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“Joseph and Pharaoh,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

Friday, December 10, 2021 / 6 Tevet 5782

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings as we make our way toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

This week’s Torah portion opens with great drama. Joseph’s brothers who do not know Joseph’s identity have come to Egypt to secure food in the midst of the terrible famine. Joseph secretly has his goblet hidden in Benjamin’s bag. The brothers must defend the youngest, Benjamin, the brother of the same mother as Joseph, from being taken into slavery. Unlike years before, Judah steps forward to plead on his behalf. In a moment not even Netflix could create, Joseph reveals to his brothers that he is indeed their brother. The dialogue creates its own suspenseful music.

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.

His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you…to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. (Genesis 45: 1-7)

With all of the drama, the lights shine on verse 2-“the news reached the palace.”

Up to this point, the text does not let on whether Pharaoh knew of the Israelite identity of Joseph. But now he does. This is an inflection point in the story. How will Pharaoh respond? Verses later, we learn the answer:

The news reached Pharaoh’s palace: “Joseph’s brothers have come.” Pharaoh and his courtiers were pleased.

And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Say to your brothers, ‘Do as follows: load up your beasts and go at once to the land of Canaan.

Take your father and your households and come to me; I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you shall live off the fat of the land.’ (16-18)

Throughout the narrative from the time Joseph advances from his dream interpretations in prison to his ascendency to the palace, Joseph is described as second to Pharaoh or father to Pharaoh or even, as if Pharaoh. The narrator conveys an important message. Joseph and Pharaoh were closely aligned. The Torah presents Joseph’s powerful place that God ensured for the sole purpose of survival. For that is why Joseph ended up in Egypt. There are no details, however about the clear relationship between Pharaoh and Joseph. That is, until, we learn that when the news reached the palace, Pharaoh was pleased. Pharaoh knew Joseph.

When the book of Exodus opens two weeks from now, we learn quickly that a new Pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph. The nature of the connection with the Jewish people has clearly altered for the worse. They are slaves. The loss of familiarity had grave consequences.

According to Joseph, however, the Jewish people are not heading for disaster. They will certainly experience chaos and degradation as slaves. One of their own will again end up in the palace only to discover he does not belong there. Whatever relationship that had been nurtured between Joseph and Pharaoh will twist into on adversarial contest of wills. The Torah wants us to take the long view—and the long route because redemption at the sea and revelation from the mountain await.

The Joseph cycle will circle into the formation of the Jewish people, a nation on a mission. The light will refocus from Joseph and Pharaoh, a human being who believed he was a god to Moses and the Divine who could not be seen by any human being but wanted to be in relationship with each person.

Let’s see how that turns out as we continue to roll the scroll into next week’s portion.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Connect with me here. I look forward to corresponding with you and to hearing your thoughts.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Elaine Zecher