12/22/2011 11:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Parshat Miketz: The Weekly Torah Portion Explained

Editor's note: The Weekly HuffTorah Portion is an overview of the Torah reading of the week and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. It also gives me a chance to re-read some endlessly fascinating tales. At press time, God could not be reached for comment. Read the full text of Parshat Miketz with interlinear Hebrew/English.

Two years pass. Pharaoh dreams. He stands by the Nile and watches seven fat, beautiful cows pasture together. Moments later, seven gaunt, ugly cows approach the others. They stare at each other. The seven skinny cows devour the seven fat cows. Pharaoh wakes up.

The same night, Pharaoh dreams again: Seven perfect, healthy ears of grain grow on a stalk. Seven parched ears grow after them. The cracked and dry ears swallow the beautiful and bursting ears.

Pharaoh wakes and knows he needs a dream interpreter. His mind buzzes. Hoping to make it stop, he calls all the sorcerers and sages of Egypt to interpret the dreams. They do: Seven good cows for seven born daughters. Seven skinny cows for seven dead daughters. Seven good ears for seven conquered foes. Seven bad ears for seven citizen upheavals.

None of these interpretations pleases Pharaoh.

The chief butler approaches: "Pharaoh! Hear my story. When I was in prison, I had a dream. The chief baker, who was in prison with me, had a dream on the same night. The dreams revealed our destinies, but we didn't understand. There was a Hebrew in jail with us. We told him our dreams and he gave us feasible interpretations. And then his interpretations came true: I was restored as chief butler. The chief baker was hanged."

Golden Age

Pharaoh sends for the Hebrew, for Joseph, who is immediately rushed from the dungeon, given a haircut and change of clothes and pushed in front of the Egyptian king. Pharaoh says, "I've had a dream and everyone says you listen to dreams and interpret them."

"It's not me," Joseph says, "God gives me insight, and God will tell me the meaning of your dreams."

So Pharaoh tells Joseph his dreams. The seven good cows eaten by the seven bad cows. The seven good ears eaten by the seven bad ears. And one dream after the other. What does it mean?

"Both dreams have the same meaning, Pharaoh," Joseph begins. "Seven good ears, seven good cows -- both of these represent seven good years. Years of abundance. Seven bad cows, seven bad ears -- both represent seven bad years. Years of famine. Egypt will have seven years of surplus followed by seven years of severe lack. The dreams were so close together because the seven good years will begin immediately. So you should appoint a wise and understanding person over the land, someone who can collect grain during the seven good years and store it for the seven terrible years. Do this so Egypt will survive the famine."

Pharaoh doesn't just like this interpretation. He digs it. He really digs it. He's overwhelmed and grateful, and he shows it: "I'm putting you in charge of my house. In fact, the only thing that will make me greater than you is this throne here. You will rule over all of Egypt!"

The king places his ring on Joseph's hand, clothes him in fine linen, gives him a golden chain and a wife and lets him ride in the royal chariot.

"Joseph," he says, "you explain hidden things. So your new name is Tzafnat-paneach. Now go rule over the land!"

Joseph is 30 years old when Pharaoh appoints him vizier. During the seven years of abundance, he travels throughout the land collecting surplus grain and storing it. Like the sands of the sea, Joseph collects grain. Like the sands of the sea, the grain cannot be counted.

During this time, Joseph and Asenat (his wife, Potiphar's daughter) have two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh.

Feel Like A Stranger

Famine ensues. There is nothing in all other lands. There is bread in Egypt. There is no bread in Egypt. There is hunger. The people cry out. Joseph tells them to circumcise themselves. The people cry out to Pharaoh. Pharaoh tells the people to do whatever Joseph says.

The famine gets worse. Joseph opens the only good storehouses. All the inhabitants of earth come to Egypt seeking food.

Jacob, too, feels the need. He tells his sons to go to Egypt, where he's heard there is grain, and return with bags filled. He sends all but Benjamin, his youngest, because he fears for Benjamin's life.

Joseph's brothers arrive in Egypt and mingle with the locals, the beggars, the famished. They learn of the man who is in charge of distributing grain. They throw themselves before him.

Joseph recognizes them immediately, but he acts like a stranger. "Where do you come from?" he asks.

"From Canaan," they respond. "We came to buy food."

Joseph recognizes them, and remembers his dreams and knows they are being fulfilled. "You are spies!" he says. "You've come here to scope out the land and find a way to attack!"

"No!" the brothers say in terror. "We are your servants. We've come to buy food. We're brothers. This is the truth. We are not spies."

But the cruel Egyptian stops them: "Lies! Lies from spies!"

"We're brothers, the son of one man. Our youngest brother is with our father in Canaan. We have another brother who is lost, and we're trying to find him."

Again, he stops them: "You are spies. That is truth. And I will test you. One brother must return to Canaan and bring back the youngest. The rest of you will be imprisoned until they return. If you don't return with the other brother, I swear by Pharaoh that you are spies."

The brothers are placed in prison for three days. Joseph says, "I fear God, so if you do what I say, you will live. I'll even compromise. One brother must stay in prison. The rest of you can return for the young one. Bring him here and no one will die." The brothers agree.

