crisis that we are facing has reminded us, in the most tragic manner, of our shared responsibility for one another. In Israel, the watchword has been beyachad ne’nanatzeach - together we will win. 

It is clear that the only way to emerge as a stronger country, society, and people is to do so together. Particularly in Israel, where the ten months leading up to the war were marked by deep societal divisions surrounding the future of the nation, the reminder of our shared responsibility for each other has been the guiding principle that most have taken away from October 7th. Across nearly all walks of life, Israelis have lived this principle for the past two plus months, many putting their own personal interest aside to care for others in need. 

Exhaustingly, if not unsurprisingly, in the last two weeks we have also been witnesses to Israeli leadership that has decided that they are not bound by the same principle. It has become painfully clear that many in positions of leadership, even at the height of the war, will put their own sectoral interests in front of those of the collective. One look at the vast sums of money in the updated budget passed this week allocated to offices and purposes that only serve a very narrow part of Israeli society shows what their priorities are. The Prime Minister’s statements comparing the 30 year-old Oslo Accords to the events of October 7th were immediately recognized by every news outlet in Israel as the opening shots of his campaign to prevent or emerge victorious from the next round of elections as his poll numbers hover around half the number of seats from the previous election. 

These alongside so many other examples that will only increase in frequency in the weeks to come confirm that, unlike the vast majority of Israelis, so many of our leaders are most concerned about themselves, their specific communities, their grip on power. 

Just as Joseph deserved more from his brothers, Israel deserves more from her leaders. Millions of citizens have opened their homes, volunteered their time, given to and sacrificed for others. They have lived up to this high calling to be their brothers’ keepers. What they have gotten in return is akin to a political slap in the face. 

There is little change on the political horizon. As long as the war continues, the same leadership will be in charge in Israel. But, there will be a day after that will present Israel and the entire Middle East with a historical moment to bring something better that was before. It will also present dangers. In order to make the most of this moment, Israel needs to empower leaders who will lead by the principle that we learn from Joseph’s brothers: to hear the cries of your brothers, to listen to the needs of others, to care for others as you would yourself. We deserve leadership worthy of the incredible people of Israel.

When Joseph overhears his brothers share this lesson of empathy, of care for our brothers and sisters between them, he is so overwhelmed that the Torah tells us “he turned away from them and wept.” (Genesis 42:24) In that moment, all of the hurt and anger against his brothers he carried for so many years melted away. They were no longer the heartless young men they were, rather they were deeply committed to their loved ones, incapable of recreating the actions of their youth. It takes Joseph a while longer to internalize this, he tests his brothers a few more times before he is ready to reveal his true identity to them. But once he does, apologies for the spoiler for next week’s Torah portion, they will all live out their lives committed to this principle of family, of solidarity, or being their brother’s keeper. 

It is often easier to forget the strength of the Jewish people, of Israel, because we so often find ourselves divided, forgetting our basic shared commitment to one another. My prayer this Shabbat is that, regardless of how much time passes since that dark day in October, no matter how much pain we carry in our hearts, that we will remember that only beyachad - together - will we secure a better future for us all. Shabbat Shalom!

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