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Friday, December 18, 2009

The Dreamer's Other Dream (A Midrash for Parshat Miketz)

[This is a corrected version of the midrash I sent out two days ago. I have fixed some formatting issues and changed one of the details that I realized conflicted with the actual bibilical account of Joseph.]

This week’s parashah is Miketz (Genesis/Bereshit 41:1-44:17). The saga of
Joseph and his brothers continues in this parashah. We read in the narrative of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, being made vizier of Egypt and then of his brothers coming to seek food during the famine.

Below is a midrash that I wrote focusing on an imagined dream Joseph had and what it might have taught him about the nature of identity and the need to mindful of who we are at any given moment. Some of you may have read this before, but this is a newly edited version. Comments and questions are always welcome!

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Last Day of Hanukkah,


The Dreamer's Other Dream

It had been more than almost a quarter of a century since Joseph was exiled from his homeland and sold into slavery by his own brothers. Since then, he had known the pleasure (if you could call it that) of serving the wealthy as well as the pain of imprisonment and near death. Now, he was living in a world he had forgotten existed – the world of freedom. Not only freedom, but also control.

Once again, Joseph was in charge, just as in the old days when he was his father's favorite and could do no wrong. In those days he really thought that he was in control of his brothers and everyone around him. He certainly knew that he had his father wrapped around his little finger. However, those illusions died the moment he was thrown into the pit by his brothers and came to realize how little control he had over anything or anyone - including himself!

Now he was lying on silken sheets on a luxurious bed remembering the past and enjoying the present immensely. Earlier that day he had been dressed in garments that made the multi-colored cloak his father had given him seem like peasant's rags. More than that, Pharaoh himself had placed a signet ring on his hand making him part of Pharaoh’s household. He had clearly made it to the top simply by interpreting a couple dreams and suggesting a plan for the future based on them. Yet, in spite of the day and the comfort of his bedchamber, he could not sleep. He tossed and turned for hours, unable to get comfortable. Then finally he drifted off into sleep where he had a dream of his own. This was the first dream that he could remember having since the fateful ones he had in Canaan that predicted that his brothers would some day bow down to him.

In the beginning of the dream Joseph was seated on a throne overseeing the distribution of food to the hungry that had come to him seeking sustenance. He felt as if he were seated on the divine throne itself, but he knew that this was not so. He was too much of flesh and blood, as were the others who sought him out. Moreover, the throne was of this world, not in some otherworldly realm.

Suddenly he heard a voice calling out "Zaphenat Paneah." No one answered. Again, the voice called out "Zaphenat Paneah." Again, no response. This began to irritate Joseph who finally called out impatiently "Zaphenat Paneah must respond immediately or there will be consequences!" All movement ceased, as everyone looked up at Joseph with a puzzled look and stunned. "Why are you looking at me so strangely? Why have you all stopped moving?" he asked. Again, there was a long, unbroken silence. Then a small voice spoke. "My lord, you are Zaphenat Paneah. Certainly you must know this." It was as if something struck Joseph in the chest at that very moment. He lost his breath. He could not speak. Then, with a great deal of struggle, he spoke, "Me? I am not Zaphenat Paneah! Who dares to speak so impertinently to me?" A young boy stepped forward, "I do," he said timidly, but with a degree of certainty. "And who are you?" Joseph asked. The boy looked as stunned as Joseph had just a minute ago. Then he began to cry uncontrollably.

Joseph was had no idea what was happening. "Stop crying boy and answer my question. Who are you? Why do you say that I am Zaphenat Paneah?" With that, the boy became silent, stepped up to Joseph, removed a ring from his small finger and put it in Joseph's palm. "This is who I am." Joseph looked down at the ring. It was clearly the signet ring of a great man and his house. Around the border of the ring it read, "The seal of the house of Zaphenat Paneah, vizier of Egypt, right arm of Pharaoh. " You are Zaphenat Paneah?" Joseph asked. "No," cried the little boy with a mixture of fear and frustration, "you are, my father." Joseph felt both rage and confusion, "Me! Do you not think that I know my own name? I am Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel. I am not Zaphenat Paneah and I am certainly not your father!" The young boy then looked up into Joseph's eyes. His eyes looked so familiar to Joseph, and yet he did not know why. The boy then stated with firmness, "you are Zaphenat Paneah, and I am your son, Manasseh."

Manasseh. The name touched something seep within Joseph. Manasseh was a Hebrew name meaning "the one who made me forget." His head began to spin. He tried to speak. He tried to move. He could do neither. Joseph then looked down at the boy’s small brown eyes. Seeing them for the first time he realized that they were Jacob's eyes. He knew then that the boy was telling the truth. Yet, how could this be? How could he have a son and not remember him? And why was he calling him this strange name?