Brokedown Palace

The brothers talk among themselves. "We're guilty! We threw Joseph into the pit. He begged us, but we didn't listen. This is our punishment!"

Of course, they don't know Joseph can understand their words. He turns away weeps for he now knows they regret their actions. But his plan is still underway. They cannot know that he knows. So he throws Simeon in prison, and lets the other brothers go. Joseph commands his servants to fill the brothers' bags with grain, the money with which they purchased the grain, and to give them extra provisions for the journey.

On the road home, the brothers stop to rest. Levi opens his sack to feed his donkey and find his money. He tells his brothers, whose collective heart sinks and trembles.

"Why is God doing this to us?" they ask over and over, until they arrive at home in Canaan, where they tell their father all that happened in Egypt.

"Oy! Oy! Oy!" Jacob moans. "First, Joseph. Then, Simeon. Now, you want to take Benjamin. Oy! So much trouble has fallen upon me!"

"Listen, Dad," Reuben says, "I will return Benjamin to you. If I don't, you can kill my two sons."

"No! Benjamin will not go with you. He's the only one left. And he will die. And I will spend my final years in immense grief."

And for a while, the brothers are silent. They stay. But the famine grew worse, and they were already running out of grain, so Jacob asks his sons to go back to Egypt to buy more food.

"But, Dad," Judah says, "the man made it very clear: We will not see his face if we do not bring Benjamin. We can't and won't go if it's without Benjamin."

"Why did you tell him about Benjamin in the first place?" Israel asks.

"He asked. Should we have lied? We had to tell him. How could we have known he would ask for exactly this?"

Says Judah: "Send him with me. If I don't return him, I will have eternally sinned against you. We should have left immediately. We would already be back with Simeon and more food."

"OK," Jacob says, "Take some local delicacies: balsam, honey, wax, pistachios, almonds. You know. Take twice as much money as last time. And even bring the original amount back, too. Maybe that was a mistake. Take Benjamin, and may God grant you mercy. While you are gone, I will consider myself bereft of children. Now, go."

So the brothers return to Egypt and stand before Joseph, who sees Benjamin.

"Go prepare a meal," Joseph whispers to his servants. "These men will be my guests for lunch."

And the brothers are brought to Joseph's house. They worry. They tremble. They fear being framed. To the man who runs Joseph's house, the brothers admit everything. The sacks filled with grain and money. Their innocence. Their good intentions.

"Don't worry," the man says, "God must be looking out for you. We received the money." And the man brings Simeon to them. The brothers are treated like royal guests. Joseph finally arrives, and they present him with a gift before throwing themselves before him.

"Enough! Your father?" Joseph asks, "How is he? Alive?"

"He is alive and well," they say, bowing further into the ground.

"And your youngest brother -- is this him?" Joseph doesn't wait for an answer. "My son, may God be gracious to you," he says. And tears well in his eyes, for he hears that Benjamin has named his 10 sons after his missing brother. Hearing this, Joseph weeps in another room.

He returns and asks for the food to be set out. He places the brothers before him at the table. He seats them by age and by mother. He seats Benjamin next to him. (The Egyptians eat separately from them.) The brothers stare at each other in disbelief, wondering how he knows their dynamics so well. Food is placed before them. Benjamin's portion is five times larger than the others'. The brothers drink and get drunk for the first time since selling Joseph into slavery.

Cryptical Envelopment

"Fill their sacks with grain and return their money to the top of the sacks. In the sack of the youngest, place my silver goblet."

Joseph's servant does this, and, at sunrise, the brothers are sent on their way.

"Now," Joseph says, "chase my brothers down. When you get to them, say, 'This is how you repay us? Why have you stolen my master's silver goblet? He uses it regularly for divination. What you've done is evil.'"

The servant does this, and the brothers question him: "Why would we do that? If we returned the original money all the way from Canaan, why would we do this? Search us. If you find the goblet, you may kill the thief and the rest of us will be your slaves.

"It's true. You are all collectively guilty. But I will only enslave the one who stole the goblet. The rest of you will be innocent." The servant searches all the sacks, starting with the oldest brother and ending with Benjamin. Of course, the goblet is found in his sack.

The brothers tear their clothes and return to the city in Egypt, to Joseph's house, where they fall on the ground in front of him once again.

"Why did you do this?" Joseph asks. "Don't you know I have powers? That I could know who stole the goblet?"

"What can we say, master?" Judah says. "What is our excuse? We know we've done nothing wrong, but you have the proof. Make us all your slaves."

But Joseph: "No way! I couldn't do that. Just the one who had the goblet. The rest of you may return to your father in peace."

Questions for Reflection

Why does Joseph's interpretation of the dreams please Pharaoh?

What's with Joseph's new name?

Why does the text say that there is bread in Egypt and then say that there is hunger in Egypt?

Why does Joseph require Egyptians to circumcise themselves to receive food?

Why does Joseph act like a stranger to his brothers? Why won't he cry in front of them? And why does he follow through with his plan when he knows it will bring his father so much pain?

Why do the Egyptians eat separately from Joseph and his brothers?

Why does the parsha end like it ends?

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection: