Dreaming of Riches – Parashat Mikeitz (Genesis 41-44)

Have you ever noticed how many biblical stories are concerned with money? At the same time, have you noticed how few commentaries on parashiyot take up the problem of wealth and its significance? Why the discrepancy? When I opened my email this morning, at least 80% of them had to do with money, and this was after a number of self-evident immediate deletions. I originally typed in 50%, but, as I listed the first twenty stories and notes that I received and opened (I get an average of 80 per day), I kept going back and upping that figure and finally settled on the expression “at least” lest any higher figure look totally implausible.

You don’t believe me? Check your own emails this morning. You may wish to skip but perhaps out of curiousity glance at some of the stories I read before I write my blog each morning. The first twenty of mine included:

  1. Amazon offering a discount “Save up to 69% today;”
  2. Harry Rosen sending me a membership card to get rebates;
  3. Two communications about hiring someone to shovel our snow.
  4. An article entitled, “What the old economy got wrong, the blue economy could get right;”
  5. An article on the possibility of a second Brexit referendum in the face of possible (likely?) impending gloom and doom if Britain exits the EU, and, more significantly, does so without a trade deal;
  6. “High Court (Israel’s) OKs demolition of part of Barkan shooter’s home,” a story of economic punishment – destruction of private wealth – because of terrorist activity;
  7. A story titled, “Fatah: If Hamas is a terrorist organization, so are we,” a news report about Fatah, which has been withholding funds from Gaza, ironically now backing Hamas at the UN as the U.S. pushes a resolution condemning Hamas terrorism while the Palestinians insist attacking Israel, including civilian targets, cannot be called terrorism;
  8. A news story about the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Israel, David Lau, warning Israelis that, “liberal Zionist organizations are using resources to harm the Rabbinate and distance it from the public;”
  9. A story about hundreds of women calling on MK Aryeh Deri, who spent years in prison for fraud and has now been charged again, to stop Women of the Wall who conduct prayers at the Western Wall in protest against male and Orthodox exclusiveness;
  10. Netflix sending me a message about a new movie to watch;
  11. A story about “mixed” marriages in which one partner comes from a Jewish background and the other from a background that celebrated Christmas and how to discuss the melding of such traditions with civility, but what is most notable in the story in an absence of any reference about the custom that has emerged where the partner with a Jewish background ups the ante over the plethora of presents under a Christmas tree by offering gifts eight nights in a row;
  12. Trump’s efforts to push literally under a Persian rug the story of MBS’s alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who had worked for the Washington Post as a journalist, especially since Trump publicly asked rhetorically why this is important since Saudi Arabian investment and trade (largely in the purchase of arms) is so important for the U.S. economy, ignoring for the moment that factually that trade is not significant in the context of the whole American economy;
  13. A parallel story about the lawsuits registered against Trump businesses under the emoluments clauses of various federal laws prohibiting American politicians from personally benefitting from the political positions they hold – the Saudis booked floors of the Trump Hotel in Washington following Trump’s inauguration and poured “vast sums of money” into Trump properties;
  14. A general story about Donald Trump’s pecuniary obsessions and his identity as a “transactional” president;
  15. A specific story about Trump enterprises, particularly Mar-a-Lago, using illegal immigrants to clean rooms, wash dishes and take care of the grounds, and the few brave women who came out as illegals to rail against Trump’s hypocrisy: “We are tired of the abuse, the insults, the way he talks about us when he knows that we are here helping him make money, We sweat it out to attend to his every need and have to put up with his humiliation.”
  16. A story just about power rather than money concerning speculation over Angela Merkel’s successor in the face of growing right-wing populism in Germany;
  17. A story about the economies of the new president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who, in his first few days in office, has introduced specific symbolic economies – putting the president’s plane up for sale in California, opening up the presidential mansion to the public, continuing to drive his Volkswagen on his own rather than ride in a glitzy motorcade;
  18. A forthcoming Webinar on Immigration;
  19. An invocation to the Russians to scrap or modify their Novator Missile System to avoid an escalation in the new Cold War;
  20. A pithy story by Jamie Lauren Keiles on the JAP stereotype, the Jewish American Princess who embodied both an attitude and a style of dressing where, as a paragon of nuance, Jewish and American identities “collide in a calamity of Coach bags, upmarket loungewear, and entitled dispositions towards luxury and ease” with a style that prioritizes “grooming, trepidatious trendiness, and comfort;” “At worst, she [a JAP] is the dybbuk of the upwardly mobile, the ever-hounting spirit of the Jewish nouveau riche as it tries to find its place in the American class system. At best, she performs her own kind of Jewish drag, reclaiming the anti-Semitic tropes of yore as a positive ideal of Jewish womanhood. I see her as a queen of multitudinous existence” born, as Eve was from Adam, from a Jewish male’s insecurity about himself;