Joseph then spoke, "Come here my son, and tell me our story? I have forgotten it." The boy looked confused, but did as he was asked. Manasseh then told Joseph the story that had told him since he was an infant. He told him of how Zaphenat Paneah had been born into a special family in Egypt in which all the men had served as confidante to Pharaoh. He told his father that it was he who had foreseen the 7 years of plenty and 7 years of famine, then creating a plan to save the nation from starvation. He then told his father how he had married Osnat, daughter of a high priest and how this marriage had been arranged in order to unite their two powerful families. He also told him of his other brother Ephraim, who was off somewhere playing with his friends, no doubt.

The man seated on the throne no longer knew who he was or what to believe. Was he Joseph or Zaphenat Paneah? Was he the son of nomadic Hebrews or the son of a privileged Egyptian family? Did he have a wife and two sons or was he a young, single man who had barely escaped death and imprisonment? He no longer knew who or what he was.

Then suddenly he heard a familiar voice calling out to him. "Joseph!” "Hineni – Here I am,” he replied, “though I don’t know if I really am here." "Yes, you are here," the voice responded. "But," Joseph asked, "how do you know that I am Joseph, when I cannot even be certain of my identity?" The voice replied, "you have responded with the word Hineni. This is the same word used by your grandfather and father when I called to them. It is the word you used when your father last called upon you. And it is the same word that some day will be used by the man who will lead my people out of Egypt when I first call upon him to serve me.” " But who am I?" he shouted back to the unseen voice, "and who are you?"

"I am the God of your mothers and fathers. I am your protector. But, you are the only one who possesses the answer to your other question. I can only ask the same question you are asking yourself, who are you?"

At that moment, Joseph awoke. His head was still reeling from confusion. However, with his eyes open and his mind beginning to clear he remembered that earlier in the day he had indeed been appointed second to Pharaoh and had been given the Egyptian name Zaphenat Paneah, meaning "God speaks, he lives." And so it was that God had spoken to him in his dream. God had also spoken to him through Pharaoh when Pharaoh delivered him from jail and then bestowed upon him this new name. It was indeed because of God that he was alive. It was because God had been present for him that he could now proclaim "Hineni."

Then he remembered the names of the children in his dream. The young one with Jacob's eyes with the name Manasseh, he who has made me forget, and the other, Ephraim, "he has made me fertile." Manasseh and Ephraim - he knew that these names were themselves prophecies of warning and of promise. Manasseh's name - and his eyes - were meant to remind him that, no matter how much he might want to forget the travails of his life, he could not. They were always to be a part of him. He had arrived at this point in his life not because he had been born to Egyptian aristocracy, which would have made his life's story much simpler. Rather, he had arrived where he was because the hand of God had guided him and because he was able to follow the path he had been shown. As long as he remembered that he was Joseph, though everyone might call him Zaphenat Paneah, then God would see to it that he would be fertile. God would then guarantee that he would not only have a family, but that he would continue to grow and increase in wisdom, knowledge, kindness and holiness, as he was meant to do.

As his father had always been both Israel, the one who struggled with God, as well as Jacob, the heal-grabber, so now he would always be Joseph, the one who added joy to his father's life and Zaphenat Paneah, the one to whom God speaks and whom God protects. He would be both of Canaan and of Egypt.

Though he never did become totally accustomed to his Egyptian name, he did follow the path shown to him in his dream that night. Joseph lived many years in the land of Egypt and was as fertile as the land itself during the seven years of plenty. He did marry Osnat, the daughter of a high priest. And Osnat gave birth to two beautiful boys that were then named Manasseh and Ephraim. Then, at the end of the seven-year period of plenty, the land dried up, as God had promised, and famine struck the entire region. With God's guidance Joseph had seen to it that there was enough food to prevent starvation for the people of Egypt and for them to provide food for those who sought help from elsewhere.

In Canaan, Jacob, and his children heard of the plenty in Egypt, collected during the fertile years by the man known as Zaphenat Paneah. And Israel sent all of his sons down to Egypt for food, except for Benjamin, the only remaining son of Rachel who remained after Joseph’s disappearance.

When the brothers finally arrived in Egypt, they did now know whom they were about to meet. When Zaphenat Paneah saw them enter the great hall where he dispensed food - and justice - he realized that he was not sure who was about to meet them either. Nor was he certain what he would do.

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