PARSHAT MIKETZ & HANUKKAH
SELF AND OTHERS
“They replied, We your servants were twelve brothers, sons of a certain man in the land of Canaan; the youngest, however, is now with our father, and one is no more.” (Genesis 42:13)
During his years in Egypt, why did Joseph make no attempt to contact his father? One can understand when he was first sold into slavery or ended up in prison. But in this portion he becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt. In those days there was no email and no telephones, but certainly there was snail mail (or more accurately, camel mail.) He knew from his brothers that his father was still alive. Could he not have sent a message that he was alive?
Perhaps he partly blamed his father for what happened to him. But it is unlikely that the man who said he was the favorite, who bought him a coat of many colors, would be involved in selling him into slavery. He could not know that his father thought he was torn apart by wild beast. Imagine the comfort to his father to learn that his beloved Joseph was still alive. Of course, the story of Joseph’s brothers in Egypt could not have taken place if the brothers knew Joseph was alive. Nonetheless, it has always been troubling to me. Why did Joseph not contact his father?
Although me to share a painful memory. When I was away from home in college, I learned that my mom had surgery. A few days later my dad called. “You know your mom had surgery. Why did you not call?” There were no cell phones at that time, but I did have a landline. I could have called and should have called. The only excuse is that when I was a young college student, I was too self-absorbed. I hope my parents, long gone by now, forgave me for this transgression. When we are young, too often we are more concerned with our selves than with others.
There is a profound teaching that grows out of our tradition. Each of us is born with two inclinations, the yetzer hatov or good inclination and the yetzer hara or bad inclination. But the bad inclination is present full force when we are young. The good inclination is only there in potential. Our job as we grow up is to control that bad inclination and to develop that good inclination. And for many young people, even if they are old enough to leave home, the bad inclination remains more powerful than the good inclination.
Psychologists say that part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is the last to develop. This is responsible for prioritizing behavior and controlling impulses. It often is not fully developed until the mid-twenties. It is small wonder that teens often participate in risky, self-destructive, or selfish behavior. According to the Torah, Joseph was only seventeen when his brothers sold him down to Egypt. One can understand why his behavior often appears immature.
When we are young, we serve the needs of ourselves. Only as we grow up and mature do we learn to put our own needs aside and serve the needs of others. Perhaps this was best expressed by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” Growing up is the realization that we must move beyond ourselves to serve others.
We are in the middle of Hanukkah. I heard a rabbi ask a question (forgive me, but I do not remember which rabbi.) He asked which Hanukkah candle is the most important. Is it the candle of the first night, which begins the festival? Is it the candle of the eighth night, which completes the festival? The rabbi answered that neither of those is the most important. The most important candle is the shamash, the one we use to light all the others. It is a candle we use for service. Without it, we could night light the Hanukkah lights at all.
As humans, we are born focused on serving ourselves, our needs and our desires. Even in young adulthood, we remained focused on ourselves. Maturity is when we stop seeing only ourselves and begin seeing others. Only in next week’s portion will Joseph leave the comfort of the palace to greet his father in person. He had finally grown up.