Miketz 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Miketz (Gen. 41:1-44:17)


At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Yosef is in prison on false charges. He interprets Pharoah’s dreams and eventually becomes “Prime Minister” of the whole country, nationalizing the economy in response to famine. The famine reaches extends to the land of Israel, so Yaakov sends his sons down to Egypt to buy food. There they encounter their brother Yosef, but don’t recognize him. Yosef accuses them of being spies, and demands they bring Binyamin, the youngest, who had been left with Yaakov. They go back to Israel and get Binyamin, but Yosef is still planning a test for them: he plants a cup in Binyamin’s bag, to make it appear that Binyamin stole it, thus giving Yosef a pretext to take the youngest brother as a servant.


“He [Yosef] turned from them and wept, and returned to speak to them- then he took Shimon and bound him before their eyes! ” (Genesis 42:24)


Yosef knows that these Canaanite travelers are his brothers, but they apparently don’t have a clue that the highest official in Egypt is the young brother they sold into slavery years before. Yosef wants them to bring Binyamin, the youngest, so he accuses them of being spies. This gives him a pretext to take Shimon hostage until the brothers can bring Binyamin and thus prove the veracity of their story.


Rashi says that Yosef had Shimon bound only until the brothers left. After they had gone, convinced that Shimon was a prisoner of the “Prime Minister,” Rashi says that Yosef acted much more tenderly towards his captive brother: he “released him, and fed him, and gave him drink.”

A few hundred years later, rabbis of the mussar [spiritual character development] movement learned a profound lesson from Rashi’s midrash, seeing in it the secret of growth through the practice of forgiveness. Itturei Torah, an anthology of mussar and Hasidic teachings, quotes a story about the famous Rabbi Yisrael of Salant [also known as Yisrael Salanter]:

    There once was a man who rudely insulted Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. Afterwards, the man regretted his action and came to R. Yisrael to beg forgiveness. Immediately R. Yisrael completely forgave him, and even asked the man if he needed any help or other good things- [R. Yisrael] was ready to do whatever he could on this man’s behalf.

    “Rabbi!” – the man said, hesitatingly and self-conscious- “it’s not enough that I insulted your honour, and not enough that you forgave me my misdeeds, now you also want to help me and ask about my welfare?”

    “Listen, my son,” answered R. Yisrael, “the Sages have taught us that ‘A deed brings one out of a deed or a thought, but a thought does not bring us out of a deed or a thought. If one wants to truly uproot a negative thought, or constriction or anxiety of the heart, one must do something tangible, because only a deed brings one out of a thought.” ( Cf. Talmud Kiddushin 59)

    We have learned that Shimon was the main brother who incited the others and who threw Yosef into the pit. Therefore, when Yosef wanted to completely uproot the hatred from his heart, he “fed him, and gave him drink.” To forgive someone completely requires not just a thought, but some tangible action. (From Itturei Torah, translation mine.)

Although it doesn’t say so explicitly in the Biblical text, let’s go with this midrash, and assume that Shimon was in fact the ringleader of the vengeful brothers. In that case, we can readily understand why Yosef might want to take him, specifically, as his prisoner- who wouldn’t want to “give someone a taste of their own medicine? ” This makes Rashi’s midrash all the more powerful, implying that someone who truly desires to let go of resentments and grudges must directly confront their most stubborn feelings.

I heard once that “it’s easier to act your way into right thinking than to think your way into right acting.” Many people finding their spirituality in 12-Step programs have learned to actively pray for the well-being and happiness of those they resent- and believe me, this is a powerful exercise! This doesn’t mean that moral irresponsibility is without its proper consequences, but it rather teaches that part of forgiveness is to recognize the humanity of the person one hates.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that Judaism does not require a “leap of faith,” but rather a “leap of action.” We can see how this might apply to ritual action- it’s easier to understand the meaning of Shabbat after one has worked to create a feeling of Shabbat in the home- but Heschel’s insight clearly applies to relationships as well. We have to act, not just rearrange our feelings. If you want to forgive someone, give to them. If you want to be reconciled, reach out. If you want to let go of resentments, then act in a way that acknowledges the humanity you share with your enemy. Only in this way will brothers and sisters be truly reunited.

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