Parshat Mikeitz: What You Chose to Become

In the Book of Tehillim, in a perek discussing the special protection given to Yerushalayim even as it lies destroyed, King David declares: “לכו חזו מפעלות ה” אשר שם שמות בארץ” – “go, see the works of the L-RD, who has made desolations [shamot] on the earth”.[1] Applying one of many Talmudic hermeneutic principles, the Gemarah in Berachot commenting on this pasuk states: “אל תקרי שמות אלא שמות” – “do not read ‘made desolations’ [shamot], rather ‘names’ [shemot].”[2] This renders the pasuk as “go, see the works of the L-RD, who has made names on the earth”. The implication of this statement is that the names given to people are influenced by Divine Inspiration, that a name is not an arbitrary label but an expression of something much deeper. As another pasuk tells us, “כי כשמו כן הוא” – “for he is as his name”.[3] Names in Judaism are expressions of essence.

Rabbi Yitzchak taught that שינוי השם – change of name – is one of the things that can change a person’s fate.[4] This clearly seems to be the case in this week’s parsha. After languishing in Egyptian jail for many years, Yosef is finally remembered. Not only is he rescued from his prison cell, he is promoted to second-in-command, ruler of the land of Egypt, answerable only to Pharoe himself. With the change of station, Yosef is given a haircut, new clothes, a wife and a new name; the pasuk tells us “ויקרא פרעה שם יוסף צפנת פענח” – “Pharoe called Yosef’s name Tzafnat Paneach”.[5] This new name evokes much debate amongst the commentators. The Midrash quotes three opinions regarding the meaning of this name; Ibn Ezra comments that the name is Egyptian and so has no deeper significance; Ramban disagrees with Ibn Ezra.[6] Rashi explains this unusual name as “מפרש הצפונות” – “explainer of hidden things” but admits that “ואין ל פענח דמיון במקרא” – there is no other example of “פענח” in the Torah.[7] Pharoe’s relationship with Yosef is that of dreamer and interpreter; for him, Yosef is an explainer of hidden things, that is his identity and so it is reflected in the name Pharoe choses for him.

The rest of the Parsha deals with Yosef’s brothers coming down to Egypt to buy food: they appear before Yosef and bow, fulfilling one of his dreams. He accuses them of being spies and demands they bring Binyamin to him. They return home and persuade their very reluctant father into letting Binyamin accompany them, with promises they will bring him back safely. They return to Egypt. Yosef gives them food and hides his cup in Binyamin’s sack, then accuses Binyamin of being a thief and decides to keep him in Egypt as his slave. The driving force of the narrative is the suspense created through dramatic irony; all of the tension and narrative pull is dependent on the fact the brothers “לא הכרהו” – “did not recognise him” as their brother Yosef.[8] Rashi explains this was because he looked different.[9] But it’s also because he had a different name, a different role. The hiding of Yosef’s name drives the plot of this parsha: had his brothers recognised him, the story would have unfolded very differently. No name means there can be narrative.

This is a principle explored by Sir Thomas Malory in The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney, one of the stories in his telling of the Arthurian legends, entitled Morte D’Arthur. (See summary of the tale here: In the tale, Sir Gareth refuses to reveal his name when he arrives at Arthur’s court and so, although he is a nephew of the king, he is dismissed by many characters as a “kitchen knave”.[10]  The tale’s plot focuses on Gareth setting out on knightly quests, involved duelling and jousting, rescuing damsels and falling in love. The hiding of Gareth’s name is essential to the plot; within his name is encoded his noble lineage as son to a king, nephew to another, brother to one of Arthur’s knights. The court has a place for Gareth because of his name and all that it implies about him; revealing it would have rendered the events of the plot unnecessary because Gareth would have simply taken his place. No name means there can be narrative.

