Drash on Parashat Mikeitz (Rosh Chodesh)
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky
Beit Shalom Synagogue, Adelaide, South Australia
The Dark and the Light
I have been re-reading Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg’s dense and rich work The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis. The book is part psychoanalysis, part literary criticism, and part rabbinic midrash in its exploration of the themes of the book. For this week’s parshah, Zornberg focuses on the names Joseph bestows upon his two sons and the complex explanation for each. He names his elder Menashe, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” (Genesis 41:51) His younger son Ephraim is given that name because, “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.” (Genesis 41:51)
Zornberg notes that Joseph gives himself completely over to the task at hand: making sure enough of Egypt’s grain is stored up in advance of the coming famine so that its people and those in surrounding nations will survive. As she writes, “Even in the good years, there is no enjoyment of plenty, under the shadow of impending hunger.” (page 287) She refers to Joseph’s interpretation of Pharoah’s dreams: “No trace of the abundance will be left in the land because of the famine thereafter.” Genesis 41:31) Joseph does not allow himself the luxury of enjoying the prosperity of those seven years because he is so acutely aware of what is coming.
Joseph is in Egypt, but he is never really fully part of it. When his brothers arrive for the second time and dine with him, the Torah tells us, “They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves; for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians.” (Genesis 43:32) And yet, at the same time, his life is relatively blessed. He now has a wife, Osnat, and two sons. God has indeed “made him fertile in the land of his affliction,” and he lives daily with these contradictions. He has left behind the suffering he endured at the hands of his brothers, but now he keenly feels his separation from his father and from his home. His life is permeated with both darkness and light. And when he suddenly finds himself standing before ten of his brothers, all bowing in supplication, he channels much of that darkness towards them. This is the only parshah of the year that ends on a cliffhanger; we have to wait a week to discover whether Joseph will allow his youngest brother Benjamin to return safely home to his father, or whether he will keep him as a prisoner and cause his own father to die of grief.
This parshah is always read out on the Shabbat of Hanukkah. This festival is all about light. In the Northern Hemisphere, Hankkah comes at the darkest time of the year. Those candles shed their glow at the darkest time of the month and bring light to the darkness. So Joseph ultimately finds his own light, not this week, but in next week's parshah. He declares to his brothers that they intended ill for him when they sold him into slavery in Egypt. But God always meant his mission to be for life, and so he has preserved untold lives. We too hope to shine our own lights on a world that can often seem dark and forboding, and we embrace light wherever we can find it. May these last days of Hanukkah bring us all only joy and celebration, and may we always be able to find the light in the darkness.