Famine and yearning

Parashat Miketz

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There are three themes in this parasha that I want to describe and interpret. The themes are dreams, hunger, and anger. Dreams set the context for all of the events. The story of Yaakov and Yosef’s lives are seen through the lens of dreams. Yaakov’s journey started with a dream. God spoke to him in Lavan;s house in a dream. He saw the angels again during his return journey. Yosef’s dreams led to his enslavement. In jail, he encountered the dreams of fellow prisoners. Now, the parasha opens with Pharaoh’s dreams and Yosef’s interpretation. Dreams form the broader context for understanding Yosef’s relationship to himself, to his brothers, to his father and to God. His story is a story of that inner life, which is why, perhaps, the external reality of famine is the event that dominates this dramatic part of Yosef’s life. Everything occurring on the outside reflects the deeper inner reality. The outer starvation points to the famine churning deeply inside of him.

Pharaoh’s dreams are horrific. They contain images of ravenous consumption. The emaciated cows cannot satiate their hunger. The ears of grain remain withered. The story of the Jewish people is filled with famine. Avraham left Canaan during a famine. Yitzchak lived through a famine. Ruth, the woman from Moav who became the matriarch of the line of King David, struggled with her identity during a famine. Famines are associated with moments of soul-searching, alienation, mourning and struggle. It was during the first famine that Avram descended to Egypt. Ramban noted that famine followed all of the patriarchs beginning with  Avraham. “Everything that happened to Avraham occurred also to his descendants.” (Ramban on Bereshit 12:10) Yitzchak encountered Avimelech during a famine. Bene Yisrael  accused Moshe of bringing a famine upon them by leading them into the wilderness instead of keeping them in the promised land of Egypt. (Shemot 16:3) During the infamous rebellion of Korach, Datan and Aviram accused Moshe of starving the people. God promised Bene Yisrael food if they would observe the sabbatical year by relinquishing control over the land for a year, and they would be spared a famine. (Vayikra 26:5) Egypt mourned Yosef by expressing gratitude for saving them from the famine. (Bereshit 50:3) Yosef told his brothers that everything that happened was part of God’s plan to save them and their descendents from a famine. (Bereshit 45:7) 

In an extraordinary midrash, 10 famines throughout Tanach are identified and explained. In its opening and closing, the midrash emphasizes that famine only came during times of strong leadership, but in the end, that leadership failed to provide for the people:

There was a famine in the land (Ruth 1:1)”. Ten famines have come into the world: one in the days of Adam the first man, one in the days of Lamech, and one in the days of Abraham, and one in the days of Isaac, and one in the days of Jacob, and one in the days of Elijah, and one in the days of Elisha, and one in the days of David, and one in the days “the judges judged”, and one which changes and comes to the world… …And one that changes and comes to the world, as it is written: “when I will send a famine upon the land: not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water (Amos 8:11)”….God brought famine when people were strong and could withstand it….Elimelech was one of the great leaders of his district and one of the financial supporters of his generation. But when the years of famine came, he said, “Now all Israel will come knocking at my door, each one with his basket.” He got up and fled from them. This is the meaning of the verse, “and a man went [out] from Beth-lehem in Judah.” (Ruth Rabbah 1:4)

Most strikingly, Amos the Navi declared: “A time is coming—declares my Lord God, when I will send a famine upon the land: not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of the LORD.” (Amos 8:11) By including this verse from Amos in the list of “physical faminies,” the author of the midrash shifted the location of starvation and deprivation and nourishment from being an exclusively physical phenomenon to becoming a spiritual one, central to the sacred story of the Jewish people. When the Jewish people, starting with Avraham, stop feeling the yearning, the thirst, the hunger for God’s word, they travel “outside the land.” We are sent into a condition of exile and alienation in order to re-experience that yearning. Comfort, complacency, power, arrogance, satisfaction, all seem to diminish our awareness of the yearning for connection to God. Yearning, from the very beginning of the story of the Jewish people, appears as an essential ingredient for nourishing a relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God. And by its very nature, yearning as an authentic religious experience, here expressed by hunger and famine, is never completely satisfied. Yearning always points beyond itself, always heightens a sense of loss, and is accompanied by a tinge of sadness. Even when the yearning is resolved, it is temporary, as the memories of past hunger resurface into the present. 

