Saturday 4TH December 2021 30th Kislev 5782
PARASHAT MIKETZ Rabbi Russ Resnik
Genesis 41:1–44:17: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7; John 10:22-28
Who can you trust these days?
As a rabbi and counselor I talk with people every day who’ve been let down, disappointed, or even betrayed by others. On the public level, trust is rapidly eroding everywhere, with experts, political leaders (sorry, I’m thinking of both parties), business icons, and celebrities of all sorts proving themselves untrustworthy. Sadly, we have to recognize that religious leaders, and people of faith in general, are often numbered among the least trusted. But rather than bemoaning this fact, it might be more fruitful to ask how ordinary people of faith—ourselves included—can legitimately earn the trust of others. How do we become credible in an age of distrust?
Just the other day, I was talking with a younger man with whom I’m very close. He has a good moral compass that he follows even if it costs him. He recognizes the spiritual dimension of life. But, like so many of his generation, he has little use for “organized religion” and for most religious people. He says, “I get turned off when they start speaking their insider language that doesn’t mean anything to people on the outside.” And of course he mentioned hypocrisy, the biggest trust-buster, noting how people of faith love fancy talk, but don’t live it out. They’re just not credible.
The opening scene of this week’s parasha sheds light on these issues, and it raises a couple of related questions that stick with me every time I read it.
Pharaoh, king of Egypt, had a pair of dreams, and “in the morning his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh” (Gen 41:8). Now, it’s possible that Pharaoh’s dreams totally stumped his magicians and wise men and they just stood around dumbfounded.
But it seems more likely that they would have tried to interpret his dreams, because this was part of their job description. Earlier in our tale, Pharaoh had thrown two of his servants into the prison where a young Hebrew named Joseph was also held captive. These servants both had disturbing dreams, and were dismayed because there was “no one to interpret them” in their dungeon (Gen 40:8), which implies that dream interpreters were normally available. Indeed, as commentator Gordon J. Wenham notes, “while a dreamer might have a hunch whether a dream was auspicious or not, he had to rely on experts for a detailed explanation.” So Pharaoh’s staff of wise men probably included dream experts, but somehow Pharaoh didn’t find them credible. And that’s my first question: how does Pharaoh know that the interpretations of his own experts fall short?
This leads to my second question. One of the imprisoned servants was Pharaoh’s cupbearer, and now he’s back in service. He suddenly remembers how his fellow prisoner, Joseph, had accurately interpreted his dream a couple of years earlier, so he recommends him to Pharaoh. Joseph is whisked out of his dungeon, cleaned up, shaved, and presented to the King, who tells him, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Gen 41:15–16).
This Joseph fellow is a man of faith; as far as we know, the only person in Egypt who worships the one true God. He doesn’t claim to be a dream expert, but instead boldly invokes God’s expertise. He tells Pharaoh that his two-fold dream is foretelling seven years of plenty for Egypt followed by seven years of famine. Then he goes beyond dream interpretation to outline a strategy for surviving the famine, to be executed by a “discerning and wise man” appointed by Pharaoh. At this, the king turns to his advisors in amazement:
“Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” (Gen 41:38–40)
So here’s my second question: Why does Pharaoh turn everything over to Joseph, before he even has time to see whether his interpretation bears out? Why doesn’t Pharaoh wait for the seven years of plenty to start to materialize, at least until year three or four, before he entrusts everything to this unknown, whom his own cupbearer had described in zero-status terms as young, Hebrew, and a servant (Gen 41:12)?
I believe that Pharaoh couldn’t trust his own advisors and whatever interpretations they came up with because they just fell flat. But when Joseph speaks, Pharaoh can sense power and reality. Somehow this pagan king feels awe, a sense of transcendence, around this man “in whom is the Spirit of God.” This is the first time in Scripture that a human being is described in these terms, and it’s exactly what’s lacking among Pharaoh’s magicians and wise men.
My two questions yield this insight: We gain credibility when others can sense something genuine and real in our lives. And we gain credibility when we don’t call attention to our lives, but to a power beyond.
When Joseph says “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer,” it’s not just religious talk—it’s credible. Joseph’s words reflect the trust in God that has sustained him through betrayal by his brothers, through the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife, and through long years in the dungeon.
Joseph’s God-talk is credible—as even Pharaoh can sense—because he trusts in God. That’s a lesson for us today: if we act out of our fears and insecurities, we’ll never gain the trust of others. We become trustworthy, credible, as we deepen our trust in God.
Joseph is credible because he trusts God enough to make room for God’s Spirit to work in his life. We read Parashat Mikketz during or close to Hanukkah every year, and the haftarah reading for Hanukkah also speaks of the Spirit: “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zech 4:6). This Hanukkah slogan also works as the slogan for those who rely not on the powers and resources of this age but on a Messiah resurrected from death itself by the Spirit of God.
This Spirit is ever-present and always at work, and it’s when we’re not relying on what we can accomplish by might or by power, that the Spirit is most evidently at work in and through us. We cultivate this reality in our lives by remaining alert to the guiding presence of the Spirit each day, and by reminding ourselves of how much we need that presence. Active reliance on the Spirit produces credibility—especially if we don’t try to draw attention to it. Joseph’s simplicity is our model: “It is not in me; God will give the answer.”
A final point on credibility for now: Joseph doesn’t just come up with some good ideas; he follows through. He not only interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, but he engages with Pharaoh and his concerns. He develops a response plan—and pours himself into it when Pharaoh puts him in charge. Likewise, we become trustworthy and credible when we make and follow through on commitments, especially those that cost us. Here is a secret to healing damaged relationships, and also a key, in a world filled with disappointments and distrust, to being a person of credibility.
Scripture references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).