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Miketz 5784      December 16, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

If we read the entire parsha last week we would see Joseph at the lowest moment in his life. The boy who received the many-colored coat of leadership from his father, was later thrown into the pit, sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused of sexual assault by the lady of the house, thrown into prison, and forgotten by the one man who could have saved him. Alone and forgotten, he sits in his cold cell wondering what will become of him. He has been betrayed by family, and everyone he has reached out to. I am sure that when he was sitting in his jail cell, he was wondering if anyone, anywhere, cared about him at all.

But God cared. God cared all along. God had been grooming this young man to be a leader of nations. Until now we have not been able to see what will become of Joseph. Now God is ready to act.

It starts with a dream, two dreams actually, to Pharoah, the ruler of Egypt. Dreams of cows and corn. The court magicians try to curry favor with Pharoah, by telling him that the dreams indicate that he will triumph over all his enemies. Pharoah is not impressed by their interpretations; he senses a deeper meaning behind his dreams. He throws out his magicians and screams “Is there anyone who can tell me the real meaning of these dreams?” Finally, the wine butler remembers Joseph, who once accurately interpreted his own dream. He finally speaks up, “Ummmm Sir? There is this Hebrew boy in prison who seems to have a knack for dream interpretation. He was accurate when he heard my dream; perhaps he can help you.” The butler has to be careful here not to remind Pharoah why Pharoah once sent the butler to prison where he had his dream and then met Joseph.

Pharoah calls for Joseph.

Using just four words, indicating the speed of activity, Joseph is brought up from prison, cleaned up, given new clothing, and suddenly finds himself standing before Pharoah. “Can you interpret my dream?” he is asked. “God willing” is Joseph’s careful reply. Pharoah begins to recount the dreams to Joseph who realizes quickly what the cows and corn symbolize. Seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. Even before Joseph speaks to Pharoah, he understands the implications of what is about to happen. What will he say to this monarch who waits for his words? Joseph will have to tell the truth about the dreams, or he will end up back in prison. I suppose he could bargain with Pharoah saying, “I know what the dream means but you will have to give me a pardon from prison before I will tell you.” Of course, that could not work with an autocratic king. Pharoah can promise Joseph anything and then, if he is unhappy with the explanation, he could just throw Joseph back into the prison, or worse, have him executed. Telling the truth seems to be the best path forward here, so Joseph pulls no punches.

“Seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Repeated twice so Pharoah would know that the fate of Egypt is certain.” That is the truth; that is the meaning of the dreams. What Joseph says next will make all the difference.

Imagine if Joseph, dejected and full of despair, then blurted out. “The dreams mean we are all gonna die!!! Nothing you can do will stop God from killing everyone! We’re all gonna STARVE!!”  If you think about it, what reason would Joseph have for saying anything different? He has no reason to love Egypt; the Egyptians have all been cruel to him. His family has been cruel to him. He really has no reason to live at all.

But Joseph does have one thing left in his personality that will make the difference. Instead of despair, he says to Pharoah, “Your best course of action is to store up food during the good years so you will have what is needed to eat in the bad years. Appoint an overseer to collect a food tax from the people while the years are good and that will serve as our reserve during the bad years to come.” What does Pharoah do? He appoints Joseph as that overseer. Joseph becomes the trusted advisor to Pharoah. The young man who was in prison that morning, becomes second only to Pharoah by evening.

What trait did Joseph have? What was left after everything else had been taken from him? Joseph had hope. He never gave up his belief that tomorrow would be better. He never gave up on life and he never lost hope in God. As we read in the Psalms, “The stone that the builders had rejected, has become the cornerstone of the building.” Pharoah finally saw in Joseph what all the other Egyptians had missed. Joseph was a leader, Joseph had wisdom, Joseph never gave up.

We celebrated Hanukah this week, Hanukah is the holiday of those who never gave up. When everyone was turning to Greek culture, there were those traditionalists who did not give up on the Jewish outlook on the world. There were just a few Hasmoneans facing a large and well-organized Greek army, but they did not give up. When they captured the Temple, they could have waited to light the menorah, but they lit it anyway, with the hope that they could somehow keep it lit. On the darkest nights of the year, we light candles to push back the darkness. The few did defeat the many; the people of the Torah defeated those who chased after Greek culture; hope defeated despair; and our candles, small as they are, still push back on the darkness that surrounds us.

