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Torah Commentary
Mikeitz (December 16, 2017)

The Story Continues

Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh; yet without you no one shall lift up hand or foot
in the land of Egypt.” Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah, and he gave
him for a wife Asenath, daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On. Thus Joseph emerged in
charge of the land of Egypt.

— Genesis 41:44-45

Bettijane Eisenpreis

The story of Joseph is familiar to most of us. We read it in Sunday School, and in case we were absent that day, the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat provided an enjoyable recap. We are told the story has a happy ending. Joseph is sold into slavery, but he uses his wits and interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, and Pharaoh makes him the Number 2 man in Egypt. Then his brothers come to Egypt looking for food, and after various deceptions and revelations, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and is reunited with them and his father. And everyone lives happily ever after.

Or do they? As far as the book of Genesis is concerned, they do, but stay tuned for the Book of Exodus. Right from the start, we see that life did not stay rosy for Hebrews in Egypt. Who knew that the happy ending of the Joseph story could turn so sad?

Let’s look closely at the passage quoted above. Yes, Pharaoh gives Joseph an important job. He tells Joseph that without him, “no one shall lift up hand or foot in the land of Egypt.” Joseph will be in charge of preparing for the famine he has predicted and of managing the distribution of food once the famine begins. That’s great! But in the next sentence, we see the price Joseph will pay. He has to become a different person. He will no longer be Joseph, son of Jacob, a Hebrew, but Zaphenath-paneah. And he will marry out of the faith — to a priest’s daughter, no less.

We don’t hear Joseph arguing either. He seems to go along with the program. We will see further proof of his assimilation later in the story. But he certainly doesn’t seem to mind. And who can blame him? He paid a heavy price for his father’s favoritism. His last memories of his home and his brothers feature his being thrown into a pit and sold into slavery. And now he has a nice home and a wife from an important family. What’s not to like?

Joseph may not realize it yet, but he is paying a high price for fame and fortune. And he will not be the last Jew to make this bargain. He may be the first in a long succession of “court Jews,” Jewish physicians for financial advisors whom the rulers of various countries find useful. Yes, they are Jews — or they were initially — but once they get to court, they become someone else. And even if they leave their Jewish identities behind, they are subject to the shifting winds of fortune. A new ruler rises up, and they are out.

In Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Joseph acknowledges his roots bravely in a song he sings in prison, “Close Every Door to Me,” which concludes:

Close every door to me/Keep those I love from me/Children of Israel/Are never alone;
For we know we will find/Our own peace of mine/For we have been promised/A land of our own.

Thank you, Andrew Lloyd Weber! Unfortunately, I have looked in Genesis, and there isn’t
a word about the promise. As we leave Mikeitz, Joseph has not revealed himself to his brothers, and as far as they know, he’s an Egyptian. He will reveal himself (I peeked!), but to some extent, he has sold out. Genesis may end happily, but the story of Joseph and his
brothers is not a happy story.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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