Five Rashis, Miketz: The Road to Community

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

This parsha takes us from Yosef’s imprisonment to the verge of the brothers (and their father) reuniting with him.  The Rashis that jumped out at me showed lessons to learn in order to build or rebuild a community with proper connections among its members.

Bounty Makes Us See Better

41;2 describes the fat cows in Par’oh’s dream as יפות מראה, beautiful to the eye. In the context of the dream, we should care only that they’re well-fed, a symbol of years of plenty. We could read beauty as evidence of plentiful food, but Rashi offers a more interesting idea.

He notes that in bountiful times, people look better to each other, because no one feels the need to be stingy. He is pointing out that how we look to others, how we see others, and how we act, depends on us, not only the reality of the situation. When we are grasping to hold on to all we have, jealous of any advantage someone else might get, we don’t have the breadth of spirit to see others as we might.

When there’s truly enough to go around, we relax and can allow their most positive light to impress us. People actually look better, Rashi seems to say. I remember reading of a study that showed that mechanical items whose owners liked them also worked better; since that seems impossible on a technological level, the person presenting the study argued that when we like something, we are more creative about finding ways to make it work, are better at ignoring little annoyances that crop up.

We don’t see what is, we see what we’re open to seeing. In times of bounty, we’re more open.

Two verses later, Rashi points out the tenuousness of that state of mind. When the later cows eat the first ones, the verse describes the viewer as not being able to tell they had eaten them at all. For Rashi, that’s a sign that all the joy of the good years would be forgotten in the famine times. Meaning that bad times are a challenge of their own, but also cause us to forget the spirit we brought to the good times, to revert to our desperation, stinginess, and lesser selves,.

Seeing others in their best possible light and holding on to the memories of good times, letting them continue to shape our worldview, are not beyond our control, nor are they determined by our circumstances. Rashi is showing us that Par’oh’s dream knew how people generally react to good and bad times.

Reading it, we can decide to handle it differently, to see all the beauty in others even when we don’t have overflowing bounty, to hold fast to our better selves even when times are challenging. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.

In a Time of Suffering, Suffer

41;50 speaks of the sons born to Yosef before the plague came, and Rashi comments that this is the source of the prohibition against ordinary marital relations during years of famine. There are exceptions, but this is codified in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and twice in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayyim, both 240;12 and 574;7.

What I find remarkable is the requirement to participate in a community’s suffering in an area separate from the actual suffering. There would have been no surprise to halachah requiring us to share our food with others in a time of famine, to refrain from overeating in such a time, to to give extra charity in a time of famine, to avoid public happiness when the community is suffering. But what does the private activities of a husband and wife have to do with that?

Rashi’s answer, I think, is that marital relations are a source of joy for husband and wife (denying ourselves that activity on Yom Kippur is an affliction, on par with not wearing leather shoes and not washing), and people should understand that it’s inappropriate to be involved in such joyous activities when suffering is rampant.

I stress that there would be many questions to ask before acting on this—what constitutes famine, does the halachah mean complete cessation, and the like—and I am not writing in practical terms. Conceptually, Rashi is making an important point about the obligation to recognize and partake of a community’s troubles, extending to denying ourselves that which no one else would know about, to make a point to ourselves about how much we can enjoy life when the community is in trouble.

Glimmers of Truth

A few times in this week’s parsha, once in last week’s, and nowhere else, Rashi speaks a spark of the divine spirit giving people information they don’t quite realize they’re getting. In 42;1, Ya’akov sees there’s שבר in Egypt. We usually translate as food, but Rashi (picking up on the use of the verb “to see,” when Ya’akov really heard there was food in Egypt) suggests that he sensed there was sustenance in Egypt, the sustenance of finding Yosef.  Since it wasn’t quite a prophecy, Ya’akov didn’t understand what he was saying.

Ten verses later, the brothers are facing Yosef, who has accused them of being spies. They say “we are all sons of the same man,” and Rashi comments that the divine spirit glinted among them, and they included Yosef in their words. 43;8 has Yehudah telling Ya’akov that if he sends them back to Egypt with Binyamin, ונחיה ולא נמות, we will live and not die. Rashi again notes the flash of the divine spirit, that Yehudah senses Ya’akov would find renewed life from their going to Egypt, that his spirit would be revived by the discovery of Yosef.

