Parashat Miketz, 5781

Texts and beliefs By Daniel Oppenheimer 17th Dec 2020

This parasha must be one of the most food and drink-oriented of all the parashiyot, if not the most. Of course there is the overarching theme of the seven years of plenty followed by the seven years of famine. But over and above that, food also features prominently throughout the story not simply as a human necessity but as an expression of character and feeling.  

Jacob suggests to the sons that they take with them a selection of special foods for which the Land of Israel is famous. The obvious explanation is as a sort of bribe for the Egyptians, but we can also speculate whether it was an attempt by Jacob and his family to salvage some self-respect, and not simply to come as desperate beggars to the Egyptians.  

Then Joseph deliberately chooses to make his encounter with the brothers be in the context of a meal. A number of things are significant about this meal. The commentator Sforno notes that this command to prepare a meal happens “when Joseph saw Benjamin with them…” and suggests that Joseph wants to eat with the brothers specifically in order to see how they interact with Benjamin when Joseph favours him. The meal is a strange mixture of hierarchy and informality. The Egyptians eat separately from the brothers, reminding them that as non-Egyptians they are of inferior status. The brothers are seated in order of age ie status. But then it says that the brothers and Joseph get drunk together – an expression of equality and intimacy.  

Most commentators explain the drunkenness away by saying the brothers were simply not used to the high quality drink served in the household of Joseph and therefore were not as careful as they would have been in limiting their intake. But there is a midrash that gives the drinking a greater significance. It says that they got drunk because neither Joseph nor his brothers had drunk alcohol since they had sold him, and hence they had no head for the drink, but now they did drink. This midrash is saying two things. One, that the brothers had immediately regretted their mistreatment of Joseph and mourned his loss for many years; and two, that, even though they did not consciously recognise Joseph, they sensed something. 

Then finally the role of the drinking and the cups shifts again, and Joseph uses his drinking cup to set up the final part of the story, waiting for Judah to step up in next week’s parasha and bring us a happy ending.     

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Parashat Tsav / Shabbat Ha-gadol 5781