Mikeitz: Avoiding Father

April 11, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Posted in Mikeitz | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on November 29, 2010.)

And two sons were born to Joseph before the (first) year of the famine; Asnat, daughter of Poti-fera, priest of On, gave birth for him.  And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Menashe, “because God made me forget my distress and all the household of my father”.  And the name of the second he called Efrayim, “because God made me fruitful in the land of my oppression”.  (Genesis/Bereishit 41:50-52)

Menashe = From Forgetting, From a Debt.

Efrayim = Double Fruitfulness, Double Ashes.

A year ago, in my first blog on this week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz (“at the end”), I was struck by Joseph’s name for his firstborn son, Menashe.  I discussed how he wanted to forget his ten older brothers, yet found that he could not forget them.  (The youngest brother, Benjamin, was only six when Joseph’s older brothers sold him into slavery.  At this point, Joseph seems to have forgotten him.)

This year, I see the same verse as a clue that Joseph also wanted to forget his father Jacob, who “loved” him.  Why didn’t Joseph ever sent a message back to Canaan to let his father know that he was alive and well?  Maybe he couldn’t send a message while he was in prison.  But at the beginning of this Torah portion Joseph, age 30, is brought out of prison to interpret Pharoah’s dreams.  His interpretation and gratuitous advice are so impressive that Pharaoh appoints him the economic minister of all Egypt.  During the next seven years, while Joseph is supervising grain storage to prepare for the coming famine, he has wealth, status, his own family, and freedom.  So why doesn’t he send his father a letter?  Why doesn’t he even ask one of Pharaoh’s spies in Canaan to check up on the old man?

Apologists who saw Joseph as an exemplar of righteousness theorized that Joseph avoided any communication with Canaan because:

a) He did not want to shame his family by revealing that his brothers had sold him (e.g. Philo of Alexandria); or

b) If Jacob found out the evil his ten older sons had done, they would run away.  Then their aged father would be even worse off (e.g. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch); or

c) Joseph knew his dreams at age 17 were prophetic, and he did not want to interfere with God’s plan by taking any action regarding his father or his brothers until the dreams were fulfilled—until all of them had come and bowed down to him (e.g. Ramban; Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz).

Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg speculated that Joseph is so traumatized when his brothers seize him and thr0w him into the pit, that 13 years later he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.  He functions successfully in Egypt only because of amnesia about his past.  When he sees his brothers again, he cries because he remembers his trauma.

Another answer is simply that Joseph does not love his father.  A small child enjoys being spoiled at first, then becomes uneasy about being treated differently from everyone else.  Jacob’s love might have felt both smothering and unreal.  The princely tunic that Jacob gave him may have fed Joseph’s grandiosity, but it also may have struck him as a ridiculous garment for a shepherd.  He wore it in last week’s Torah portion when he traveled alone to Shechem and on to Dotan, but it only served to make it easy for his brothers to identify him from a distance, and plan their ambush.

Joseph must have asked himself why his father, who should have known better, sent him off on a two- or three-day journey from Hebron to Shechem, but provided no escort, nor any other protection.  Did his father secretly want him to die?  Did Jacob really love him, or did he just love Joseph’s face, because it looked like the face of his beloved dead wife Rachel?  When Joseph was 17 and his formerly girlish face was sprouting whiskers, did his father stop loving him?

I can imagine Joseph riding toward Egypt with his arms and legs bound, facing a life of slavery, and thinking bleakly that nobody loves him.  Obviously his 10 half-brothers hate him, and now it appears that his father does not care what happens to him.  His full brother Benjamin is only six years old, and his mother is dead.  He might as well give up on his whole family, “all the household of his father”.  He realizes he will have to build a new life from scratch, supported by nothing but his own wits—and the one hope remaining to him, that God might someday make those dreams of rulership come true.

So when his own two sons are born, Joseph gives them names that reflect his success in Egypt—and also his lingering bitterness that he was betrayed not just by his older brothers, but even by his father, who claimed to love him. Joseph cannot yet forgive his father, but at least he can forget him.  In Egypt he has a good new life, a great job, and his own new family.  He will be the father from now on.

So Joseph thinks—until he recognizes his ten older brothers, bowing until their faces are on the ground and asking him for permission to buy Egyptian grain.  Suddenly Joseph can no longer “forget”, no longer avoid thinking about his former distress, or his father’s household, or his father.

In next week’s Torah portion, Jacob himself comes down to Egypt.  And Joseph finds out whether he can forgive his father after all.

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