Finally, in 43;14, Ya’akov prays that Binyamin will come back as well as their “other brother.” Rashi says brother refers to Shim’on, whom Yosef had kept in Egypt, and “other” was a flash of the divine spirit, to include Yosef.

To appreciate what Rashi’s doing, it’s worth noting that Midrash uses the phrases נצנצה or נזרקה רוח הקודש, the divine spirit glinted or flashed, in several contexts. Rashi, to the best of my ability to discover, uses the idea once in the case of Rivkah, once when Ya’akov sees Yosef’s bloodied tunic, and then in our parsha.

For Rashi, it seems, Ya’akov and his family, in these incidents that led to the Jews’ descent to Egypt, did not operate in ordinary human terms, even as they weren’t operating prophetically either. Their senses were heightened, they were latently aware of that which they had no real way to be aware of. And, had they only paid full attention to their own words, they’d have seen a future they could not imagine.

When we sit at the center of the necessary future, we function with more knowledge than most human beings, being led by Hashem in the direction we and the world needs to go.

Accepting Yehudah’s Suggestion Over Reuven’s

When Ya’akov is nervous about sending Binyamin to Egypt, Reuven offers his two sons as guaranty, that Ya’akov could kill them if he doesn’t bring Binyamin back. Ya’akov rejects that idea, and Rashi comments (42;38) that he saw it as a foolish suggestion, since they were Ya’akov’s grandchildren as well as Reuven’s children.

Yehudah’s assertion that if he failed to bring Binyamin back, וחטאתי לאבי כל הימים, I will have sinned to my father all my days, convinces Ya’akov. Rashi, 43;9, says that the reference to “all” the days means the World to Come (If you remember that Seder night, the Chachamim claimed that כל ימי חייך meant we would recite Shema in the days of Mashiach, you can see that they were consistent about their view of the word כל; we who accept Ben Zoma’s view that it means day and night can wonder why here we accept that Yehudah meant the World to Come).

While I see how the idea of killing his children would have been distasteful to Ya’akov, it still expresses a depth of commitment to Binyamin’s return that I would think would be more convincing than Yehudah’s, not less. Granting the faith in the World to Come, his promise still has no tangible teeth, has no way of Ya’akov calling him on it should matters go awry. It’s not that much different than Yehudah saying, “just trust me.” Reuven, to me, seems to have been striving to offer some kind of identifiable consequence that would convince Ya’akov he would do absolutely everything in his power to bring Binyamin back.

But that’s not how Ya’akov or tradition saw it, an example, to me, of where a sincere effort can fall so flat the person doesn’t even get credit for the effort.

Collective Punishment

When Binyamin is caught with Yosef’s goblet, the brothers offer to all stay as slaves. Yosef, in 43;10, says they’re right, and Rashi explains that that would be the answer of strict justice. When a group of ten people include a thief amongst them, they are all caught and held accountable. Yosef is going beyond the bounds of justice in taking only Binyamin.

It is one of many examples in traditional texts that hold communities responsible for the actions of their members (other quick examples: the Jews’ loss at Ai because of Achan’s having taken booty from Yericho, the property of non-idol worshippers in a city that is destroyed because most of its inhabitants worshipped idols). We can have lengthy discussions about when communities are responsible for what, but here we can notice that the Torah and Chazal take for granted a moral proposition denied today, that when we live in a community, we cannot see ourselves solely as individuals, that we have to recognize that we bear some responsibility for what goes on in that community.

If Miketz lays the groundwork for the reunion of Ya’akov, the brothers, and Yosef, the road to it passes through understanding our tendencies to react to each other differently based on the external stresses or eases of life, understanding our obligation to partake of communal suffering even when we are not suffering, even when others won’t know we’re doing it, through sometimes being the unwitting voice of the future, through learning how to speak to others in ways that reassure them and convince them to take a step that’s necessary and, finally, to remembering that part of being a community or a nation is recognizing that we are implicated, to the good and the bad, by the others with whom we share that community, and that we cannot ignore their actions as irrelevant to us.

We are not, in our communities, islands or entire of ourselves, and the Rashis we’ve seen show us the members of Ya’akov’s family learning those lessons.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.