A Guest blog by Rob Kutner. Rob was a writer on The Daily Show and is currently writing for Conan on TBS
We can probably all agree Pharaoh’s vision of the seven fat/lean cows/corns is the most memorable dream about agricultural policy in history. But Pharaoh’s own recounting of the cow dream reveals one of the themes animating this week’s parsha.
In describing how the lean cows ate the fat cows (Gen. 41:21), Pharaoh adds an extra nuance not found in the original description of that dream: “v’lo noda ki va’oo el kirbenah u’mareyhen ra” – “You couldn’t tell that [the lean cows] had swallowed [the fat cows], they [still] looked bad.”
In other words, perhaps ravenous consumption doesn’t always cure what ails us.
That idea also comes at us in a different way through looking at the curious titling of the parsha. In the midst of a sea of Vav-parshiyot (Vayetze, Vayishlach, Vayesheve, and next week’s Vayigash), suggesting a continuous flow of events, Miketz (or, “on the edge/end”), suggests a radical break.
Rashi finds an analogue in “Miketz sheva shanim” (“at the end of seven years”) (Deuteronomy 15:1), when the Shmitta year would go into effect, and all debts would be cancelled.
The Shmitta was a time when all “receiving” of money stopped – another check on the notion of continuous consumption.
It’s also taught (see e.g. Rashi to Genesis 35:29) that, at this pivotal moment in the Joseph/Egypt narrative, when Pharaoh has the dream that ends up springing Joseph from prison and into Egyptian royalty, Isaac died. Quite a holiday card that year from the Jacob Family.
But in Kabbalistic terms, Isaac (with his life of acquisition and preservation) represents the Desire to Receive, whereas hospitable Abraham represents the Desire to Give – and Joseph is the kav emtzai (“middle column”) that balances the two.
However, before Joseph can come to play that pivotal role, his Desire to Receive must come to an end. The Zohar says that is the end that the word “Miketz” refers to.
And indeed, Joseph’s life can be seen as one of struggling between the desires to give and receive. As a youth, he publicly anounced his dreams of receiving adulation from others. As a servant in Potiphar’s house, he nobly refused to take his master’s wife. But after interpreting the Cupbearer’s dream, he still asked a price: Having the Cupbearer bring his case before Pharaoh.
Now, however, Joseph comes before Pharaoh and simply interprets, with no desire to receive anything – even describing his role in the process as “Biladi” (“without me”).
Joseph has finally become a person of pure giving. Even his machinations against his brothers take on this form: He sends their money back with them, literally unable to take anything. When he has them dine with him, he gives Benjamin five times the food he gives everyone else.
Paradoxically, the moment he renounces receiving is the moment Joseph begins receiving everything: freedom from captivity, career, power, wife and children, his own brothers and father back, and the opportunity to save the world (as he knew it) from starvation.
It’s a good lesson for us. Remember the place Joseph was in when he made this radical ketz: imprisoned, cast out by his family, abandoned by even the Cupbearer who’d been his one way out, two long years prior. Joseph’s response: set desire aside in full and dedicate yourself fully to giving.
How often do we feel imprisoned: in our careers, in our personal relationships, in traffic. What if we could seize hold of that moment by looking the Universe in the eye and daring to find something to give? A smile, to the jerk cutting you off in traffic; an unsolicited and undeserved compliment to your tormentor at the office; even “giving in” to a loved one with whom you’ve had a sustained argument. Begin the day with a token contribution to some kind of tzedakah, a nickel in the pushke, and end it with 5 minutes of time given to another or another’s cause. Just try it for one day, and at the very least, you’ll be reminded of your very real freedom to fashion yourself.
This isn’t turning the other cheek. It’s turning the tide of nonstop taking that our society, if not our world, seems to be built upon.
Nowhere is this more evident than in December – when the consumption parade of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Even Further in Debt to China Tuesday, etc. beats our holiday of tiny beautiful miracles into a one-upsmanship of gift-giving.
So why not turn back the tide a little this Hanukkah? Change night 8 from a night of gifts to one of giving? Donate the intended presents to the needy or ailing. Hold a family discussion on a cause important to all, and make a plan to spend time together working on it between now and next year.
Obviously, we’ll never completely eliminate the desire to receive. It’s in part what makes us human. But by working a little harder at giving, we can make a “ketz” – an end – to desire’s crushing grip over us. And just possibly, like Joseph, a beginning of much greater things.