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Torah Portion

Home > Torah Portion > Parshat Miketz

Parshat Miketz
by: Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Have you ever noticed that the most contented people seem better able to deal with deprivation than their less happy peers, that those people with the most secure sense of being lovable are best able to hear criticism as an opportunity for their own transformation and growth?

It seems that the old phrase, "them that has, gits" is true in the realm of personality and spirit no less than in the realm of economics. People with an inner wealth are able to transform external events into new sources of depth and perspective. Setbacks become opportunities, and difficulties become challenges. In part, that ability to transform the negative into the positive has to do with an orientation toward others, an ability to trust other people, and a willingness to define their own advantage in terms of communal prosperity and well-being.

In this week's Torah portion, we can learn that lesson from two flocks of cattle. Pharaoh, the great dread sovereign of Egypt, the most powerful man in the ancient world, dreams of seven cows, "beautiful of appearance," who were swallowed by seven ugly cows. Why are we told that the first group of cows are beautiful while the second are not? And why are the second cows hostile, while the first are not?

Rashi notes that "beautiful of appearance" intimates "the days of plenty, when creatures appear pleasing to each other, for the eye of one creature is not envious of the other." In other words, looking sturdy is a symbol of inner plenty. When we feel a sense of inner richness and love, then we tend to see others in a loving and more positive light. Self-hatred translates into misanthropy.

Additionally, Rashi alerts us to the correlation between contentedness and envy. If we are satisfied with our own portion, then the wealth and prosperity of someone else doesn't threaten us. This insight corresponds to a teaching found in the Mishnah. "Who is rich? One who is content with his portion."

Wealth, then, is an attitude toward one's possessions, not simply a number in a bank account. Feeling envious of others is often a warning sign of our own inner poverty, of the need to enhance our own sense of worth and belonging. How much of the hostility between the different movements within Judaism is motivated by worry over the shallowness or the insularity of one's own Jewishness? Is it possible that claims of "fanaticism" or "lack of standards" are really projections of our own fears of inadequacy, dogmatism or loneliness? Charges that some groups are "tampering with the tradition" or that some groups are "blindly clinging to the past" may reflect more than merely differing approaches to Jewish living and Jewish values.

Perhaps the anger and passion of those attacks reflects a fear of becoming isolated in the Jewish world, without allies or friends to support one's own spirituality.

The proper response is that of the sturdy and beautiful cows. Content with their own wholesomeness, they were not threatened by each other's successes. Consequently, they would act as a united herd -- each cow sharing each other's blessings as their own.

"Kol Yisrael areivin zeh ba-zeh," "All Jews are responsible for each other." We owe each other responsible criticism and careful dialogue about our differences. But at the same time, "Chaverim Kol Yisrael," "All Jews are companions and friends." We owe each other love, respect and support.

Just as our covenant with God was given to the entire people, so our love for each other must extend to the entire people. Perhaps if we show each other enough love, then each group within our people will feel secure enough that the disproportionate anger will drain from our disputes. We will not always agree. But if our disagreements can remain within a context of affection, and if our disputes are with an eye toward learning from each other and toward refining each other, then the vitality and unity of our people will be significantly enhanced. Then, and only then, will we have the surplus love to fulfill God's charge to be a "light to the nations." The beacon is love, and our role models are cows.

Shabbat Shalom.


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