Friday, December 3, 2010
Parshat Miketz: The Ego Begins to Crack
This week’s parashah/portion is Miketz (Genesis/Bereshit 41:1-44:17). In this parashah Joseph then accuses his brothers of being spies and keeps Simeon captive. He sends the others back to Canaan with the command to bring their other brother Benjamin, the only other son of Joseph’s mother Rachel, back with them. When they go back, Jacob refuses to risk losing Benjamin. However, when their food finally runs out again, he agrees to let Benjamin go back with them. When they arrive in Egypt, Joseph is overcome to see his brother Benjamin, but the games continue. He treats them like family, though clearly favoring Benjamin. Then has his silver goblet planted in Benjamin’s sack and proceeds to accuse Benjamin of stealing it. Joseph says that he will keep Benjamin as a slave as punishment. Thus, the parashah ends. Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, is made second to Pharaoh, and then receives his brothers who have come seeking food during the time of famine.
Following the premise of last week’s commentary, Joseph, as representing the ego, is in his full glory. He plays games with his brothers. He manipulates. He does whatever he desires in order to fulfill his own need for revenge. Yet, this is not so at the beginning of the parashah.
At the start of the parashah, Joseph is in jail. The ego has been beaten down. But not for long. For when Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembers Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams (from the time when Joseph interpreted his dream in jail) Pharaoh calls for Joseph. But Joseph does not go before Pharaoh in his jail clothes. No. He makes sure to wash and dress nicely before meeting Pharaoh. Of course, this could be just protocol, but it also represents the ego’s need to disguise itself to appear presentable and acceptable to the world.
Once before Pharaoh, Joseph interprets his dreams as being about seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. He frames the story so that Pharaoh knows he needs to appoint someone to take charge of saving the grain for the seven lean years. Of course, Joseph is that man.
The ego is on top once again. But, something is changing. For when Pharaoh praises Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, Joseph insists that his ability came from God. Joseph acknowledging God’s power over him is a sign that the first chink has been taken out of the ego’s armor. There is recognition that there is a power that is indeed greater.
But then his brothers show up! His anger swells within and the ego springs into action, as I wrote above. But as the story continues things happen that continue to take chinks out of the ego’s armor and begin to reveal the soft, compassionate part, the soul, that is buried deep inside Joseph.
Joseph’s tears reveal to us the slow dissolution of the ego. The first time he leaves the room to cry is when his brothers bemoan the fact that Joseph has accused them of spying. During their discussion (argument?), they state that they are being punished for the sin of what they did to Joseph all those years ago. Believing that Joseph is unable to understand them, as there is an interpreter present, they cry out “…we saw his (Joseph’s) distress [when we threw him into the pit] but we didn’t listen.” Joseph hears his brothers’ compassion and it awakens the compassion within him that the ego is attempting to suppress with all its might.
Even the presence of the interpreter can be seen as representing the ego’s desire to keep itself at a distance from the brothers as protection. But it is as if the interpreter is not even there. Joseph hears and comprehends every word they utter. There is nothing standing between the ego of Joseph and the compassion of the brothers. Then they speak of the soul, which the ego has tried to suppress. In doing this, somehow the soul is touched. The ego cracks open a little more and his tears begin to flow. He leaves the room and then composes himself before returning. He tries to re-strengthen his ego. But it doesn’t do much good.
Later in the parashah, after the brothers have returned to Canaan, they come back down to Egypt with Benjamin in tow. When Joseph sees “his mother’s son,” he asks, “ Is this your youngest brother you told me about? And he added, ‘God be gracious to you my son.’ (Genesis 43:29)” Before allowing the brothers to respond, he leaves the room again and breaks down in tears a second time. The ego is clearly losing the battle. By “seeing his mother’s son,” Joseph is immediately reconnected with his mother. This represents his connection to the source of compassion. For the Hebrew for compassion רחמים comes from the same root as the word for womb רחם. He connects to that source of compassion and when he truly “sees” his brother, he is able to see the compassion of Rachel within him. He then simply offers his brother the blessing of grace. He has not only connected with the compassion of Rachel that is within both Joseph and Benjamin, but he actually blesses his brother with grace, a kindness that is seen as coming from the Divine. He is not thinking of himself. He is no longer pure ego. The ego wall is being torn down brick by brick by compassion and grace, gifts directly from God. We then read that Joseph feels tenderly for his brother. This is not a good omen for the ego.
Then he sits down to a banquet with his brothers, giving Benjamin five times more food than the other brothers. This favoritism that Joseph shows Benjamin at first comes from a source of compassion, but it also reminds Joseph of the favoritism he was shown by his father. This favoritism was both the source of the ego’s pride, but also what caused the brothers to throw him into the pit. His memory of all this temporarily strengthens the ego and so he plots against his brothers. The ego is not ready to let go. The ego needs to torture them, to put them in their place in order to remain on top. So, he sets the stage by hiding his goblet in the sack of Benjamin. In order to regain control, the ego attacks the source of the compassion that is trying to destroy it, that is, Benjamin.
Then the parashah ends with Benjamin standing before Joseph, who is going to keep him as a slave. The brothers are standing there in horror. The ego so wants to regain its control that Joseph not only tortures his beloved baby brother, but he risks bringing death and sorrow to his father once again. Clearly, something needs to happen. But what?
It’s true that we know what happens in the next parashah, but I don’t want to go there right now. I want us to just stay where we are. For this moment is one in which we often find ourselves, whether we know it or not. We are often caught between the ego that wants us to believe that we are all that matters, no matter how we may harm others, and the compassion of the soul, which is our true essence, and which wants to reach out to connect with others. The ego is the self, it is something we construct to seemingly protect us. But if it becomes too strong, it usurps the place of the soul, our true essence. And then we find ourselves in a place where we have to choose. Do we follow the ego and continue the self-centered path of destruction? Or do we turn within, to the source of compassion, which is the soul, and walk down the path that is right, good and connects us with the One of the universe. This is the dilemma facing Joseph. Next week we will see what choice he makes.
Posted by Rabbi Steven Nathan at 8:01 PM
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