Miketz: Preparing for Life’s Journey
Rabbi Dayle Friedman
In Parashat Miketz, we encounter Joseph as a person growing in wisdom. For the third time in his life, he is moved to interpret a pair of dreams. As a youth, Joseph reports two dreams in which he is a center of adulation and power. In one, eleven sheafs of grain bowed low to a 12th. In the second, the sun, the moon and eleven stars bowed down to a 12th star. Jacob and his 11 sons understand the dreams to mean Joseph expects them to subjugate themselves to him. They are, not surprisingly, infuriated by the arrogance these interpretations demonstrate.
The second pair of dreams belong to Pharoah’s cup bearer and the baker, fellow prisoners with Joseph in Egypt after he is framed by Potiphar’s wife. Joseph correctly interprets the cupbearer’s dream to mean he would soon be pardoned, and the baker’s dream to mean he would be put to death.
Eventually, the cupbearer’s promise that Joseph will be rewarded if his interpretation comes true is fulfilled; he is summoned to explicate two dreams that are plaguing Pharoah. In the first, a group of seven emaciated cows eat seven fat and healthy cows but remain thin and frail. In the second, a stalk of seven shriveled, scorched ears of grain consumes a stalk of seven full and healthy ears. Pharoah seeks Joseph’s interpretation after the royal wizards and magicians are stumped.
Unlike in his youth, Joseph approaches the interpretation of dreams with humility. He states that he alone cannot help Pharoah and his country. He calls upon the Divine, saying, “not me, but God will provide for Pharoah’s welfare.” (41:16) He tells Pharoah that Egypt is about to face seven years of great plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Joseph advises Pharoah to get help, to choose a good and wise person (perhaps not a totally selfless suggestion). Joseph instructs Pharoah to gather and store all the grain that will grow in the “fat years,” so that it will be available for distribution in the “lean years.”
When appointed by Pharoah to operationalize this plan, Joseph does just that. He gathers prodigious amounts of produce in the bountiful years, and then rations the stored grain when famine hits not just Egypt, but the whole world. And, of course, the resources Joseph has stewarded so well will turn out to prompt his reunion with his father and brothers when they come to Egypt seeking relief from the famine in Canaan.
What is the wisdom of Joseph revealed in this narrative? In the many years since his boastful dream interpretation alienated him from his entire family, Joseph has experienced enslavement and exile, servitude and imprisonment, and also elevation and success. He has learned this from his own very bumpy path: nothing lasts forever. When things are easy, when resources are bountiful, when the path is smooth, they won’t stay that way. Hard times will be ahead because that is the nature of life in his world, the ancient near eastern cycles of drought and rain, scarcity, and abundance.
Bounty is followed by scarcity, satiety by hunger, ease by hardship. And so it is in our lives.
All of life has its ups and downs; uncertainty is the norm. If we are lucky, though, we will find some measure of stability, sustenance, and satisfaction in our post-midlife existence. Perhaps we have settled into some security in our work lives or have begun to create a “third chapter.” If we are parents, we may have the relief of seeing adult children finding their own paths. Whatever health challenges we have, we may be able to function well in our lives. And if we are lucky, we will have more new chapters ahead of us, time for adventure, service, avocations, and relationships with younger family or community members.
Or not…our lives do not follow a single script. Perhaps we have known loss early.
Perhaps our work lives have not gone according to plan. Maybe providing for ourselves and our dear ones is a struggle. Or maybe we already have confronted disability. However our path has unfolded so far, as we look ahead to later life, we know that formidable challenges lie ahead, hopefully along with pleasures. We will almost certainly encounter “lean years.”
We will not stay well forever. If we live long enough, we will likely face chronic illness, disability, and dependency. We will lose dear ones, especially friends, siblings, and spouses who have accompanied us over our lives, but maybe also tragic and unexpected losses of children or grandchildren. We will need to figure out who we are once we shed roles and identities from earlier in life. And, sooner or later, we’ll be facing the reality of our own deaths.
Joseph demonstrates the value of preparing tzedah la-derech–provisions for the journey. From Joseph we learn that we must develop, nurture, and sow now to be able to be sustained as we face the hard parts of growing older. Developing a spiritual practice or deepening our prayer life can fill our storehouses with riches we can draw on when times are rough. Bravely anticipating–and planning for–future challenges may empower us and give us courage. Finding a new calling–work, service or art–to which we can say hineini (here I am) may nurture our spirits. And finally, bestowing our resources, whether time, insight, mentoring, or funds, to those who are coming up behind us will comfort us; we will know that we have planted for the future.
Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, MSW, MAJCS, BCC, is a spiritual guide, social innovator, chaplain, and scholar who is passionate about bringing meaning and radiance to the second half of life. Her recent publications include Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older: Finding Your Grit and Grace Beyond Midlife, and Jewish End-of-Life Care in a Virtual Age: Our Traditions Reimagined (co-editor). Learn more about her work at www.growingolder.net.