Posted on December 3, 2021
From the Rabbi’s Desk
It is funny how we can read the same passage of Torah year after year and suddenly come across something we did not notice before. (The best way to make that happen is to layn, to read Torah. The process of preparing a Torah reading requires the kind of careful reading that can result in a new insight.) For me, it happened this week in Genesis chapter 43 verse 34. Joseph’s brothers returned to Egypt with their youngest brother in tow — at the apparently capricious demand of the Egyptian viceroy who had taken a severe dislike to them for some reason. (We know the viceroy is Joseph but the brothers do not.) When they got there, they were wined and dined at the aforementioned viceroy’s table; they were entirely mystified as to what was going on. Then verse 34 concludes: וַיִּשְׁתּ֥וּ וַֽיִּשְׁכְּר֖וּ עִמּֽוֹ. Our translation has it that “they drank their fill with him,” but the Hebrew literally means “they drank and got drunk with him”. What!? The brothers and the viceroy/Joseph got drunk together? What is with that? And how is it that I never noticed that detail before?
Our commentators are likewise perplexed about this. One midrash has it that the brothers had abstained from wine since they sold Joseph down the river as penance. Because they were not used to drinking, they got drunk quickly on wine at the viceroy’s dinner. The question this midrash is answering is how it is that adult men got drunk on dinner wine.
The next morning they got up — presumably, a bit hungover and maybe after sleeping in some– and headed back towards Canaan. The last time they left Egypt after buying food they found their money in their luggage. Would it not stand to reason that this time they would check their backpacks before leaving the viceroy’s palace? The Ba’al haTurim (Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, c. 1269 – c. 1343) suggests that the wine at dinner was a deliberate ploy by Joseph to make sure they were addled just enough that they would not check their bags before leaving town. And it worked.
Rabbi Yirachmiel Yisrael Danziger (Poland, 1853-1910) gives a different answer. He says that it made sense that Joseph got drunk — his childhood dreams of his brothers bowing to him had just come true and he was happy. But what were the brothers so happy about that they would get drunk? When they were younger, they could not stand the way their father favored their younger brother. But now, at that same dinner, when Joseph showered Benjamin with five times the amount that they got, they did not care. The brothers were so happy that they had conquered their jealousy and grown-up that they allowed themselves to get drunk.
We might, like Rabbi Danziger, see wine as joyous and celebratory. We might, like the Ba’al haTurim, see drink as a tool in manipulation. Actually, both can be true at different times.
We might ask: what is next for these brothers?
I hope you are having a Hanukkah filled with light and latkes, joy, and jelly-donuts.