Dvar Torah - Mikketz 5765
First, let me say how grateful I and the Edinburgh Community are to Rabbi Nancy and GNS for this opportunity, and also how astonished and intimidated I am to find myself taking it up. I'm actually quite used to speaking to an audience - I've just spent a week in the role of a technical instructor, and today has the advantage that at least the audience won't be filling in written evaluations, with numeric grades, on the way out - at least I hope not! But technical instruction is a lot easier in one way - personal opinions don't enter the question to quite the same extent as they are bound to today. Anyway, I'm hoping that Rabbi Nancy won't end by regretting making her kind offer - or at least not as much as I've been regretting accepting it.
When Rabbi Nancy first suggested that I give the Dvar Torah today I discussed it with our Council in Edinburgh. Once they realised that the parshah was Mikketz, everyone said "You'll have no trouble, there's plenty to go on there". So for preparation I read it - and the whole story of Joseph - more thoroughly than I have done for a long time. And what a story it is! It's all there - family intrigue, vivid characterisation, dramatic reversals of fortune, cliff-hanging suspense, family history, social history, psychological drama. The problem turns out to be choosing what to focus on.
Mikketz gets your attention from the start with the story of Pharaoh's dream and Joseph's interpretation of it. Pharaoh dreams of seven well-fed cattle being eaten by seven thin and mangy ones. Awakened by this dream, he instantly responds - by going back to sleep. Commentators have criticised Pharaoh for taking the responsibilities of his kingdom insufficiently seriously, but these are people who can never have pressed the snooze button on their alarm clock. Anyway, the alarm clock goes off again with pretty much the same tone - this time Pharaoh dreams of seven fine ears of corn being eaten by seven thin and wind-damaged ones. In the morning he consults his seers. The text seems to suggests that they can't interpret it, but that seems hard to believe - what's the point of being a seer if you can't interpret even one little dream? I prefer Rashi's version, which is that the seers tell Pharaoh that he will have seven daughters and bury seven daughters, but Pharaoh won't accept that interpretation because it's too personal - he wants one fitting to his role as king. And that's what Joseph supplies, with the prediction of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. And more - he supplies a plan of action, that Pharaoh should appoint overseers to enforce a tax rise of 20%, so that he can save enough grain to see the country through the famine years - a plan that eventually leads to the dispossession of the entire Egyptian peasantry by Pharaoh. And more still - if Pharaoh needs someone to put all this into action, he stands waiting.
Since obviously one purpose of this Dvar Torah should be to draw out some lessons of the Edinburgh experience so far, I thought of connecting the story of the seven good years and the seven famine years with the evolution of the Edinburgh community, which has seen quite a few seven-year lean periods since Reform Jews first started meeting in Edinburgh, but is now, we hope, entering a different cycle. Before I got committed to that connection, though, I was lured towards a different part of the parshah. In the very next chapter, Jacob sends his sons, Joseph's brothers - all except Benjamin - to Egypt to buy corn from Pharaoh - some of the same corn which Pharaoh took as a tax from the peasants and is now selling back to them. As governor, Joseph treats his brothers strangely to say the least, accusing them of spying, throwing them into jail, and then sending them back with their corn but without Shimon, whom he keeps as a hostage. He makes them think they are being framed for theft and when they make a return visit he really does frame Benjamin. What is going through his mind? I've seen explanations ranging from the conventional to the deranged: either he's testing them - their remorse for selling him into slavery and their commitment to their father - or by his weird behaviour he is provoking them to consider their own record.in the past. The second interpretation certainly fits with the standard of dysfunctional behaviour that Jacob's family has shown up to now. Family analogies are very powerful, especially analogies of dysfunctional families. In the months before the Edinburgh community became independent of GNS one analogy that was often used was of the teenage child whose time had come to leave home but was unwilling to make the break. That was an interesting idea: maybe those of us who were doubtful about it then should consider it seriously now, if only so that we can take from it a positive lesson that even the most fractious family, like that of Jacob, can reach reconciliation and harmony in the end.
Eventually, though, I came back to the years of plenty and of famine. By an odd coincidence, it really is almost exactly seven years since the Edinburgh community first met in its latest incarnation. We were amazed, in October 1997, to get more than 40 people for our first Erev Shabbat service. (We'd still be satisfied by that turnout, but not amazed any more). The seven years since then have been years of plenty for us in a very particular way. I don't mean we've been rich in material terms, I'm thinking about what's now being called social capital - the idea that social networks have value, both to the people that they connect and also to society as a whole. One way in which they have value is that they show a model in which people achieve by co-operating rather than by competing, and think in terms of what they can do together rather than as individuals. In that sense the Edinburgh community really is rich. Everything we have achieved over the last year - buying and adopting a scroll, setting up a working cheder, achieving burial rights, exploring our religious identity and affiliating with Liberal Judaism, and in general establishing ourselves as a fully-fledged community - all this could happen in one year because of the six years before in which we got to know one another and built up the trust and solidarity which has been so important to us in our year of activity.
This is a somewhat frightening analogy, of course: in Genesis the seven years of plenty were followed by seven years of famine. So what's next? Well, one thing that puzzled the rabbis was that in Pharaoh's dream the seven lean cattle stood alongside the seven fat cattle at the same time. Perhaps we can take a lesson from that. Maybe we are experiencing famine already , at the same time as our years of plenty? Indeed, there is much that the world is hungry for, and that we should be hungry for too. This week a UNICEF report told us that nearly half of the children around the world - a thousand million children - live in poverty. That is a famine in every sense - a famine of food and more than that a famine of justice, which allows inequality to inflict such suffering. The world is hungry for peace too - again only this week we learned that in the Congo four million people have died in the conflict of the last six years - a tragedy comparable in scale to that of our own people. And how we hunger for peace in Israel/Palestine, where innocent civilians die every day in brutal military and paramilitary violence, and an entire people live in poverty. And perhaps most frightening to us personally should be the vision of literal famine that threatens us through the irreligious destruction of the wonderfully fruitful environment that God gave us to benefit from and look after.
That makes it sound as though I believe the lean cattle will indeed eat the fat cattle. But this isn't ancient Egypt, and this time we don't have a dream sent by God to tell us what is bound to happen. Instead God has given us free will, to decide the outcome for ourselves. In our communities - GNS and Sukkat Shalom Edinburgh - we have social and spiritual plenty - and material plenty too. Just as Joseph used the riches of the seven good years to overcome the famine of his day, may we find the inspiration and the will to join with others to overcome the famine of our days.
Maurice Naftalin, 28th Kislev 5765/11th December 2004
P.S. Since I gave this Dvar Torah I have become aware of the Make Poverty History campaign, which has ambitious goals for the year 2005 around the themes of "Trade Justice", "More and Better Aid", and "Drop the Debt". RSGB and Liberal Judaism are both very much involved in this campaign, which will focus on Scotland in July when the G8 meets. That would represent a great opportunity for GNS and Sukkat Shalom to work together in the direction I called for.