Parshas Mikeitz continues the account of Yosef’s remarkable tenure in Mitzrayim; it relates to how he endured terrible suffering, and yet emerged as the Viceroy of Mitzrayim. Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt”l speaks in depth about Yosef’s unique role in the development of The Jewish nation. It is instructive to analyze Yosef’s contribution and how it was played out by his actions in Parshas Mikeitz.
Rav Hutner notes that whilst Yosef was one of the twelve Tribes, he also seems to play a more significant role than his brothers in the development of Klal Yisroel (the Jewish nation). For example, each brother represented one tribe, whereas Yosef, through his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, represented two tribes. Rav Hutner also notes a unique fact about Yosef – his death is mentioned twice; once at the end of Sefer Bereishis , and once in the beginning of Parshas Shemos . In contrast, the death of all the other brothers is only mentioned in Shemos. How do we understand the nature of Yosef’s role?
Rav Hutner explains that Yosef is somewhere in between the Avos (Patriarchs) and the Shevatim (tribes). In a certain sense he is close to being an Av, but in other aspects he is like one of the Shevatim. Rav Hutner explains that the status of ‘Av’ is ascribed to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, because each played a defining role in creating the concept of Klal Yisroel, and ensuring that it would last permanently: Avraham was the first ‘convert’ and he thereby created the very existence of a ‘Jew’ as someone who follows the will of HaShem. Yitzchak was the first to be holy from birth, thus providing the Jewish nation with a level of purity and holiness that it would need to last. However, Avraham and Yitzchak’s contributions do not necessarily ensure that the Jewish nation will endure because they both had children who are not considered to be part of the Jewish nation. Thus, it would still be possible for their descendants to be unworthy of being part of Klal Yisroel. Yaakov was the first of whom all his children remained part of the new Jewish nation. In doing this, he created the concept that someone born of a Jewish woman will always be a Jew, regardless of his actions.
However, Rav Hutner points out, that Yaakov’s role of ensuring Jewish continuity is still incomplete, due to the halacha (law) that the child of a non-Jewish woman is a non-Jew, even if the father is Jewish. Because of this halacha, the permanence of Klal Yisroel is still not ensured. It is in this area that Yosef plays a defining role. He, unlike his brothers, was alone in an alien atmosphere and subjected to great temptations, particularly the nisayon (test) involving Potiphar’s wife. Through his ability to withstand such challenges, and to maintain his identity as a ‘Jew’, he infused into all future generations the ability to withstand the future challenges of the exiles in which Jews will be under great pressure to assimilate with the other nations. In this way, Yosef’s contribution acts as a completion of Yaakov’s role in ensuring Jewish continuity. Yaakov created the concept that a person born from a Jewish woman is always a Jew, but Yosef ensured that he have the fortitude to refrain from intermarriage.
With this understanding, we can explain why Yosef’s death is mentioned both at the end of Sefer Bereishis, and at the beginning of Sefer Shemos. The Ramban writes that Sefer Bereishis is the book of the Patriarchs, and Shemos is the book of the ‘children’. The deaths of all of Yaakov’s sons, with the exception of Yosef, are only mentioned in Shemos because that is the book of the children. Yosef is also partly considered one of the tribes, therefore his death is also mentioned in Shemos. However, he also plays a role as a kind of half-Patriarch, through is completion of Yaakov’s role. Accordingly, his death is also discussed in Bereishis. Similarly, he merits having two tribes descend from him, because he is something more than a regular tribe. The question remains, how was Yosef able to withstand the great tests of being surrounded by an atmosphere that made it so difficult to maintain one’s allegiance to HaShem. Not only did Yosef succeed in remaining strong himself, but he was also able to bring up children in Mitzrayim who would continue the tradition of the Avos.
In these Parshios, we see a number of examples of Yosef’s behavior that can help explain his remarkable adherence to HaShem. At the beginning of Parshas Mikeitz, Yosef was suddenly taken out of prison and placed in front of Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world. Pharaoh asked him to interpret his dreams. Even before Pharaoh related the contents of the dreams, Yosef boldly asserted; “This is beyond me, it is HaShem who will respond to Pharaoh’s welfare. ” Every year we read this passuk and give it little thought, but with some reflection we can begin to fathom how incredible Yosef’s words are; he had been imprisoned in a hell-hole for 12 years and was finally given a golden opportunity to attain freedom, if only he could appease Pharaoh, he can have a new start in life. He knew that Pharaoh did not believe in the Jewish G-d, indeed he believed that he himself was a god, and his arrogance was unmatched: What would a person say in such circumstances? Yosef would have been justified in thinking that now was not the right time to attribute everything to G-d and that he would surely be justified in selling himself and his talents as much as possible. Yet Yosef did not hesitate to attribute all of his talents to G-d. This is a remarkable lesson in how to act in an alien environment, a test that all the generations of galus (exile) had to face. One could try to hide his Judaism from the non-Jews, in an effort to hide the differences between them. Sadly, history has proven that this approach generally resulted in assimilation. By removing the barriers between Jews and non-Jews, one opens the way for the loss of his Jewish identity. However, Yosef’s confidence in asserting his beliefs proved to be one of the reasons why he and many in the future generations, were also able to withstand assimilation throughout the long Galus.
After Yosef became Viceroy, he had two sons; he names the second son, Ephraim, “because My G-d made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlita, explains that Yosef was calling Mitzrayim “the land of my suffering” even at his present time of being the Viceroy. Thus, whilst he acknowledged that he had become fruitful in Mitzrayim, nonetheless, it remained as the ‘land of his suffering’. In this way, Yosef avoided the trap of feeling comfortable and at home in Mitzrayim, despite his great success. This provides another reason why Yosef was able to remain steadfast in his adherence to Torah values whilst being surrounded by alien influences. History has proven on many occasions, that once a Jew becomes overly comfortable in galus, then he is far more likely to assimilate into the nation that he lives in. This was the case in Germany when the early Reform Jews called Berlin, ‘the New Jeruslaem”; it also proved to be the case in America, of which numerous Jews saw as the land of opportunity. Sadly, in their efforts to succeed as Americans, untold thousands were lost to the Jewish people forever.
We have seen how Yosef exemplified the ability to maintain his values and identity, in the midst of an atmosphere that was foreign to everything he stood for. In doing, this, he infused the Jewish people with the ability to follow in his footsteps and reject assimilation throughout the long Galus. It is no co-incidence that Psrshas Mikeitz always falls on Chanukah – the lessons of the Parsha relate to Chanukah. In this instance, the connection is clear; the Greek exile was the first in which the disease of assimilation posed a major threat to Jewish continuity. Throughout the previous exiles and suffering, the Jews maintained their sense of identity. However, the Greeks were the first nation to offer a genuinely enticing ideology. Sadly, a significant number of Jews failed to learn from Yosef, and gladly tried to remove all vestiges of their Judaism – they even tried to undo their circumcisions! However, the Hashmonaim and many Jews with them, resisted the attraction of the Greek way of life, and risked their lives to maintain their Jewish identity. Like Yosef’s strength in Mitzaryim, the spiritual victory over the Greeks and the Mityavnim can continue to give us guidance and inspiration to withstand the challenges of Galus to this day.