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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Mikeitz

Parashat Mikeitz

Kislev 30, 5780 – December 28, 2019

Torah Reading: Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Mikeitz, which means “at the end.” This is a reference to the end of Joseph’s time in prison, and the two-year period that has elapsed since the conclusion of the previous parashah. Parashat Mikeitz is the tenth parashah in the annual cycle of Torah readings, and there are a number of themes that link this parashah with Parashat Bereishit – the first parashah – and the holiday of Chanukah. The numbers one and ten are an enumerated grouping in Kabbalistic thinking, which link the “last (and lowest) point of creation [with the] first and essential reason for it.”[1] The Sefer Yetzirah, which is also known as The Book of Formation, states: “The end is enwedged in the beginning,”[2] which is an idea that arises within the interpretation Joseph gives regarding Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph’s ability to discern the essence of G-d’s message, even amidst the deepest state of exile – even amidst a reality whereby G-d is completely concealed – is categorically linked to the reason G-d originally conceals himself in the physical world. This is also why themes of Parashat Mikeitz are linked to the holiday of Chanukah. The first day of the holiday is celebrated, even though there was enough oil for the menorah in the Temple to burn for a day. In this respect, burning the oil for a day is what ultimately revealed its essential reason – the demonstration of a miracle and the “manifestation of G-d’s will.”[3]

The parashah begins with Pharaoh, who has two dreams. He dreams that seven fat cows emerge from the Nile River and are consumed by seven sickly cows. After waking up, and returning to sleep again, he “dreamt a second time” (41:5) whereby seven healthy ears of grains are swallowed up by seven thin ears of grain. The inability of Pharaoh to get a satisfactory interpretation from any of his advisors finally prompts the Chamberlain of the Cupbearers to mention Joseph – albeit quite disparagingly – and Joseph is brought out of prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph explains that the seven fat cows represent seven years of plenty and abundance in the land of Egypt, and that the seven sickly cows represent seven years of famine. In (41:33) we read Joseph’s subsequent recommendation to Pharaoh, and he states: “Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt.” Well, Pharaoh decided that this wise man should be Joseph, and Joseph is appointed governor (viceroy) of Egypt to oversee the land and prepare for the coming years of plenty and famine. Joseph also marries Asenath, daughter of Potiphar, which rectifies the previous accusations against him regarding Potiphar’s wife and “vindicate[s] [him] in the eyes of the Egyptians.”[4] Joseph is also given a new name (Zaphenath-paneah) to honor his newly appointed position of authority, which later helps to hide his identity from family.[5] Joseph and Asenath have two sons – Manasseh and Ephraim.

The second half of the parashah is concerned with the period of famine that strikes Egypt and the surrounding region. Ten of Joseph’s brothers are sent by Jacob to Egypt, to purchase grain and this launches a series of interactions between Joseph (who conceals his identity) and his family. On this first trip, down to Egypt, all the brothers – except for Benjamin (who is the youngest son of Jacob, and Joseph’s brother [of Rachel]) – are present, and this prompts Joseph to accuse them of being spies (42:9). After shrewdly inquiring about who the brothers were, and where they were from, Joseph demands that they bring Benjamin down to Egypt to prove who they are, and what their true intentions are. Ramban (this is Moses ben Nahman, otherwise known as Nachmanides) comments that this was also a necessary component to the fulfillment of the first of Joseph’s dreams, where all eleven of his brother would bow down to him.[6] The brothers were sent home with grain and Simeon was chosen (by Joseph) to remain behind as a hostage, which was retribution for throwing him in the pit.[7] The brothers later discover that the money they used to pay for the grain had been mysteriously returned to them. After recapitulating to Jacob the demands of Joseph, Benjamin is sent back again with the brothers after Judah takes personal responsibility for his safety.[8] Joseph receives the brothers again, releases Simeon, there is an exchange of money for grain again, and the brothers are sent on their way. Joseph then devises a plan to have his silver goblet, the magic goblet with which he divines, planted on Benjamin’s sack so that Benjamin could be falsely accused and remain behind with Joseph in Egypt.

