The Joseph story, which continues in this week’s parashah, Mikkeitz, is very familiar. One of the issues arising from this familiarity is that we can overlook details that don’t seem to be germane to the main plot. Perhaps, this doesn’t matter – after all, it is a brilliant story; indeed, it forms a mini novella within the narrative of our ancestors, and a crucial linchpin between the tales of the generations of a particular family and the formation of the people of Israel.
What we notice when we read and re-read, depends on the context of our reading. The significant detail that caught my eye, as I re-read the parashah for this IRAC d’var Torah, was the use of the word that gives its name to the portion: Mikkeitz. We read (Genesis 41:1):
Va-y’hi mikkeitz sh’natayim yamim, u’phar’oh choleim, v’hinneih omeid al-ha-y’or
It came to pass at the end of two years that Pharaoh was dreaming, and behold, he was standing by the river [Nile].
The parashah opens with Pharaoh’s famous dreams – and Joseph’s famous interpretations that proved his passport to freedom and power. Pharaoh dreams about seven beautiful and sturdy cows, consumed by seven ugly and gaunt ones, and then dreams about seven beautiful and sturdy ears of corn, growing on a single stalk swallowed up by seven thin ears, scorched by the East wind. None of Pharaoh’s magicians and wise men can explain the dreams. And then, Pharaoh’s cupbearer recalls how Joseph interpreted his dream and the dream of the Baker so accurately, when they were incarcerated in prison. And so, Joseph is brought out of prison and provides the explanation that proves crucial to the survival of the country: there will be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Joseph suggests that someone should be appointed to oversee the project of conserving the grain during the years of plenty – and promptly gets the job.
Seven is one of the significant numbers in the Torah: seven days of the week; the seven-day festivals of Pesach and Sukkot; the seventh month of the calendar, with its sacred days, the seven years of the agricultural cycle. That Pharaoh should dream in sevens and that the interpretation of his dreams should point to two cycles of seven years is not surprising. But what do we make of the opening phrase of the portion?
Va-y’hi mikkeitz sh’natayim yamim, u’phar’oh choleim… – It came to pass at the end of two years that Pharaoh was dreaming…
The phrase follows immediately after Joseph’s interpretations of the dreams of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and Baker became reality: Three days later on Pharaoh’s birthday, the cupbearer was restored his duties and the Baker, hung (Gen. 40:20-22).
So, when the new portion begins, two years have passed since that time. There is nothing remarkable about this in itself – the narrative is simply establishing a link between two chapters of the story. But the word mikkeitz offers a remez – a ‘hint’ – of something interesting. The word keitz means ‘end’; mi is a preposition, which means, literally, ‘from’ – hence the translation: ‘at the end’. Keitz is derived from the Hebrew root Kuf tzadi tzadi, meaning, to ‘cut off’, so the use of the word mikeitz here signifies ‘at the end’, i.e., exactly, two years later. So, a definite unit of time: two years. And then, the narrative goes on to present two more units of time: seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Again, there is nothing remarkable about this in itself. However, the contrast between the world of dreams and the world of daily reality is very telling. Dreams exist in a timeless dimension. Everyday life takes place in real time, made all the more urgent when the clock is ticking…
Every portion of the Torah is known by the first significant word. The word mikkeitz fulfils this role – but it does something else as well: It provides a signal to one of the paradoxes of human existence. Human beings are dreamers, who must also navigate the paths of life, day after day. What is more, fearful of the reality that our lives are finite, we preoccupy ourselves with dreams and visions of a future of peace, harmony and justice beyond the trials and struggles of the present. Jews have made a profession out of this paradox. Think of the glorious prophecy of the prophet Micah (4:1-4).
In the last days – V’hayah b’acharit ha-yamim – the mountain of the house of the Eternal shall be set firm on the top of the mountains, and raised up above the hills. Many nations shall flow towards it …. Then they shall hammer their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; never again shall they train for war…
Interestingly, in the Book of Daniel, the word keitz is used to designate the ‘end time’ – l’eit keitz (e.g. 8:17) – or ‘end season’ – l’mo’eid keitz (e.g. 8:19). So, on the one hand, keitz signals ‘end time’, forever beyond us; on the other hand, as with Pharaoh’s dreams, a definite time, here and now.
As we think about the many challenges and issues that IRAC grapples with in the context of the complex multifaceted society that is Israel today and consider how IRAC engages, daily, in struggles for human rights, democracy, religious pluralism, and justice – for women, for refugees and other minorities within Israeli society – let us be clear that the task is exactly this: building the now. Perhaps, one day, we will reach the future that we dream of… but just as Joseph went about storing grain during the seven years of plenty for the seven years of famine, we are summoned to respond to the needs of the present, and do what we can to build olam ha-ba, ‘the world to come’, in olam ha-zeh, ‘this world’ – here and now.