Monday, December 03, 2007

parsgat miketz 3

Yosef stores provisions for the seven years of famine which are about to come upon Egypt. He takes a percentage from all the crops during the seven years of plenty, and warns all the Egyptians of the approaching famine so that they too can store food. However, once the famine arrives the Torah relates that the Egyptians also had to come to Yosef for food. “When all the land of Egypt hungered, the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread. So Pharaoh said to all of Egypt, ‘Go to Yosef, Whatever he tells you, you should do.” (Genesis 41; 55). The Midrash (Tanchuma) explains this strange dialogue. When the people came to Pharaoh asking for food, he asked them why they had not set aside provisions for themselves during the years of plenty. They replied that everything they had in their storehouses had rotted, so Pharaoh told them to go to Yosef. However they replied that Yosef would only give them food if all the males first circumcised themselves. Pharaoh told them to do whatever Yosef asked, for if he was able to make their grain rot in the storehouses, perhaps he would also be able to kill them if they did not comply with his demands. After the men had been circumcised Yosef sold them food.

There are many questions raised by this Midrash. Firstly, how was Yosef able to store the grain without it rotting, yet the Egyptians were unable to? If he knew of some special storage techniques why did he not also tell his subjects how best to prevent the rotting. Secondly, why did he not provide them immediately with food when they came to him? And why did he single out the Mitzvah of circumcision, a law that does not even apply to non-Jews, before giving them the food they needed?

There are several answers given by the commentators as to why Yosef wanted the people to circumcise themselves. The Yafeh To’ar explains that Yosef knew of the imminent exile of the Jewish nation to Egypt, and was worried that they may assimilate there. He knew that the Egyptians would make fun of them for being circumcised, which may have led to the cessation of this practice amongst the descendants of Avraham. Therefore he made all the Egyptians also circumcise themselves, in order that the Israelites would not feel embarrassed to do so when they eventually arrived in Egypt.
However, this cannot be the complete answer, for circumcision does not seem to be the best guarantee that the Jews not assimilate. By removing the main physical difference between Egyptian and Israelite men, Yosef would appear to be encouraging intermarriage and assimilation, rather than lessening the risk.

According to the Sh’lah, Yosef was trying to wean the Egyptians from their sexual depravity. The Torah (Leviticus 8; 3) warns the Israelites to refrain from the deviant sexual practices of the Egyptians, “Do not perform the practice of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled...”. Yosef foresaw that the Egyptians would eventually be punished in the future for their behaviour, and therefore hoped to temper or limit their actions through circumcision.

However, if this is the sole reason for his actions, did Yosef not realise that the Egyptians would abandon circumcision, and return to their former ways as soon as he was no longer in power?

There is another possible answer to why Yosef mandated circumcision. The Rambam (Guide for the Perplexed 3; 33) explains that the covenant of Bris Milah is sealed on the organ of reproduction to teach us restraint in regard to our sexual desires. Circumcision symbolically shows that we limit ourselves, and set guidelines and rules about our physical conduct. Clearly Yosef personifies the highest level of sexual restraint, in not succumbing to Potiphar’s wife. Therefore he is closely associated with the Mitzvah of Bris Milah. The restraint that the Torah advocates is not only in matters sexual, but in all areas to do with the material and physical world.

The fact that the food of the Egyptians rotted is a metaphor for their lack of restraint in anything physical. Food spoils because the microbes multiply at an exponential rate, symbolising an affliction of excess. The overabundance which they had stored caused them to lose all of it. When the Egyptians told Yosef that their food had spoiled he realised that the only way in which they would be able to retain food without it rotting would be through limiting their involvement with the physical world. This was the message he was trying to teach them through the command for them to circumcise themselves. It was not that he had magic powers to cause their food to rot, as Pharaoh had feared, but rather that he had the spiritual understanding to realise the root of the problem, and deal with it in that manner. This explains how Yosef himself was able to stockpile grain without it rotting. Since he personifies restraint, he was able to guard his food against the excesses which would have spoiled it.

1 comment:

Ibn Mordechai said...

Thank you very much for the very interesting Dvar Torah!