The obvious environmental message to focus on in this parashah is the appearance of a famine. A core component to bringing an environmental hermeneutic to the study of Torah is learning to see the earth as a subject within the biblical narrative, and not simply an object that is subordinate to human actions. When seen in this way, the earth is serving as an ambassador for G-d through Pharaoh’s dreams, and Joseph’s subsequent interpretations – and his elevation to position of viceroy – are what ensure the survival of his family (the Jewish people) when they are faced with a famine. The earth, and human action, are linked – of course – as they are mutually dependent upon one another. But the state of the earth is not absolutely dependent upon human action, and this is evident in the oscillating conditions of famine and plenty that the earth produces to induce human change within the biblical narrative. Joseph makes the point to Pharaoh that seven years of great abundance would come, and then he states: “Seven years of famine will arise after them and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten; the famine will ravage the land.” (41:30) Joseph later says, “Let Pharaoh proceed” (41:34), which is to say: Let Pharaoh make preparations, innovate, adapt, change – “Let Pharoah be active in the matter and motivate others.”[9] Rabbi Naftali Berlin, in his Torah commentary Haamek Davar, describes how “[this] ‘ravaging’ refers to areas where people will lack the foresight or ability to lay away provisions for the famine.”[10] Interestingly enough, Rashi comments that it was the prominent, well-to-do people who felt the famine first because they are not accustomed to hunger and suffering.[11] Rich and successful people then, as they do now, “tend to take the good times for granted,”[12] and therefore lack the flexibility, resilience, and foresight to adapt to significant environmental change. Modern technology, and modern styles of living, have shielded us from this reality. But there will come a point when the scales will tip, and those of us who are highly rigid in our ways will become vulnerable and exposed in aspects of life that are affected by climate change, pollution, or food shortages. Periods of intense excess and abundance often lead to an imbalance, which is why concepts like a perpetually growing economy is a dangerous notion. An important detail of Pharaoh’s dreams is that the fat cows co-existed with the skinny cows – famine with abundance, plenty with lack – but this is not how conditions of the earth play out in real time, nor is it how circumstances progressed within this narrative.[13] The most critical element of Joseph’s insight was providing a solution – providing the foresight – for the preparation that was needed to harmonize two polarities, two extremes. Joseph’s interpretation was about bringing balance to the human experience, and providing a course of action to synchronize an awareness of ourselves with our environment. In this way, the state of the earth must become a greater part of the human reality. If the inner dimensions of human life are disconnected from what is occurring around us, then we become susceptible to this “ravaging,” this famine, this devastation that seems to appear without warning.

It may seem odd that Pharaoh is the one receiving messages from G-d, but it is even more incredible that he payed attention to the warning signs he was given. This is, in and of itself, a powerful, environmental idea worth noting as Joseph was essential playing the role of climate scientist. Joseph Karo, in his mystical diary titled Maggid Mesharim, gives an interesting insight into Pharaoh’s visions – which are, according to rabbinic interpretation, considered as one, singular dream.[14] He relates that the seven sick cows in Pharaoh’s dream, corresponded to a damaging of the seven emotional sephirot.[15] In Kabbalistic thinking, there is a chain of emanation between God and the world, and the variegated layers of spiritual realities that manifest throughout creation are represented by ten types of emanation that are subdivided further into seven emotional, and three intellectual faculties.[16] The point here to emphasize, relayed by Joseph Karo, is that a disruption of this chain, a damaging of the emanative network of divine energy, is what caused the famine. Joseph’s suggestion to Pharaoh to seek out a “discerning and wise man (Heb: אִ֖ישׁ נָב֣וֹן וְחָכָ֑ם),” (41:33) is a suggestion to reconnect and revitalize the emotional sephirot by drawing on the two upper sephirot of chochmah (wisdom) and binah (understanding).[17] This is alluded to, by Joseph, when the brothers arrive in Egypt seeking to purchase grain and Joseph says: “You are spies! To see the land’s nakedness have you come!” (42:9) If you remember from the commentary last week, I discussed how the idea of nakedness correlates to a lack of spiritual purpose. Famine, or a nakedness of the land, is directly involved with a disruption within the medium of the sephirot and a shortcoming in the actualization of human purpose.

