In the beginning, the world was a wild and chaotic place. While the arc of the Genesis narrative bends relentlessly toward the taming of the chaos, progress is slow. As the human species settles in for the long haul, its members commit all sorts of mischief. From Cain’s fratricide to the Babel builders’ inability to deal with diversity to Simon’s and Levi’s attempt to take the law into their own hands, we observe considerable instability.
When we get to Parashat Miketz, we see a pivot to a more sedate reality. Pharaoh has a dream whose key symbols epitomize domesticated farming and ranching: cows and sheaves of grain. Joseph organizes a welfare-state bureaucracy that meets the people’s needs. At the end of Miketz, as Joseph and his estranged brothers edge closer to recognizing difficult truths about each other, the Egyptians and Jacob’s sons exhibit the careful etiquette that marks a society as orderly. It’s as if all the Torah’s characters finally personify a well-ordered ideal as they follow God’s decree (Genesis 1:28) that humans should master the Earth.
But Egypt’s leaders later go too far. They use their highly structured society to abuse its weakest members, reinforcing class divisions by enslaving the Israelites. The Torah, though, doesn’t let them get away with their cruelty. Succeeding chapters use the Egyptians’ move away from the Miketz-ian ideal to remind us of the need to protect the well-being and the dignity of the enslaved and the poor. The Israelites are freed, and then instructed to take care of anyone whom they might want to enslave.
Yet another Torah passage (Deuteronomy 15:1) begins with the word “miketz” (which, depending on context, means “after” or “at the end,” but either way ties a textual discussion to a particular point in time). It requires that a Shmita, a remission of debts that accompanies a land-use sabbatical, be observed every seven years. The passage suggests that both land and people might become impoverished if they don’t have an opportunity to run just a little bit wild. The Torah’s intertextual echo of the word “miketz” underscores an important reality about civilization. It’s possible to over-civilize ourselves, to move too far from our original wild state; therefore, we should find the right balance, over time, between our charge to master the world and our need to use care when we exercise that mastery.
Judry Subar, who lives in Potomac, Maryland, spent most of his professional career as a lawyer with the federal government in Washington, DC. Since his retirement, Jud has been involved in various writing and educational projects.
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