However, the implication that Gareth’s actions lead him to the place at court he would have been granted anyway by virtue of his birth suggests that Malory’s story is not a tale of character growth or development. Rather the events are a “manifesting (of) Gareth’s superior birth”; Gareth does not become, he “manifests what he already is.”[11] The tale, therefore, is not one in which Gareth learns to be knightly and noble to earn his name and his place, it is one in which Gareth displays his inborn knightly and noble behaviour to reveal his name and the “innate quality” it contains.[12] At first glance, it might seem that this model has parallels in the story of Yosef too. After all, a seventeen-year-old Yosef has a dream that his brothers will bow down to him; he is treading a path that has been chartered and determined for him already. The story might seem to contain little character growth and simply be about the fulfilment of a prophecy, with Yosef’s promotion to ruler of Egypt being preordained.

Yet not all is as it seems. Yosef is sold to Egypt as a young boy who is boastful and vain.[13] There he overcomes the temptation of Potiphar’s wife.[14] There he notices the distress of the butler and the baker in prison and tries to help them.[15] There he suggests and carries out a plan to save Egypt from famine. There is character development and moral growth. There he is transformed into Yosef HaTzadik. Within this narrative there is both an element of manifestation and an element of becoming; the threads of the predestined and the chosen interlink, “הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה” – “all is foreseen and yet permission (free will) is given”.[16] We all have inside of us a soul, a Divine spark of potential. We all have a place at court. But we are not simply handed it by virtue of our birth. There has to be growth and actualisation of our potential. But, in contrast to Malory’s suggestion that nobility is dependent on royal birth alone, that knightly behaviour is shaped by identity and lineage, Yosef shows that it is our actions, our choice of behaviour that shapes our identity.

Rav Soloveitchik explains the interplay between what is preordained and what we choose as the difference between fate and destiny. Fate is “an existence”, destiny is an “active existence, when man confronts the environment into which he has been cast with an understanding of his… freedom and capacity… “against your will you are born and against your will you die (M. Avot 4:22), but by your free will do you live.”[17] Fate is what happens, the predetermined events in Yosef’s life, the dreams that had to be fulfilled. Destiny is how you respond to what happens, the choice to transform yourself from Yosef into Yosef HaTzadik. This is a theme that runs through the Chanukah story as well. Fate is what happens, the predetermined events of the story, the Greek oppression of the Jews. Destiny is how the people responded to what happened, the choice of the Chasmonaim to be active, to fight back, to become heroes of Jewish history. And it is the message that both the Chanukah story and the story of Yosef teaches us. We each have within us the potential to be great. But that isn’t something that we simply manifest without any effort. It is something we need to work to become. But we all can become, and we can all become something great.

[1] Tehillim, 46: 9

[2] T.B. Berachot, 7b

[3] Samuel I, 25: 25

[4] T.B. Rosh Hashanah, 16b

[5] Bereishit, 41: 45

[6] Bereishit Rabbah, 90: 4; Ibn Ezra, Bereishit, 41: 45; Ramban, Bereishit, 41: 45

[7] Rashi, Bereishit 41: 45

[8] Bereishit 42: 8

[9] Rashi, Bereishit 42: 8

[10] Thomas Malory and Stephen H. A. Shepherd, Le Morte Darthur, or, The hoole book of Kyng Arthur and of his noble knyghtes of the Rounde Table: authoritative text, sources, backgrounds, criticism (New York: Norton, 2004), p. 183 l. 7

[11] James Simpson, ‘Violence, Narrative and Proper Names: ‘Sir Degare’, ‘The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney’ and the ‘Folie of Tristan d’Oxford’ in The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance (Abingdon: Routledge: 2013), p. 134

[12] James Simpson, p. 135

[13] Bereishit 37: 5 – 11; Rashi, Bereishit, 37: 1)

[14] Bereishit, 39: 7

[15] Bereishit, 40: 6

[16] Pirkei Avot, 3: 15

[17] Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, Chapter 1

About the Author
Born and raised in London, Shoshana spent a year studying at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim (MMY) in Israel before moving to study English Literature at the University of Bristol, England.
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