The portion of Mikeitz continues the story of Joseph in Egypt. Joseph successfully interprets Pharaoh’s dream and is made viceroy over all of Egypt. He successfully steers the country through both abundance and famine, so that it becomes the destination for hungry families from nearby countries seeking food for purchase. Among the buyers are Joseph’s own brothers, who fail to recognize him when they face him. He accuses them of spying, taking Simeon hostage in exchange for proof of their defense: their youngest brother, Benjamin. At first reluctant to send him, Jacob eventually relents, but things take a turn for the worse when Joseph plants a silver cup in his pack and accuses him of stealing it.
Pharaoh awakens one night from a terrifying dream, but none of the interpretations of his advisors satisfies him. His butler recalls a Hebrew youth from prison who successfully interpreted his own dream two years earlier, and Joseph is cleaned up and brought before Pharaoh. Pharaoh tells of seven fat cows devoured by seven skinny cows, and seven healthy ears of grain consumed by their sickly counterparts. Joseph determines that God has chosen to warn Pharaoh that He is sending seven years of unprecedented bounty followed by seven years of unprecedented famine. A wise man, he tells the king, would heed the warning and use the years of plenty to prepare for the famine ahead. Impressed by the youth’s wisdom, Pharaoh appoints him viceroy over Egypt, second in command only to himself. He gives Joseph a royal moniker — Tzafnat Paneach — and the hand of Asenath the daughter of Poti-phera in marriage. She bears him two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.
Joseph implements a taxation plan over the people, collecting produce to save for the lean years. When the famine hits, the people cry out to Pharaoh for food, and he sends them to Joseph, who sells it to them. Word spreads, and people from the surrounding region begin to pour into Egypt seeking food.
The Israel Bible discusses the names Joseph gives his children. While Manasseh’s name indicates Joseph has finally been comforted for the suffering he experienced, Ephraim’s name underscores Joseph’s realization that Egypt is still the land of his affliction. According to Don Isaac Abarbanel, despite his status in Egypt, Joseph knows it is not where he truly belongs. He still longs to return to his father’s house in the Land of Israel.
Points to Ponder
Now that Joseph has attained such a vaunted status, why do you think he does not seek out his father?
The Brothers’ First Visit to Egypt
The famine in Egypt hits Canaan, as well. When Jacob hears there is food to be purchased in Egypt, he sends his sons, with the exception of Benjamin, to buy some. Upon their arrival, Joseph recognizes them, but they fail to identify him. He demands to know where they come from, and they respond that they have arrived from the Land of Canaan to buy food. He accuses them of spying, and in their defense they tell him their life story. As proof of their words, he demands that they return home and bring back their youngest brother, whom they had said was at home with their father. Initially he says he will hold nine of them hostage while one returns to fetch Benjamin, but in the end he takes only Simeon, sending the rest home. He secretly returns their money to their sacks as they are leaving.
When the brothers stop at an inn on their way home, they discover the money in their sacks and become frightened. They tell their father the whole story, and he is devastated. Having already lost Joseph and Simeon, he refuses to send Benjamin to Egypt, even after Reuben offers the lives of his own two sons as collateral.
The Israel Bible highlights an oddity in the text discussed by many commentators: when Joseph asks only where the brothers have come from, they add to their answer the purpose of their visit, though it should have been obvious to all. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin explains that the brothers were so uncomfortable leaving the Holy Land, that they felt the need to apologize and justify their absence from their spiritual homeland.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the text emphasizes twice that Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not know him?
The Brothers Return to Egypt
Time passes, and again Jacob’s family needs food. Judah reminds his father that they cannot return to Egypt without Benjamin, and persuades him to send his youngest son by promising to take personal responsibility for his safety. Jacob agrees, instructing the brothers to take the viceroy a gift of the best the Land of Israel has to offer, as well as double the money they need, to repay what was found in their sacks when they last returned home.
Joseph instructs his staff to bring the brothers into the house and prepare a feast for them. When the brothers try to return the money they feel they still owe, the servant assures them Joseph already received his pay and clearly their God wished them to have their money.
When Joseph arrives, he asks the brothers after their father, whom they assure him is well. Joseph is also moved to tears by the sight of his younger brother, and excuses himself to cry in private.
Joseph used the banquet prepared as an opportunity to amaze the brothers with his knowledge of their birth order, and lavishes Benjamin with superior portions. The brothers drink and make merry with Joseph, never suspecting who he might really be.
The Israel Bible cites Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who explains the purpose of the gift Jacob urges his sons to take the viceroy. The particular type of gift, a minkha, that he tells them to bring, is typically more for the benefit of the giver than the receiver. Obviously, this gift is intended to curry favor for the brothers in the eyes of the viceroy, but R’ Hirsch says Jacob specifically instructs his sons to bring the fruits of the land so that they might be reminded the whole time of their homeland and its blessings as they travel to Egypt.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Jacob was willing to accept Judah’s offer to take responsibility for Benjamin, but not Reuben’s in the previous chapter?
Joseph secretly commands his servant to fill the brothers’ sacks with food, return their money, and plant his silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack. When the brothers leave, Joseph’s servant chases after them, accusing them of throwing Joseph’s kindness in his face: after everything he had done for them, how could they steal his silver goblet with which he performs divination? The brothers deny the charge, pointing out their honesty in having returned the money they found in their sacks after their last trip. So certain are they of their innocence, the brothers say if the goblet is found among their things, that man should be put to death. Joseph, however, is willing to “settle” for enslaving the guilty party.
A search is conducted, and the goblet is found among Benjamin’s things. Devastated, the brothers return to the city. Joseph confronts the brothers, asking if they really thought they could get away with such a thing. Judah laments that God must wish to punish them, and offers the services of all the brothers as slaves. Joseph, however, is interested in taking only the guilty party.
The Israel Bible notices a seemingly superfluous detail the brothers provide in their defense: that they brought the money back from the Land of Canaan. Apparently, by bringing the money from the land of spiritual heights, the Land of Israel, the brothers feel they have demonstrated their unimpeachable honesty.
Points to Ponder
If he is planning to draw the brothers back to the city with his false accusations, why does Joseph tell his servant to return the brothers’ money in addition to filling their sacks with (apparently extra) food?