In the Tikkunei Zohar, a collection of mystical hymns, we find an expression of praise to G-d, proclaiming: “You are He who has brought forth ten ‘garments,’ and we call them ten sefirot, and revealed worlds; and through them you conceal yourself from [hu]man[s].”[18] Rashi and Rambam both interpret Joseph’s assigned name, the name he is given after being appointed viceroy, to mean “he who explains what is hidden.”[19] By correcting the damaged sephirot, by revealing what has been concealed within the revealed worlds, by refreshing the upper sephirot of chochmah and binah, Joseph found within these metaphysics a curative course of action for clothing those who are in danger from the “ravaging” of the famine and a solution for the nakedness of the earth. Perhaps Jacob understood this premise when he sent with the brothers a gift back to Joseph when they [the brothers] were to fetch Benjamin. “Take of the land’s glory in your baggage,” Israel said, “and bring it down to the man as a tribute.” (43:11) The Torah calls this tribute zimrat ha’aretz (Heb: זִּמְרַ֤ת הָאָ֨רֶץ֙), or song of the land, which is also understood to mean “the crops that a land is praised for.”[20] Perhaps Jacob was offering more than just honey, and pistachios, and almonds. Perhaps he was offering clothing and insight into a hidden world that was not readily available in Egypt. The crops of the land that sustain us, are also driven by the actions that reveal the hiddenness of G-d; the clothing of our souls and the flourishing of the land are a negative feedback loop in their own right: a call of song back again to Adam and his prayers for rain that brought forth the vegetation of the earth.

In closing, I’d like to highlight one of the most powerful, ecological messages to be gleaned from Parashat Mikeitz. It involves two of Joseph’s brothers – Judah and Reuben – and the actions they took to own up to their mistakes, and make right their previous offenses. If you remember from Parashat Vayeishev, Reuben is the one who suggests that they throw Joseph into a pit. Even if he meant to save him later, Reuben’s suggestion is what leads to Joseph being sold into slavery, which causes a generational transgression and an inter-generational trauma. Everyone is affected by the loss of Joseph – all the brothers, their father Jacob, the matriarchs: the entire community is affected. This is why the brothers express regret when they meet Joseph as viceroy for the first time, and realize the correlation between their predicament in Egypt and their cruel treatment of Joseph: “Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we gave no heed.” (42:21) But Reuben takes this this even further, seeking repentance for his actions, and taking responsibility for his mistake stating to his brothers: “His blood as well – behold! – is being avenged,” (42:22) as if saying, “Own up to your transgression in its entirety.”[21] Judah is also responsible for causing the family trauma. He is the one who sold Joseph into slavery to the passing caravan of Ishmaelites. But the story of Joseph, and the situations that he engenders, is about activating the energy of tshuva within his brothers, which is analogous to their tikkun, their spiritual healing, their repair.

The beauty of Joseph’s ingenuity is in how he generates tshuva to stimulate the higher sephirot of chochmah and binah. For instance, when he asks his brothers to bring Benjamin to Egypt, he forces a situation where Judah has to take full responsibility for Benjamin. Reuben even suggests to Jacob first, “Put him in my care,” he says, “and I will return him to you.” (42:37) But Judah’s tikkun is bound to the very moment that Joseph disappeared, which prompts Judah to say to his father: “Send the lad with me, and let us arise and go, so we will live and not die, we as well as you as well as our children. I will personally guarantee him; of my own hand you can demand him. If I do not bring him back to you and stand him before you, then I will have sinned to you for all time.” (43:8-9) Tshuva (repentance) is often likened to a return, a return back in time and space, back through a reliving in the mind of a misdoing (which occurs in the realm of the intellect), and the repair of that misdoing through a proactive remorse (which occurs in the emotive realm). Feeling true regret, taking responsibility for one’s actions, and going through the lengths to rectify the situation is how we become better people. This is how we grow, this is how we face our fears, and this is how we correct our deficiencies. Through tshuva, we can reconnect the emotional and intellectual sephirot, which is related to our tikkun. This is also why, found within the “lowest point of creation,” within the dream state of spiritual exile, we find the seeds of moral action, and the “essential reason” for our return. Within deficiency is also abundance; within spiritual lack are also the solutions that take us back to the beginning – realizing this paradox, applying tshuva for our tikkun, is what reveals the hiddenness of G-d’s mystery in creation.

