Miketz: Power and Mercy

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz and Hanukkah

Greetings and happy Hanukkah!

“For though Yosef recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. . .”  (Bereshit/Genesis 42:8)

This week in our regular Torah portion (there are also special readings for Hanukkah) Yosef is reunited with ten of his brothers, who come to Egypt looking for food as the region is struck by famine. Unfortunately, the older brothers have no idea that the viceroy of Egypt is actually the younger sibling they sold into slavery many years ago.

These older siblings come before Yosef in the royal court, and although he accuses them of being spies- in order to see if they have matured and repented since their days of mistreating him- he does not exact immediate vengeance or violence. In fact, our friend Rashi understands “recognized his brothers” as not merely a visual recognition of their identities, but rather the moral act of recognizing them as brothers– that is, even though he had power over them, he deeply felt their common humanity, and had compassion upon them. Rashi contrasts this with the second half of the verse: “they did not recognize him”- as a brother, when they were in the ones with power.

To rephrase Rashi: when Yosef had power over his brothers, he recognized them as as siblings and equals, and thus showed compassion; but when the older siblings had Yosef at their mercy, they had no mercy.

I think Rashi’s comment hints at the problem of power: it often gives those who possess it a distance from their fellow humans, which prevents the powerful from deeply feeling the human needs of those they might otherwise assist as servant leaders. The antidote to the moral corruption of power is authentic religious ethics, which demands that we see in each person a spark of the sacred, which connects people to each other in compassion, empathy and the sense of a common destiny. Of course, the tragedy of human natures is that religious people and institutions can be corrupted by power just as easily as anyone else, and use religious authority in profoundly anti-religious ways.

In traditional rabbinic texts, Yosef is called the “tzaddik,” or righteous one; perhaps it is because he had great authority over others, but was able to transcend the logic of power and vengeance to embrace instead the course of humility and compassion. Each of us has power, to a greater or lesser degree; would that we would all take Yosef’s example as our own, and act wisely and with great mercy.

Shabbat Shalom,


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