search
Naomi Graetz

A Confusing Week: Oh My GOSH—VayiGASH to GOSHen

Screenshot of Solomon on Ha-yehudim Baim

This week has been a totally confusing week for me. My mind and political opinions have been one big swirl. It started in our synagogue last Shabbat when I read the haftarah (1 Kings 3: 16-28). Normally, parshat miketz comes out on Hanukah and we read the special haftarah from Zechariah. But once in a blue moon, Miketz is read after Hanukah and so we read the normal haftarah which is about Solomon’s wisdom.  Before reading I casually asked everyone what was the connection between Miketz and Solomon’s wisdom. So of course, people pointed to the fact that both Pharaoh and Solomon had dreams from which they both woke up (miketz).

A TALE OF TWO KINGS

I pointed to the parallels between Joseph’s style of leadership and Solomon’s—both were overly self-confident. As I mentioned in last week’s blog, never trust anyone who is sure of himself. Most of us have grown up on how wise Solomon was because he could distinguish between the real mother whose baby lived and the mother whose baby had died. But how did he go about differentiating between the two prostitutes with conflicting claims? The two mothers brought their case to Solomon: One woman said, “the live one is my son, and the dead one is yours!” and the other said, “No, the dead boy is yours; mine is the live one!”

So the king gave the order, “Fetch me a sword.” A sword was brought before the king, and the king said, “Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other.” But the woman whose son was the live one pleaded with the king, for she was overcome with compassion for her son. “Please, my lord,” she cried, “give her the live child; only don’t kill it!” The other insisted, “It shall be neither yours nor mine; cut it in two!” Then the king spoke up. “Give the live child to her,” he said, “and do not put it to death; she is its mother.” When all Israel heard the decision that the king had rendered, they stood in awe of the king (ויראו מפני המלך); for they saw that he possessed divine wisdom to execute justice ( I Kings 3:16-28).

I have always found this to be very disturbing, because it is like playing chicken with the baby’s life. Solomon’s wisdom rests on the fact that no true mother would allow her child to be sacrificed. But what if the mother is suffering from postpartum depression? Or so paralyzed by fear in the presence of the upraised sword, that she is numb and cannot speak up? When Israel heard the decision, they were terrified (va-yiru) of this kind of justice.

Joseph too was certain about his interpretation of Pharoah’s dreams and that his was the right way to administrate and be the mashbir—the main supplier of grain to the starving nations. He went about it in a rational and calculated way as an administrator. Under his watch, Egypt became the breadbasket of the middle east and everyone had to come to him or else starve. Absolute power is very scary.

A DIFFERENT MODEL OF LEADERSHIP

But there is another paradigm of kingship: the story about two mothers who are starving during a great famine when the city is under siege:

The king of Israel was walking on the city wall when a woman cried out to him: “Help me, Your Majesty!” …What troubles you?” the king asked her. The woman answered, “That woman said to me, ‘Give up your son and we will eat him today; and tomorrow we’ll eat my son.’ So we cooked my son and we ate him. The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son and let’s eat him’; but she hid her son.” When the king heard what the woman said, he rent his clothes; and as he walked along the wall, the people could see that he was wearing sackcloth underneath (2 Kings 6:24–30).

This king was a more honest king than Solomon who was quick on the trigger and wielded a sword with a swagger. This king is horrified and has no answers, he rents his clothes and mourns. He takes responsibility and suffers with his people. (It is true if we keep reading, he will go on to blame the prophet Elisha for what has happened—he’s a politician after all). The satiric TV series, The Jews are Coming ha-yehudim baim makes fun of Solomon’s so called wisdom and his willingness to unthinkingly brandish his sword.

OH MY GOSH—VA-YIGASH—TO GOSHEN

Teaching about Joseph who takes advantage of starving people to enrich Egypt is very difficult. But even more disturbing is how he takes care of his own family, while the rest of his adopted country is starving and displaced:

So Joseph settled his father and his brothers, giving them holdings in the choicest part of the land of Egypt, in the region of Rameses, as Pharaoh had commanded. Joseph sustained his father, and his brothers, and all his father’s household with bread, down to the little ones. Now there was no bread in all the world, for the famine was very severe; both the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine. Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, as payment for the rations that were being procured, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace. And when the money gave out in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us bread, lest we die before your very eyes; for the money is gone!” (Genesis 47: 11-15).

I wrote about this in my blog last year.

REACTIONS TO MY BLOG

Many people reacted to my blog last week. I love when people write to me and acknowledge that they take my thoughts seriously. Two comments stood out. One admonished me for saying that some Gazans might be innocent and said perhaps this was related to my insomnia. I wrote back that I do give thought to the words I use, even when I write at 4 AM and that the majority of people I know would take issue with the innocence of ANY of the Gazans. I thanked her for taking what I write seriously. She then wrote back that “the innocence of Gazans minus Hamas and its followers is indisputable. That is, unless the people who think not are Israeli elitist soulless nationalist fanatics.” I was stunned by this reply.  This was before the head of a hospital in Gaza admitted that he was a high ranking member of Hamas and how the terror group transformed the medical site into an operational hub.

The other letter commented on the analogy between Joseph’s dream of seven good years and seven bad years, and the Israeli context. She wrote that “Ever since the project of settling the West Bank began – late 60s-early 70s – no year was a good year in Israel. We, Jews living in Israel, turned a blind eye to the Palestinians’ diminishing human rights and dehumanization and to Israel’s increasing brutalization of the Palestinians. The latter’s corrupt and savage leadership did not help their cause, but Israel kept going – trampling their rights, stealing their lands, etc. Where were the good years, given the expanding settlements next door?” I thanked her for her comment and said perhaps I should have put “good years” in quotes, so as to be sarcastic.

PUTTING THINGS INTO PERSPECTIVE

A week later, I am not so sure how I would (or should) respond to these two women who reacted to my blog. Let’s go back to the “swirl” in my mind and politics. Tuesday evening a solidarity mission visited our community. We were invited to attend. We Israelis were asked how do we cope? One mother who has three soldiers on the front, said she keeps busy and volunteers. I said I try to balance my moral concerns with my understanding that we must destroy Hamas. One of the members of the mission was very upset about the settlers who are acting up in the West Bank.  One of the Israelis vociferously stated that those who live in Judea/Samaria are not fanatics. [Note the difference in terminology: West Bank vs. Judea/Samaria–it’s not just semantics]. Finally, a retired physician who has been called back into practice since October 7th stated very clearly that Hamas are not humans and have to be totally wiped out.  When I discussed this with the people I am very close with, they agreed with the last comment. Despite the fact that our army has made some tragic mistakes (but acknowledges them with full transparency and takes full responsibility) it has become clearer to us in Israel that the battle is far from over. I too am finding it hard to argue about the innocence of bystanders, despite the example of Abraham arguing with God about the possible innocence of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps there are some innocents in Gaza? But how many? And should this stop us from the goal of wiping out Hamas?

Finally, in my musings about Goshen, which was probably on the Mediterranean coast, I wondered if the brothers, and later, Jacob and his family used the coastal road to get to Egypt. If so, they would have passed through Gaza. Borders were more porous then. It was natural for people seeking food to emigrate. Immigration was not a political issue then. Pharaoh welcomed Joseph’s family wholeheartedly:

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.’  And you are bidden [to add], ‘Do as follows: take from the land of Egypt wagons for your children and your wives, and bring your father here.  And never mind your belongings, for the best of all the land of Egypt shall be yours’” (Genesis 45:16-20).

Would that the Egyptians of today model themselves after this Pharaoh and welcome their own relatives with such a generosity of spirit!

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
Related Topics
Related Posts