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Miketz: The Spirit of God in Joseph

Dec 22, 2022

This week’s Torah portion, Miketz, opens with Pharaoh’s dreams. After Pharaoh’s wizards and wise men fail to interpret the dreams accurately, Joseph is summoned from prison. His interpretations rang true to Pharaoh. Pharaoh was impressed. What impressed Pharaoh is not only that he interpreted the dreams, but what Joseph added to this interpretation. Joseph described the seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine that are foretold in the dreams, but he did not stop there. Joseph proceeded to present a comprehensive economic plan to prevent the seven years of famine from hurting Egypt. At this point Pharaoh expressed his admiration for Joseph.

“And Pharaoh said to his courtiers, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?”.” (Gen. 41:38)

The Hebrew for the term “spirit of God” is ru’ach Elohim. What precise characteristics are implied by this term? It is clear that Pharaoh was impressed with Joseph. And obviously, Pharaoh was not speaking in Biblical Hebrew, but in the ancient Egyptian tongue. In other words, the Bible here is translating what Pharaoh said into Hebrew. What did Pharaoh mean when he referred to Joseph as being filled with ru’ach Elohim?

The term “spirit of God” – ru’ach Elo-him appears in two other contexts in the Torah. The first is in the second verse of the Torah – right at the beginning.

In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth. The earth was unformed and empty, and darkness covered the surface of the abyss, and the spirit of Godru’ach Elo-him – hovered above the surface of the water. (Genesis 1:1-2)

The third mention of this term appeared when Betzalel was introduced in the book of Exodus. Betzalel was chosen by God to be the chief craftsman and architect of the Tabernacle – the portable temple built in the desert.

God spoke to Moses saying, “See, I have called by name [i.e. designated] Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehudah. I have filled him with the spirit of God – ru’ach Elo-him – with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge, and with [skill to perform] all types of crafting.” (Exodus 31:1-3)

In this case, we see the Bible elaborate on the meaning of the term, ruach Elo-him, adding that it embodies wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and practical skill.

Betzalel was endowed by God with the ability to build and craft the Tabernacle and everything in it. The instructions from God to Moshe were relayed to Betzalel. Betzalel was then responsible for the actual fashioning of these objects.

The connection between these two uses of the term ru’ach Elo-him in Exodus and at the beginning of the creation story is quite clear. Immediately after the first two verses of the creation story, the Bible relates the very first event of creation.

God said, “Let there be light.” (Gen. 1:3)

The name for God used here – Elo-him – is the name associated with G-d as creator. Throughout the creation story in Genesis 1 only this name is used. This characteristic of God – ru’ach Elo-him – implies the creative power of God.

Betzalel’s job also involved creation. His job was to actualize God’s will by building specific objects. The Jewish sages of the Talmud saw a connection between the creation story in Genesis and Betzalel’s role in the building of the Tabernacle.

Betzalel knew how to combine the letters [of the Alef – Bet] through which heaven and earth were created. – Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 55a

The sages were teaching us that the same divine creativity exhibited by God in the creation story in Genesis was what inspired Betzalel in the construction of the Tabernacle.

Allow me to explain.

The objects in the Tabernacle were physical objects that represented abstract spiritual ideas. Betzalel knew how to take lofty spiritual ideas and actualize them in the physical world in a practical way.

The creation of heaven and earth was no different. The entire creation story is the practical physical manifestation of extremely lofty spiritual ideas. In order to create, God had to bridge the gap between abstract spirituality and physical reality. Both the creation of heaven and earth and the building of the Tabernacle represent this same idea – spiritual ideas represented in practical physical reality. This is the meaning of the statement of the sages of the Talmud.

And this is the trait that Joseph exhibited when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams. Not only did Joseph have the ability to correctly interpret the messages in abstract dream-state images, he was also able to compose a practical plan of action to be implemented in response to these messages. He exhibited ru’ach Elohim – the ability to bridge the gap between the abstract spiritual and the practical physical. (see Shemot Rabbah 48:4 for further Joseph – Betzalel connection)

This understanding can help explain the following cryptic statement of the Jewish sages:

“And the spirit of God – ruach Elohim – hovered” (Gen 1:1) – this refers to the spirit of the Messiah.” (Bereshit Rabbah 2:4)

If ruach Elohim is expressed in the actualization of spiritual ideas in the physical world, there can be no greater expression of this power than the Messiah. The Messianic age is a time when the abstract spiritual potential of all of creation will be manifest in the most basic and perceptible physical reality. When the Messiah comes, there will be no gap between the spiritual and the physical. Physical reality will be clearly seen as the application of God’s will here on Earth.

“For the earth shall be filled with knowledge of G-d as waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hannukah!

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and he is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast

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