Many traditions of biblical interpretation explore the imagery of famine as spiritual yearning. The midrash Lekach Tov on Lamentations explained the verse, “the children were starving and wrapped in shrouds” by stating explicitly that this image alludes to the prophecy of Amos. Starvation means being scattered to foreign lands and living with a feeling of absence, emptiness, alienation.  (Lekach Tov, Eicha, 2:19) Rabbi Yitzchak Arama wrote that spiritual growth cannot be achieved by feeling hunger, a deep yearning and thirst for understanding God’s teachings. (Akedat Yitzchak 67:5) Famine is not a punishment; it causes yearning, desire, thirst. Yearning awakens the spirit that strives to slakes thirst and satiate through prayer. Solomon Ibn Gabirol wrote, “Morning and evening I seek You, spreading out my hands, lifting up my face in prayer. I sigh for You with a thirsting heart; I am like the pauper begging at my doorstep.” (“In Praise of God,” trans. T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse) The prayer is like a meal. One is hungry immediately afterwards, until there is food once again. There cannot be any prayer without thirst and hunger. Referring to the famine in Egypt, Rabbenu Bachya wrote, “As a result of the famine, “the people called out to Pharaoh for food.” It is in the nature of people to cry out to those in whose power it is to satisfy their needs. We find a verse in Psalms 107:5, “the hungry and thirsty, their spirit failed, whereas on the other hand: “they cried out to God when they were in distress….” (Bereshit 41:55) Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav quoted this same verse in Psalms 107 to reinterpret a halachic, legal statement as a teaching of interiority: “Our Sages teach: Four are obliged to give thanks (Berakhot 54b)—elucidated in Psalms 107. What is apparent and understood from these words is that all these four—wanderers in the wilderness, prisoners, the sick, and travellers on the sea—allude to misfortunes of the soul. This is as explained above concerning the misfortunes of the soul that wanders about tired, hungry and thirsty in the wilderness; which corresponds to, “They wandered in the wilderness…” (Psalms 107:4). Likewise, it speaks of the sickness of the soul which has become so faint that even if given some food, [it cannot tolerate eating it]. (Likutei Moharan 163:1) 

If famine in our tradition tells not only of physical hunger but of spiritual yearning, then Yosef must have been famished as well. Yosef, too, was hungry for nourishment. That brings me to the third theme: anger. Yose tortures his brothers. His cruelty extended to his father, who, upon learning of Shimon’s incarceration and hearing Yosef’s demand for Binyamin, re-experienced his loss of Yosef. Yaakov’s sense of despair in that moment is unbearable. “Yaakov said, ‘My son must not go down with you, for his brother is dead and he alone is left. If he meets with disaster on the journey you are taking, you will send my white head down to Sheol in grief.’” (42:38) Yosef is completely transformed: he acquires a new name, Egyptian clothing, and an Egyptian wife. Nevertheless, his attempt to forget his past only emphasizes how deeply he yearns for them: “Yosef named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, ‘God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.’ And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, ‘God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.’” (41:51-52) Everytime Yosef called his sons’ names he reminded himself of his sense of affliction and of the family he so desperately needed to love. 

Yet, he covered that love with hatred and cruelty. He used all of his power to inflict pain on his desperate brothers. Yosef, interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, displayed a keen sense of compassion of the Egyptian leader. Rabbi levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, (1740–1809), noted:

