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Miketz 5784

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

An Israeli jeweler named Hadaya had his shop in the Cardo, in the Old City. You never went into Hadaya’s shop if you were in a hurry. Hadaya was famous for an engraved ring he made and sold – and for this story, which was told with the sale of each ring:

One early spring, probably near Purim, King Solomon realized that he had a problem. Banaiah, his most trusted advisor, was also his favorite. The other advisors were jealous of Banaiah’s special relationship with the king. So, the king decided to give Banaiah an impossible task to accomplish, figuring that it would diminish Banaiah in the eyes of the other advisors.

“Benaiah come here,” King Solomon said, “I have something I need you to do. I want you to search as far as you need to go to find me a special ring. It has magical powers – if a happy person looks at it, that person becomes sad, and if a sad person looks at it, the person becomes happy. I wish to wear it for the palace Sukkot celebration, which gives you six months to find the ring.”

Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world. 

Benaiah set out, first exploring the jewelers in Jerusalem. He didn’t find it. Then he expanded his search to the entire area of Judah. When he still could not find the ring, he searched all of Israel. That, too, proved naught, so he explored neighboring countries. And, still, he could not find the ring. Sukkot was approaching so he returned to Jerusalem, distraught and tired. He visited one last jeweler and explained his dilemma. The jeweler told him, “No such ring exists. But I can make you one. Give me a day.”

An ecstatic Benaiah went home to the palace and had a good night’s sleep for the first time in months. He returned to the jeweler the next morning and was handed a ring that looked pretty, but had words written on it that he could not read, for he was illiterate. He did not want to admit that truth to the jeweler, so he thanked the artisan, paid for the ring, and returned home, awaiting the Sukkot celebration that would begin that evening.

Benaiah was nervous. As the service ended and the party began, King Solomon called to his most trusted advisor. “Benaiah, did you find me the ring?” “Yes, I did, your majesty.” A very surprised king summoned Benaiah to come to him immediately. Benaiah handed the king the ring. 
He read the words and his jovial face turned sullen. Benaiah knew he had given the king what he had asked for, yet he was curious to know what the ring said.

Just then, the king called out, “Benaiah, you have gone above and beyond. I sent you on a mission that I did not think you could accomplish. But these words, gam zeh ya’avor, are so true. This, too, shall pass. Whether it’s my wealth, the weather, my mood, or anything else, nothing is permanent.”

I thought about this story and how it relates to our Torah portion this week, Miketz.

Miketz falls in the midst of the “Joseph narratives.” For several years now, Joseph has been in prison in Egypt, wrongly accused of having made advances toward his master’s wife. The conditions are bleak, and remind him of when his brothers threw him into the pit, planning to kill him. But just as Joseph emerged from the pit, he is about to emerge from the prison. His time there will end, will pass, for nothing, it seems is permanent.

Joseph is taken out of the prison because the Pharaoh has had two disturbing dreams, and one of his advisors – who had been in prison with Joseph – remembers Joseph’s talent for dream interpretation.

In Pharaoh’s first dream, he sees seven fat cows and then seven scrawny, ill-formed, and emaciated cows. In his second dream, he sees seven healthy stalks of grain and then seven shriveled, thin, scorched stalks of grain. Joseph suggests that the dreams are the same – Egypt will know seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. 

First, the earth will give forth abundant produce and the animals will be many and good to eat. But this will pass. The earth will close up and the animals will stop reproducing. Severe famine will ravage the country. And then after seven years, this too, shall pass, and Egypt will return to normal.

Gam zeh ya’avor – the notion that nothing is permanent – appears throughout the Joseph narratives. Later in Miketz, Joseph will recognize his brothers as they come from Canaan to get grain during the famine. Joseph’s isolation will end. In next week’s portion, Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, ending the years of wondering, “whatever happened to Joseph,” that had to have plagued them.

And perhaps, the most telling example of a Joseph-related gam zeh ya’avor incident happens in the opening of the book of Exodus, where we read, vayakam melech chadash al mitzrayim asher lo yada et Yosef – “a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The freedom, peace, and prosperity that the Israelites experienced during the days of Joseph and his immediate descendants came to pass, leading to enslavement, servitude, and oppression.

This Shabbat marks ten weeks since the brutal and horrific attack on Israelis committed by Hamas. We hope and pray for gam zeh ya’avor, that it will end. And yet we know that it is not likely to end anytime soon. Israel’s Defense Minister said such a thing just yesterday. And Israel has been clear that it will not stop until all of the hostages are free, and Hamas is destroyed. It won’t agree to another cease fire because it realized what Hamas did during the last one – spread its tentacles wider, throughout Gaza, into places it had not been prior. So as civilians moved south, so did Hamas, forcing Israel to retaliate in the south, the very place they urged civilians to go because it had been safe. But that safety passed as Hamas moved into safe zones, showing its absolute disregard for human life – Israeli and Palestinian.

Is our only choice to live in a state of despair? No.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom who died in 2020, once wrote:

“Western civilization is the product of two cultures: ancient Greece and ancient Israel. The Greeks believed in fate: the future is determined by the past. Jews believed in freedom: [any] “evil decree” [can] be averted. The Greeks gave the world the concept of tragedy. Jews gave it the idea of hope. The whole of Judaism … is a set of laws and narratives designed to create in people, families, communities, and a nation, habits that defeat despair. Judaism is the voice of hope in the conversation of [hu]mankind.
“It is no accident that so many Jews are economists fighting poverty, or doctors fighting disease, or lawyers fighting injustice, in all cases refusing to see these things as inevitable. It is no accident that after the Holocaust, Jews did not call it Al Naqba [the catastrophe], nursing resentment and revenge, but instead turned to the future, building a nation whose national anthem is Hatikvah, “the hope.” …
“Judaism is a religion of details, but we miss the point if we do not … step back and see the larger picture. To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world … threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, … every element of Jewish [life], is a protest against escapism, resignation, or the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet. … Throughout history, when human beings have sought hope, they have found it in the Jewish story. Judaism is the religion, and Israel the home, of hope.”
Ken y’hi ratzon. May we take inspiration from Rabbi Sacks to move from hope to action, and do our part to turn the world into what it could be.

Shabbat shalom.

Thu, February 29 2024 20 Adar I 5784