Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin used to come home from the ballpark after watching the Brooklyn Dodgers and blurt out the results to her father. He would chide her that she had to tell the story of the game first, and only after that could she reveal the result, to convey the tension that the people at Ebbets Field felt before they knew how things would turn out, when the outcome was still in doubt.
Goodwin told this story on the last episode of one of my favorite podcasts, NPR’s Only a Game. For three years, the show’s host Karen Given tried, unsuccessfully, to get Goodwin on the show for an interview. With the show about to succumb to COVID-19-induced budget cuts, Given struck gold; Goodwin agreed to appear. When she did, she had a message for the times: just like with her Ebbets Field epics, it is important to remember that we are still living through the story – be it the pandemic, the election, or the struggle for racial equity. We are fans in the seats in the fifth inning, with no idea who will ultimately prevail, or how. We can’t tell the story of COVID 19, because we are still experiencing it. We have to allow ourselves to be on edge, in tension.
Goodwin’s lucky. She spent her childhood as a fan of the great 1950’s Brooklyn Dodger teams, with Sandy Koufax pitching them to their first World Series win after a lifetime of losing (there’s a reason they were nicknamed “The Bums”). As an adult, she followed the Boston Red Sox when the Curse of the Bambino was finally broken in 2004 and when a Boston furniture salesman nearly bankrupted himself by making an overly-optimistic promise at the start of the 2007 season. Goodwin, perhaps thanks to her name, is good luck – maybe someone could convince her to move to Cleveland…
I’ve been a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates. For 20 years, there was no drama, even in mid-game. Attending a Pirates game in person, or even paying casual attention to the season, was best summed up by King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes: “Utter futility, all is futile!” Score a run? The other team will score 5. Sign a big free agent player? He’ll get injured or stop hitting. Develop a potential rookie of the year? He’ll be traded away as soon as he asks for more money.
The recently deceased Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his essay, “Man Proposes, God Disposes,” makes a nearly identical argument regarding Yosef’s imprisonment, and by extension the entire narrative. Parashat Vayeshev ends with Yosef interpreting the butler’s dream, and the exonerated servant promising to remember Yosef to Pharaoh and get him released. However, the parsha concludes, “Ve’lo zachar sar ha-mashkim et Yosef vayishkachehu.” The butler did not remember Yosef, and forgot him.
In the text of the Torah, two years pass in the space between two verses. The opening pasuk of Parashat Miketz is “Miketz shnatayim yamim” – at the end of two years of days, meaning two full years. The Lord Rabbi reasons that Yosef has now given up hope, and is in his cell singing mournfully, “Forget all about me, and let me decay…” Just at this moment, however, comes the night of Pharoah’s double dream, and the butler remembers Yosef after all, just in time for him to save the day and rise to the occasion of saving Egypt from famine.[i]
Rabbi Sacks’ interpretation mirrors one that Yosef himself gives in the final two parshiyot of Bereshit, when he twice reassures his brothers that God had other plans even when their intentions were evil. In Parashat Vayyigash, Bereshit 45:5, he says, “It was for sustenance that God sent me before you.” And this week, in Parashat Vayechi, Bereshit 50:19-20, he repeats the same sentiment in longer form: “Am I in place of God? You intended me harm; God intended it for good, in order to engender, as it is today, to keep many people alive.”
How does God plan this way, when the human actors are supposed to have free will, and control over their actions? This, Rabbi Sacks answers in the subsequent essay, “Between Freedom and Providence.”[ii] Humans like Joseph and his brothers live in time, seeing history unfold moment by moment. God lives outside of time, seeing the whole arc at once. There is no comparing these two perspectives. It is, says the Rabbi, like watching a soccer match live and then re-watching it the next day already knowing the outcome.
Yosef in prison is like the fans in the bleachers in the fifth inning; the outcome is still in doubt. When we read Miketz in shul, reading from God’s perspective, we are like the fan reading the paper the next day, already knowing the outcome, the drama diffused by the headline announcing the final score. The bandwagon Pirate fans who started paying attention the year Andrew McCutchen won the MVP and Francisco Liriano the Comeback Player of the Year (for the second time) could not understand the misery, the frustration, the desperation of those who endured the twenty years of losing – or fully appreciate the elation of that magical night in October 2013 when the chants of “Cueto! Cueto!” caused a rattled opposing pitcher to drop the ball on the mound before giving up a second home run. Finally, the losing was at an end.
End. That is the meaning of the word “ketz.” In the opening seven lines of that parasha, it appears in different forms three times: once in the title word miketz, “at the end or conclusion of,” and twice in the form vayikatz, “awoke,” or more specifically, “awoke with a start.” Pharaoh’s dream came to an abrupt ketz, a sudden end, and he woke up.
We have seen this word in other places in Bereshit. Ya’akov has a similar experience to Pharaoh on the night of his dream of the ladder in Beit El. Bereshit 28:16 reads, Vayikatz Ya’akov mishenato vayomar achen yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh v’anochi lo yada’ti. “And Ya’akov awoke (suddenly) from his sleep, and he said, ‘Indeed, Hashem is present in this place and I did not know.’”