This lesson is paramount to our time now. As I write these words, fires are raging across the Australian continent, a volcano just erupted in New Zealand, and I wonder what the earth is saying. I wonder what all the birds of the air, all the creeping beings of the ground, and all the beasts of the land – what do they have to say? I pray for them. If we never take responsibility for the environmental harms that have been done to this planet, will we ever become a responsible society? Will we ever repent? Will we ever heal?

Topics Include: the metaphysical relationship between famine and the seven sick cows, nakedness of the land and song of the land, tshuva as a stimulant for chochmah and binah


Carasik, Michael. The Commentators' Bible: Genesis: The Rubin JPS Miqra'ot Gedolot. Jewish Publication Society, 2018.

Dubov, Nissan Dovid. “The Sephirot.”

Accessed December 21, 2019.

Goldman, Rabbi Yossy. “Famine in the Land.” Accessed December 19, 2019.

Judelman, Rabbi Shaul David. “Parashat Mikeitz: The Song of the Land – A Torah Teaching for the Western Environmentalist.”

Accessed December 21, 2019.

Kalmenson, Rabbi Mendel. “The Repentance Litmus Test.” Accessed December 19, 2019.

Miller, Chaim. “Torah in Ten: Mikeitz.”

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Schneider, Sarah. Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine & Feminine. Sarah (Susan) Schneider, 2001.

Tauber, Yanki. “The Seven Fat Cows.” Accessed December 19, 2019.

[1] Schneider, Kabbalistic Writings, p.258 – This is a reference to the first and tenth sephirot, the divine emanations of G-d, which are considered the fundamental building blocks of the material and spiritual realities.

[2] Sefer Yetzirah 1:7 as found in Schneider, Kabbalistic Writings, p.258

[3] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.249 – There are also a few other links between Chanukah and Parashat Mikeitz. The parashah has 2025 words and there are eight lights on a chanukiah. Each light, or lamp, corresponds to the numerical value of 250 (נר Heb: lamp). 250 Multiplied by eight (2000), plus 25 for the 25th of Kislev (the beginning of the holiday), also results in 2025.

[4] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.229

[5] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.229

[6] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.233

[7] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.237 – Rashi also makes the point that Joseph wished to separate Simeon from Levi, who were responsible for carrying out the attach at Shechem.

[8] “Then Judah said to his Israel his father, ‘Send the lad [Benjamin] with me, and let us arise and go, so we will live and not die, we as well as you and our children. I will personally guarantee him; of my own hand you can demand him. If I do not bring him back to you and stand him before you, then I will have sinned to you for all time.” (43:8-9)

[9] From Chaim ben Moshe ibn Attar, otherwise known as Or HaChaim, as found in Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.227

[10] As found in Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.227 – Various Rabbis comment on Midrash Tanchuma whereby it is told in the second year of the famine, everyone else’s stockhouses of grain rotted except for Joseph’s. When the people came to Joseph for food, he demanded that they circumcised themselves, which was part of the preparations that Joseph was making for his brothers’ descent into Egypt. Chaim Miller, in his lecture Torah in Ten: Mikeitz, relays that these are souls that would commit the sin of the Golden Calf.

[11] As found in Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.231

[12] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.231

[13] Tauber, Yanki. “The Seven Fat Cows.”

[14] Rabbi Kli Yakay comments: “The passage does not read and he dreamt, more, but he dreamt, a second time, to intimate that it was essentially a single dream which was being repeated.” (Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.223)

[15] As found in Miller, Chaim. “Torah in Ten: Mikeitz.” (1:56)

[16] See Dubov, “The Sephirot.”

[17] As found in Miller, Chaim. “Torah in Ten: Mikeitz.” (2:23)

[18] Dubov, “The Sephirot.”

[19] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.229

[20] As interpreted by Onkelos in the Talmud (Mishnah Bikkurim 3:3) as found in Judelman, “Parashat Mikeitz: The Song of the Land.”

[21] Kalmenson, Rabbi Mendel. “The Repentance Litmus Test.”

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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