There are a plethora of other emails, such as one relevant to the series I have been writing on how the left is already writing the 2020 Democratic election platform, but this morning I want to focus on the song, “Money makes the world go round, the world go round, the world go round,” as instantiated in bible stories, in particular, the story of Pharaoh’s dream and how Joseph rose to become the most powerful official in Egypt and how he was re-united with his brothers who sold him into slavery.

Look at Pharaoh’s two dreams about the seven lean and ugly cows devouring the seven handsome and healthy cows and the one in which the thin ears of grain swallow up the seven healthy and full ears of grain. It is a story about the importance of setting aside wealth accumulated in the present (cattle and grain) to provide for hard times, for the era of plenty to provide for a possible penurious future. It is also a tale of power as evidenced by an ostentatious display of material wealth.

42And Pharaoh removed his ring from his hand and placed it on Joseph’s hand, and he attired him [with] raiment of fine linen, and he placed the golden chain around his neck.   מב

וַיָּ֨סַר פַּרְעֹ֤ה אֶת־טַבַּעְתּוֹ֙ מֵעַ֣ל יָד֔וֹ וַיִּתֵּ֥ן אֹתָ֖הּ עַל־יַ֣ד יוֹסֵ֑ף וַיַּלְבֵּ֤שׁ אֹתוֹ֙ בִּגְדֵי־שֵׁ֔שׁ וַיָּ֛שֶׂם רְבִ֥ד הַזָּהָ֖ב עַל־צַוָּארֽוֹ:

During the seven years of plenty, after being married to the daughter of a governor, Joseph began the years of famine and want with his two sons, Manasseh named to remind Joseph that he has forgotten both his past sorrows as well as the whole house of his father, and Ephraim, symbolizing how “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” In Manasseh, the older son, the painful memory of being picked on by his brothers is combined with missing the warmth and ties of family. In Ephraim, the memory of early slavery in Egypt is tied to his rise in power and wealth. Just as the pleasure of family life is accompanied with much pain so, in achieving economic wealth, one must not forget the times of affliction.

However, others’ afflictions can be used to gather even more wealth as scarce bread is sold to Egyptians initially in exchange for their savings and eventually in exchange for their lands, reducing independent Egyptian landowners to peasants. However, in the case of family members, they were given food as a gift since the money they paid was returned. Joseph had misleadingly accused his brothers of being spies who had come to Egypt only “to lord over the nakedness of the land.” (42:12) He held one brother, Simeon, back as a hostage in order that his nine other brothers return with Benjamin, his only full blood brother, the youngest of the twelve, ostensibly to prove that they had indeed come to buy grain and not spy out the land.

Why did they comply? Not just to get the one brother out of captivity, but because they were guilt-ridden and felt the current calamity had come upon them for what they had done to their brother [Joseph] and had not listened to his pleas for help. They feared that blood was being demanded to make up for the blood they had betrayed. They returned to their father’s home where Jacob bemoaned all the troubles that had now befallen him – Joseph ostensibly dead, Simeon in prison and now Benjamin, his youngest, to be taken away.

Jacob was not willing to risk the loss of Benjamin, the last surviving son, as far as he knew, of his beloved Rachel. Reuben only convinced him by assuring his father that if he, Reuben, did not return with both Simeon and Benjamin, his father could put his own two sons to death, echoing Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son to prove his fealty to his God. Jacob, now explicitly called Israel, asked his sons why they had told the most powerful man in Egypt that they had a younger brother still at home. They said that they had been tricked by what initially seemed simply to be a friendly inquiry about the family.

Judah offered the final argument to convince his father, not a pledge of sacrifice of the children of Reuben, but of a pledge that all would survive, that the family would prosper and all the children and the children’s children would thrive. Jacob, now Israel, agreed and set them back to Egypt with gifts – balm, wax, honey, pistachios and almonds, as well as the money to be paid for more grain and the money that they had found in their sacks to be returned.

Then the most touching scene when Joseph beheld his brother, Benjamin, and learned that his father was still alive.