When Yosef advised Pharaoh to appoint wise and ‎insightful men to collect parts of the harvest of the good years ‎and store it for use during the seven years of famine, he implied that the hardship of these years could be counteracted ‎by human endeavor, (Genesis 41,33-36)…. [What would it take for a human being to counteract God’s decree?] The Torah’s ‎objective description of the dream has Pharaoh standing “above” the river. (41:1). This was an arrogant Pharaoh, ‎who…considered himself…a deity, owner ‎and creator of the Nile river, the economic mainstay of the land ‎of Egypt. However, in 41:17 Pharaoh humbled himself by telling Yosef that in his dream he had been standing on the banks of ‎the river. Yosef knew what Pharaoh had really seen in his ‎dream, and realized that the king had undergone a change of heart …. Yosef had not offered an ‎interpretation of the dream as related by Pharaoh, but as ‎dreamt by Pharaoh. He had therefore left himself an opening, ‎allowing for a change in God’s decree on the basis of Pharaoh no ‎longer being as arrogant as he had been at the time when he had ‎dreamt the dream. (Kedushat Levi)

In this extraordinary explanation, Yosef perceives Pharoah’s inner transformation. He became humble in that moment upon hearing Yosef’s interpretation. The movement from arrogance to humility is the central theme of the Torah. God’s hope and passion for humanity is that we not become arrogant and feed our desire to lusts for power, land, money, or fame at the expense of compassion, kindness, righteousness, and justice. The Torah repeatedly, in different ways, tells the same story over and over again: once people worship themselves or the work of their own hands, their hunger for power results in cruelty. Acts of violence and abuse perpetrated in the name of all sorts of justifications ultimately result in rebelling against God. Any action that deprives a person of their dignity and humanity is an act of defiance against that person’s Creator. Here, according to the Kedushat Levi, Yosef responds to an opening in Pharoah’s heart as his arrogance transforms into humility. Yosef recognized this as an opportunity for the king of Egypt to feel responsible for saving his people and feeding whoever would come for food. 

Yet, when it came to his own family, Yosef did not find the same humility and source of love and compassion inside of himself. The depth of his cruelty towards his brothers mirrored the depth of his yearning for them. He wept twice, but did not reveal himself. He specifically alienated himself from them: “…he alienated himself: he adopted a manner totally uncharacteristic of him, by speaking arrogantly, masking his true voice, etc, apart from the fact that he spoke to them in Egyptian having everything he said translated into Hebrew by an interpreter.” (Seforno, 42:7) Here was Yosef’s struggle. Could he let go of the pain from his past. All of his dreams have come true. He was in charge. He had power. His brothers were bowing down to him. He could nourish and feed. He could slake their thirst. But he could not satisfy his own. Yosef embodied, in this moment, the central tensions that would eventually characterize the Jewish nation. Humility opens the heart for love and compassion, enabling a person to embrace God’s image in the human beings standing in front of her or him. Arrogance hardens the heart. One turns one’s back, becomes “stiff-necked,” rather than resilient and compassionate, as a result of worshipping only the work of one’s own hands. Rabbi Moshe Alshech, 16th century Tsefat, wrote about the moment when Yosef saw his brother Binyamin. Yosef went into another room and wept:

The verse says that Yosef was “on the verge of tears.” This implies that he wanted to weep, he felt so alienated from his brothers. After all, most of the time, weeping occurs naturally, on its own, unstoppable. However, when he saw his own full brother, the gates of compassion overwhelmed him from all of the years of overbearing pain and sadness. A fire was raging within him. He tried to extinguish that flame, and he ran to another room and cried. Then he washed his face to extinguish that flame. However, it did not go out. SO he had to contain himself. (Alshech on the Torah, Bereshit 43:30)

Onkelos explains this verse by saying, “Yosef’s feelings of mercy had been aroused.” The Radak corroborates this explanation. Inside of Yosef was the struggle between arrogance and humility, revenge and forgiveness, hatred and love, mistrust and reliance, memory of the past and remorse in the present. Yosef was privileged to see the bigger picture of God’s plan to bring his family to Egypt for nourishment. They would receive food and security in Goshen; they would learn humility by living as a minority in a foreign land. Yosef knew that he was part of a bigger plan designed to insure that the children of Israel always see themselves ultimately as God’s servants tasked to bring compassion, justice, righteousness and kindness to God’s world. It would take a direct confrontation with Yehuda to allow his heart to release him from the pain of his past and embrace his family, the place where kindness must begin.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dov 

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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