To always have hope was a lesson I learned from my father. He was a realtor who owned his own office. He slowly worked his way up the local board of realtors and reached the state level. He climbed the ladder of State Board of Relators until he was one step away from being president of the State Board. And then -- they nominated someone else to be president. They were not yet ready to have a Jew be president of the board. My father was hurt but he was not defeated. He quit the State Board of Realtors and, since he also sold insurance, began to climb the ladder of state officials in the organization of insurance agents. He served as president of that group just a few years later. I learned from him that there is always a way up, and to never give up hope.

When my own children were little, I taught them that no matter how hard things might get, there is always a way out, there is always a solution to every puzzle. Sometimes you have to stop and examine the situation. Sometimes the solution is not easy, not easy to find and not easy to execute, but there is always an answer to every puzzle. Keep looking until you find it. Never despair and never give up. Never lose hope. Now I see my children teaching this to my small grandchildren. When they get frustrated, my grandchildren are taught to try and figure out a solution, and to get a grown up to help.

We all live in a world where things seem to be falling apart every day. A dysfunctional Congress bogged down in petty culture wars. The people of our country are flirting with a more autocratic form of government. Mainstream media can only see the flaws in our country; they only report on the problems; “If it bleeds, it leads” and the media covers only those solutions to problems that themselves are problems. Israel is criticized for whatever it does; nothing the Jewish State can do is right. Even the acts of terrorism must be Israel’s fault. Ukraine is fighting for all the countries that are in fear of being overrun by larger and more powerful neighbors, and they can’t get the ammunition they need to fight their war, a war that will keep Americans out of war.  We have leadership in this country who think that if we turn inwards, we can bury our heads in the sand and be glad that war is not happening here (yet). There seems to be no end to the dark stories that we hear about every day.

Like Joseph and like the Hasmoneans, we should not give in to despair and anguish. There is always a way to solve the most difficult problems we have to face. There is always a way to make things better, even if, at times, it seems that what we are doing only makes things worse. Sometimes to lift a person up, you have to first get down to their level. But it never means that we have to be stuck there. Judaism never asks us to go out and change the entire world. What it asks us to do is to find a way to make important changes to our small corner of that world. We do not give up. Our efforts may seem small in the face of great problems, but we believe that if we work together, we can do great things.

One candle can push back much darkness. One letter can change the way our leaders look at our problems. One vote can make the difference in the direction of our country. One voice can be the difference that will bring support to those who are fighting the forces of evil. If we really believe in a better world, we can run for leadership positions from which we can build that better world. We often wonder what difference we can make. We can make a big difference. But we need to have hope. We need to be determined. We must never give up.

It is true that some problems will take years, decades, or even centuries to resolve. Sometimes we can’t fully resolve global problems. But we can do our part. The Talmud teaches in the name of Rabbi Tarfon, “We are not obligated to finish the task, but neither are we free to neglect it.” We have a responsibility to do our part so that others may come and finish what we have started.

There are many issues in our world today that I can honestly say I have no idea how things will turn out. Tomorrow could bring more tragedy, or it could bring lasting peace. Only God knows what the future holds for humanity. We must not lose hope that tomorrow will be better, that the future can be bright, and that we can make all the difference in the redemption of the world. The forces of darkness may seem strong, but as the prophet says, “Not by might and not by power, but by spirit alone shall all people live together in peace.”

All we ever have to work with is today, right now, this moment. It does not matter what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow. As the saying goes, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift; that is why we call it the present” We need to keep our focus on what we can do today to bring about the change that is needed. We must not give up on the world, on our country, or on ourselves. We must never give up hope.

Joseph started his day in prison. He ended up a trusted advisor to the king. We can’t let our fear of failure keep us from trying to make this world better. Today we see a world covered with darkness, but just by lighting our own small candle, we can begin to change the world.

May God give us the strength to keep going in hard times, and to always act with wisdom. May the light of the deeds we do today, bring more light into our future as we say ….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, February 26 2024 17 Adar I 5784