29 And he lifted his eyes and saw Benjamin, his brother, the son of his mother, and he said, “Is this your little brother, whom you told me about?” And he said, “May God favor you, my son.”   כט

וַיִּשָּׂ֣א עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּ֞רְא אֶת־בִּנְיָמִ֣ין אָחִיו֘ בֶּן־אִמּוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֲזֶה֙ אֲחִיכֶ֣ם הַקָּטֹ֔ן אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֵלָ֑י וַיֹּאמַ֕ר אֱלֹהִ֥ים יָחְנְךָ֖ בְּנִֽי:

30 And Joseph hastened, for his mercy was stirred toward his brother, and he wanted to weep; so he went into the room and wept there.   ל

וַיְמַהֵ֣ר יוֹסֵ֗ף כִּֽי־נִכְמְר֤וּ רַֽחֲמָיו֙ אֶל־אָחִ֔יו וַיְבַקֵּ֖שׁ לִבְכּ֑וֹת וַיָּבֹ֥א הַחַ֖דְרָה וַיֵּ֥בְךְּ שָֽׁמָּה:

But then one last trick. Not only did Joseph return the money to the sacks of the ten brothers that they had brought this time, not only did Joseph return the money which they had brought with them that they had found in their sacks after the first trip to purchase grain, Joseph had his men hide his gold goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Then, as the sons of Israel were on their journey home, Joseph’s minions caught up with them, accused them of stealing the goblet which they found in Benjamin’s sack. The brothers were forced to return and stand before Joseph where he pronounced that they all could return except Benjamin who would become his slave.

And there the story is left as a cliff hanger until the next week.

But the messages are clear.

  1. Blood is indeed thicker, not only than water but gold, a lesson Israel (Jacob) failed to learn when he avoided reconciliation with his brother and thought gifts alone would buy Esau off.
  2. Transactional exchanges, of money in return for goods or burial plots (Abraham), are to be trusted, not gifts and the shame culture associated with gifts.
  3. Money is important as a record of a history of hard work (all three of the founding fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), as an expression of status and power, but, most importantly, to accumulate for a rainy day, for buying a bride, for even paying ransom for relatives if needed.

This is not a tale of an ethics obligating redistribution based on a principle of either equality or even of helping the most disadvantaged. Presumably, those norms emerged later in the life of the nation after obligations had been extended from those closest in blood, to those members of one’s own tribe and then to a whole nation. But in that order. Such obligations were extended in the twentieth century to all of humankind.

So why is Hanukkah, which is always linked to this week’s portion, associated with gift giving? More importantly, why is the holiday linked with a divine miracle? The answer can be found in the Book of Daniel which mirrors and parallels the tale of Pharaoh’s dream, with Daniel not only revealing the interpretation of the dream but the dream itself. It is a story of God’s miraculous power and authority being more important than worldly power and wealth. According to Professor Michael Segal, “Daniel tells him [Nebuchadnezzar] “about a statue with a golden head, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, and legs of iron, which is crushed by a giant stone, which itself becomes a mountain (vv. 31-35). Daniel explains that each of these metals represents a kingdom that would rule the world, and the stone is God’s kingdom (vv. 36-45).”

What is that stone that is God’s kingdom? It is God manifest as mercy, as YWHY, as Hashem. “the name,” as the God which confronts man face-to-face rather than behind the scenes, as a force of nature, as the sum of all laws of nature and of the socio-economic and political laws governing human behaviour. God as Elohim. It is the name God acquires and develops as he wrestles with his own natural being. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, “Hashem is God as we encounter Him in personal relationships, above all in speech, conversation, dialogue, words. Elohim is God as he is found in creation. Hashem is God as He is disclosed in revelation.”

That revelation takes place over the course of history as a moral and legal universe seeks sovereignty over a transactional universe of wealth and power, as a world of peace and grace seeks to make natural law the servant of history rather than its master, that reveals Joseph as a master of prediction and prophecy but not as a prophet. After all, in the whole long tale, God never once addresses Joseph, never once interprets the dreams for him, never once assigns Joseph a historic mission, never once establishes his role as a leader rather than just a ruler. It should not be any surprise that Joseph takes advantage of the penury of the Egyptians to reduce them to peons and permanent subjection that will eventually build into an enormous resentment against the Israelites by a populist Pharaoh who brought destruction to Egypt.

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