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Serving Man or God

Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

The Torah portion begins with Joseph's interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams and his subsequent rise to power in Egypt. On close analysis of the dialogue between Pharaoh and Joseph we can discern fundamental differences in their outlooks.

Pharaoh was an idol worshipper and he, like all Egyptians, worshipped the River Nile, their most vital source of sustenance. In describing his dream, Pharaoh says that he was "standing over the river." (1) According to the simple understanding of this verse, it is conveying Pharaoh's physical location with regard to the Nile. But it also teaches us about his attitude to his god - the verse stresses that he was standing over the Nile in a position of superiority.

This does not seem to be a respectful way to relate to one's god. It symbolizes that Pharaoh's worship of the Nile was not for the benefit of the Nile, it was for his own gain. He needed the Nile so he appeased it with worship, but ultimately the Nile was serving him, not the other way around. The Egyptians' attitude towards their god is even more starkly demonstrated by the behavior of the Pharaoh that lived in the time of Moses. He used to go out to the river in the early morning in order to fulfill his bodily functions in it,(2) hardly a great show of respect for one's god! The Talmud goes even further and tells us that he believed that he actually created the Nile.(3) These sources indicate that the Egyptians' 'service' of their gods stemmed from a desire to get what they needed from them - the Nile was ultimately there to serve them.

Pharaoh's attitude stands in stark contrast to Joseph. He demonstrates tremendous subservience to God in his response to Pharaoh's request to interpret the dreams. His first words to Pharaoh are, "This is beyond me, it is God who will respond to Pharaoh's welfare." (4) Joseph's words are rather incredible. He has been imprisoned in a hellhole for 12 years and is finally given a golden opportunity to attain freedom. If only he can appease Pharaoh he can have a new start in life. He knew that Pharaoh did not believe in the Jewish God, he believed that he himself was a god and that his arrogance was unmatched. What would a person say in such circumstances?

Joseph would have been justified in thinking that now was not the right time to attribute everything to God. Now would be the time to sell himself and his talents as much as possible. Yet Joseph did not hesitate to attribute all of his talents to God. This is a remarkable display of subservience, which stands in stark contrast to the arrogance of Pharaoh with regard to his god.

Joseph's trait of subservience to God was inherited from Jacob. In Parshas Vayetzei when Jacob has his famous dream, the Torah tells us that, "God was standing over him." (5) The emphasis here is that Jacob was under God, not standing over Him. This symbolizes that Jacob's service of God was not defined by him, rather it was defined by God. He nullified his own desires and only wanted to fulfill God's will.

This dichotomy of outlooks is also a strong feature of the clash between the worldviews of the Jewish people and the Greek Empire. The Greeks worshipped many gods but idol-worship was not the central focus of Greek ideology. They most emphasized the concept of the perfection of mankind - they believed in a man-centered universe in which the purpose of the gods was to serve the desires of man. Many Greeks, including Aristotle, propounded the belief that the Earth was the center of the universe, a reflection of the superiority of mankind. They emphasized the beauty of the human body and the domination of human reason over any other form of wisdom.

This philosophy stood at clear loggerheads with Torah - they saw Judaism as the antithesis of their cherished beliefs, because it above all stressed man's subservience to God and his imperfection. This understanding helps us appreciate why they forbade the Jewish people from observing circumcision and learning Torah. Circumcision is a reflection of the belief that man's physicality is not perfect and needs to be harnessed. The Greeks believed that man was created whole and cannot be improved - to cut away part of his body was in their eyes a highly destructive act. Learning Torah involves man trying to train his mind to understand how God looks at the world and to learn to look at the world in the same way. The Greeks in contrast believed that man's reason alone was the ultimate source of wisdom and that he should not subjugate it to anything else.

The battle of Chanukah was the clash between two ideologies - one placed God in the center and the other put man there. May we all merit to follow the examples of Jacob and Joseph in placing God in the center.



1. Mikeitz, 41:1.

2. Va'eira, 7:15, with Rashi.

3. Moed Katan, 18a, with Rashi.

4. Mikeitz, 41:16.

5. Vayetzei, 28:13.

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