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ME, MYSELF, AND JOSEPH

by Rabbi David Zauderer    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

When we last left Joseph, he was languishing in an Egyptian prison cell, hoping against all hope to gain his release and to once again be a free man. This week's episode begins with Pharaoh, king of Egypt, having some really weird dreams about fat cows and skinny cows and fat ears of grain and skinny ears of grain. (Freud would have had a field day with this guy!)

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When we last left Joseph, he was languishing in an Egyptian prison cell, hoping against all hope to gain his release and to once again be a free man. This week's episode begins with Pharaoh, king of Egypt, having some really weird dreams about fat cows and skinny cows and fat ears of grain and skinny ears of grain. (Freud would have had a field day with this guy!)

He is quite intrigued by these dreams and their possible significance, so he calls in his "dream team" in order to get a reading on the dreams. But what the experts have to offer doesn't satisfy Pharaoh.

At this point, one of Pharaoh's cabinet members, the chamberlain of the cupbearers, remembers something that happened to him in last week's Torah portion. He had a dream that needed some explanation, and this Jewish prisoner named Joseph interpreted the dream perfectly, and whatever he had predicted came true.

So Pharaoh gets all excited and orders that Joseph be brought out of jail immediately and be made to stand in front of him. The guards schlepp Joseph out of jail and bring him to Pharaoh. The king relates the dream of the seven fat cows and seven skinny cows, and Joseph explains that this was G-d's way of letting Pharaoh know that Egypt will experience seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. But Joseph doesn't stop there.

After he interprets the dreams to Pharaoh's satisfaction, Joseph proceeds to offer the leader of the Egyptian empire some unsolicited advice: "Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed and let him appoint overseers on the land, and he shall prepare the land of Egypt during the seven years of abundance."(Genesis 41:33-34) "And Pharaoh chose Alan Greenspan...." (Just kidding. It doesn't say that.)

Imagine that! Joseph is schlepped out of prison for a few minutes to explain a dream and he starts telling Pharaoh how to run the country?! What nerve! And what a seemingly foolish move on Joseph's part at a time when he might have gained Pharaoh's favor for correctly interpreting his dreams, thereby guaranteeing his early release from jail.

Why did Joseph do something so risky when his entire chance to become free was on the line, and when one unsolicited comment could spoil everything?

NOT YOUR AVERAGE JOE

Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam (the son of Miamonides, the great Jewish philosopher of Medieval times) explains that Joseph was concerned lest the advisors to Pharaoh would not think of his plan to save up during the years of abundance in preparation for the coming years of famine. And then many thousands of people would die of starvation.

So although it was entirely inappropriate and ran the risk of his losing his one big chance of being released from prison (not to mention the possibility that Pharaoh might kill him on the spot for having the "chutzpah" to speak up when not called upon to do so!), Joseph could not hold himself back, and suggested to Pharaoh the only way he knew would save the entire country from almost certain death in a famine.

Such was the nature of Joseph. Even when his instinct for self-preservation told him to keep quiet and hope that Pharaoh would set him free as a reward for correctly interpreting the dreams, his love of and concern for humanity forced him to take a gamble and speak out of line.

If you think about it, Joseph's behavior in front of Pharaoh was nothing short of amazing. Definitely not the kind of behavior one could expect or demand from your "average Joe" on the street! Yet if this story was chosen by G-d to be part of the Torah, the entire purpose of which is to refine our character and make us better human beings, that means that there is something about Joseph's actions that speaks to all of us -- and that we are capable of emulating.

LOVE IS A MANY "SPLINTERED" THING

You know the old saying, "We are put on this world to serve others." (Somebody once cracked, "Yeah, but what are the "others" here for?") And not just to serve others, but to love others, as ithe Torah states in Leviticus 19:18, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Note, however, that the Torah has to command us to love our neighbor, but takes it for granted that we love ourselves. It is obvious that if G-d created man with a love of himself, it is a good and healthy love -- and can thus be used as a standard to which one's love of others can be held up.

So there you have it, folks. Love of self and love of others. Two loves, both positive and healthy, but, at least on the surface, hopelessly contradictory to one another. How can we love ourselves and yet love others with the same intensity? Aren't these two opposites?

KEEPING AN "I" OUT FOR EVERYBODY

The answer to that question is that it depends. That is, it depends on how much I include "others" in "myself". Let me explain: Each and every one of us has an "ani" (the Hebrew word for "I"), i.e. a love of good ol' me, myself, and I. For some people, their "ani" only includes themselves, and there is no more room for anyone else. If "I" want to go out to the golf course, but my friend asks me to do a favor for him instead -- "I" come first. After all, I have to look out for myself, don't I? Isn't that what G-d wants?

Others include their families in their "ani". I look out for my family, as they are a part of me, and I make sure that they are all well provided for. Then there are people with an even bigger "ani". They keep their "I" out for the entire community! So that they feel a responsibility for the welfare of not only their own family, but their extended family as well.

Joseph took it one giant step further. A giant step for mankind. To him, all of humanity was included in his "ani", in his love of self. All of the world is one big, happy family -- G-d's creations -- my brothers and sisters. So when Joseph was presented with a chance to escape his misery in an Egyptian prison, he didn't just think of his own self-preservation. "Self"-preservation for Joseph included everyone else in Egypt too. So he had to speak up and tell Pharaoh of his plan to help save the people of Egypt.

Even in more recent times, there have lived great Jews who were capable of including within their love of self, within their "ani", not just their families and their communities, but the entire world. They once asked the great pre-war Torah Sage, Rabbi Baruch Ber Liebowitz, why he never read the newspapers. The old rabbi responded that his heart couldn't handle it. Every time he reads about a famine in Bangladesh or a young child that was killed in Russia, he feels incredible pain and sorrow at their misfortune -- and it makes the rest of his day unbearable.

How far removed are we from that today! Each night on the eleven o'clock news we are told about some horrible rape, a double murder, a ravaging fire. And what do we do -- we check on the kids to make sure they are all tucked in, and then we go sleep. That's because our "ani" presently only includes a limited amount of people. But Rabbi Liebowitz felt that the entire world is one big "ani", and that each of us is but one cog in the great machine that is humanity. And he couldn't sleep well at night knowing that someone else's kids are suffering even if his own are sleeping calmly. Now that's a pretty high level of sensitivity which I am unfortunately nowhere near to, but it is definitely something to aspire to.

The great Tannaic sage, Hillel, put it best when he wrote in Ethics of Our Fathers (1:14): "If I ("ani") am not for me, then who will be for me; but if I ("ani") am just for myself, then what am I?" I have to include myself in my "ani" -- I have to love myself, look after myself, and feel good about myself. But if in my "ani" I can only fit myself to the exclusion of everyone else, then what kind of "self" am I?

If you think about it, you will realize that including others into my "ani" is the source of all true love that exists in this world -- be it love of a spouse, a child, etc. I love my spouse, ultimately, not because of what she gives me or brings to the marriage, but because through the giving of "myself" to my spouse, I have grown to include her in my "ani". I have made space in my "self" for this other person who means so much to me. And I love my children, not because of the smiles and pride they give me, but because I see them as an extension of myself, of my "ani".

The trick is to work on ourselves throughout life to the point that we can include as many people as possible into our "ani" -- to see each and every person as another important part of G-d's creation in the world.

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Rabbi David Zauderer writes from Atlanta.

You are invited to read more Parshat Mikeitz and Chanukah articles.

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