This is exactly how Rabbi Sacks describes the arc of Yosef’s story, or really of every story. God is there, but only when we reach the ketz are we able to see the Divine presence, step outside of the anxiety we have been living in for so long and see, for better or worse, what has been at work. Indeed, Rabbi Sacks’ interpretation of the dream of Ya’akov’s ladder is that the opening words, Vayifga bamakom, do not mean, “He came upon this place,” but “He stumbled upon The Omnipresent One,” understanding Makom, to be the name of God as we encounter it in the greeting we give to mourners, or the song we sing in the Seder.
The ketz, the end, is the moment in the story where we stumble upon that Divine presence. In the full version of Maoz Tzur, the one that runs six verses, the word ketz appears in two of the verses a total of four times: twice in the verse about the Babylonian exile and our return ketz Bavel, with the end of Babylonia, Zerubavel l’ketz shiv’im noshati – Zerubavel, at the end of seventy (years) I was redeemed; and twice more in the final verse that presumably discusses the days of the mashiach – ketz ha’yeshua, the end of the redemptive process, which we pray for because ein ketz li’y’mei ha-ra’ah, there is no end to the evil days.
Miketz shnatayim yamim – at the end of two years of days. It no longer seems far-fetched (doesn’t that sound like a Yiddishism? Farfetched) to say that we are collectively living through a reenactment of Yosef’s imprisonment, as we pass nine months of isolation with reasonable people like Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates predicting we may not see the light on the other side of that closed door for most of another year. And we are lucky – what of those in the developing world where the vaccine may not reach them until 2022 – or 2024? Do they, rightfully, feel as Yosef did? Ve-lo zachar sar hamashkim et Yosef vayishkachehu.
It is nearly the inverse of the commandment about Amalek, Zachor et mah she-asah l’cha Amalek; lo tishkach. “Remember what Amalek did to you, do not forget.” Remembering is an active process, as I have learned the hard way. It involves making notes, setting reminders, investing effort to keep promises and follow through on commitments. We are good at remembering Amalek, and all of the other bloodthirsty enemies we have faced, because we have baked it into our calendar. As a result, we are unlikely to be distracted, to forget because other things drive that memory from our minds. And if we do, there’s always breaking glass at the end of a wedding to remind us again.
But how much harder it is to avoid what happened with the butler. He did not remember – he made no special effort on his release from prison to actively remember Yosef to Pharaoh, and soon his joy at returning to duty in the palace pushed Yosef from his mind altogether. He did not remember, so he forgot. He had other things on his mind. In the course of a day at work, I will often make a commitment in passing to research something for someone, call another physician for them, check on a result for them – only to have something else, often an emergency, drive it from my mind. If I do not make an act of remembering, like a note on a list or a calendar reminder, I will not remember. If I do not remember, I will forget – and in forgetting, I will neglect.
If the Yosefs in the prisons of marginalization, of forgottenness, are ever going to see their ketz, are ever going to get to see the headline in the next day’s paper telling them their team won, it will be because we make an act of remembering them, even when, bimherah b’yameinu we hope, we are overjoyed that we have reached our own ketz. As we celebrate that ketz, it is a fair bet that they will be feeling as Rivka did when she used her own form of the word: Katzti b’chayyai, I have grown disgusted with my life. Ketz, katzti, the end, as in “I’ve had enough. I’m done.” The word is even vocalized in most print editions with a smaller-than-normal kamatz vowel, as if to say, “My life has grown small.” How eerily familiar the sentiment.
We are coming to the end, the ketz, of Yosef’s story this week, and we know all too well what happens next. The new Pharaoh is going to forget Yosef, and the good years in Egypt will reach their ketz as well. The famine may be over, but the story is just beginning; Yosef’s personal journey is only a small segment of an even bigger arc beginning with Avraham and ending with Yehoshua. The next chapter of that arc will seem even more endless, but we are taught that Hashem “hishav et ha ketz” – had already calculated the end of the years of slavery even before they began.
Yosef only gets out of prison because of Pharaoh being jolted from his sleep, because vayikatz Pharaoh. That sudden shock jogs the butler’s memory as well. Ya’akov only recognizes the divine presence because of the dream as well; Rabbi Sacks quotes the Panim Yafot (Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz) who taught that anochi lo yada’ti means “I did not know the I” – I forgot myself so that I was able to recognize God. When our own anxiety ends, and the tension is broken, we will need to forget the I, forget the We, and focus our attention outward at those who are still stuck in the fifth inning, still sitting in Potiphar’s prison singing to the walls. Otherwise we may never hear the end of it.
In the spirit of remembering and not forgetting those who still cannot see the end, may I suggest tzedakah through American Jewish World Service: https://ajws.org/what-we-do/disaster-response/coronavirus/
[i] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “Man Proposes, God Disposes.” Covenant and Conversation: Genesis: The Book of Beginnings. Maggid: New Milford, CT, 2009.
[ii] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “Between Freedom and Providence.” Covenant and Conversation: Genesis: The Book of Beginnings. Maggid: New Milford, CT, 2009.
This essay was originally delivered as the d’var Torah at Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh (virtually) on Shabbat Miketz, December 12, 2020. It has been slightly edited for this week.