Reflections – Miketz

Texts and beliefs By Georgia Kaufmann 20th Dec 2014

Novels by Ursula Le Guin. The Taoist philosophy of the books, conjectured that being able to truly know a thing or someone, to be able to name them, gave you power over them. Naming within the Torah is loaded, symbolic and meaningful. The name of God was considered to be too powerful to pronounce except by one man, in one place, on one day of the year.

According to Midrash (Tanhuma, Vayakhel 1) a person has three names: one given to him by his mother and father;another given to him by other people; and the third acquired by him himself. In the Torah, God names Adam and Eve, he re-names Abram (Abraham), Sarai (Sarah) and Jacob (Israel) but he lets Adam name all the animals and birds.

Joseph is named by his mother when finally her infertility ends and she can present a son to Jacob. Rachel explains that the name, Joseph, derives from the disgrace that his birth had “taken away” (asaf) and the second son he “may add” (yosef). Joseph’s birth restored pride to the barren and disgraced Rachel and gave her hope of further sons. As Rachel’s only son (she dies when Benjamin is born) and Jacob’s favourite he was spoilt. The jealousy this incurs in his brothers nearly costs him his life. At the beginning of this week’s portion we find him in gaol following the allegation of sexual assault by Potiphar’s wife. Twice he has risen too high, become too splendid and been thrown down, into a pit and then a prison.

Pharaoh summons him from gaol, listens to his interpretation of his dreams and appoints him as grand vizier. He then renames him Zaphenath-Paneah, meaning “God Speaks-He Lives” in Egyptian. This is the second name, the one that people call a person. Pharaoh recognises Joseph’s specialness and embraces it, unlike Joseph’s brothers who were challenged by his pre-eminence. Joseph becomes Zaphenath-Paneah and marries an Egyptian woman, has Egyptian sons, although we can infer from the names he gave them that he may have been in denial about where he came from and who he was.

When the other sons of Jacob come to buy food during the famine, they do not recognise Zaphenath-Paneah, yet like the sheaves and stars in his teenage dreams they bow down to him, through whom “God speaks”. His dreams had foreseen this moment, but what he had not foreseen is that he would not be himself. They knew an arrogant, tell-tale boy and now they meet the man who has saved Egypt, the man who had the foresight to bind and keep enough sheaves to see the country through famine. The boy that they loathed was a foppish man. The man they bowed down, disguised by his Egyptian clothes, his status and with a second name deceives them, tests them and watches them.

The brothers rejected him because he was different. He was set apart and behaved apart. Now unrecognised he appraises them. They regret the grief their actions caused their father, they are protective of Benjamin, they have learnt from their maltreatment of him. As he watches them he realises that he still loves them, he still feels the bonds of family and he still misses his father. They are not so different.

In next week’s portion, Vayigash, he claims his third name, the one that is already his, the name his mother gave him. Like God proclaiming “I am what I am”, Joseph declares “I am Joseph.” He has risen from the disgrace of his arrogance, the pit, slavery, prison and he has fulfilled his promise. He names himself as their brother, despite their rejection of him. He realises that being part of a family, a community, is more important than revenge.

Georgia Kaufmann is an anthropologist and writer. She is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue.

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