Hungry dreams: this week’s Torah portion
This week’s parsha, Mikketz (roughly translated as “at the end of”), is about hunger: literal hunger, the hunger to understand, the empty feeling of missing a loved one, the hunger for inflicting punishment as well as for making things right. We start with Pharaoh’s quartet of famous dreams – beautiful cows eating marsh grass, then gaunt & ugly ones eating them, and the next night healthy corn and scorched. Joseph is fetched from jail where he has been languishing for 2 years (hungering for freedom?) and interprets successfully what all the wizards and soothsayers of Egypt cannot: 7 good years lie ahead and then 7 years of killing famine. He is rewarded with the #2 position in Egypt and a wife, the daughter of a priest of On. Not bad, but still he clearly hungers for his life before Egypt, naming his sons Menashe and Ephraim – God made me forget (which clearly wasn’t the case) and God made me fertile in my affliction.
It is in the context of famine that we reconnect with Joseph’s brothers & his father Jacob. Hungry, the patriarch points out that standing around starving is not such a smart idea – and off go the brothers (except for the youngest, Benjamin) to Egypt. Standing in the welfare line, Joseph is the one who greets them, and thus begins a cat-and-mouse game of many, many verses that continues into next week. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but they don’t know this grown-up, clean-shaven man who has the power to control their hunger, physical and emotional as it turns out.
The Past is an Appetite Rarely Sated starts with a real war-caused famine that killed close to a million in Biafra in the late 1960s, and a night when my budding political passions ran up against my father’s… I’m not sure what. His stinginess? Racism? Lousy paycheck? Something else entirely? I wanted to save the Biafrans, was convinced their entire fate rested on our 50 cents. All the magicians in Egypt couldn’t interpret Pharaoh’s dream of 7 ugly cows devouring 7 beautiful ones by the Nile – and I will never know what to make of my father’s refusal that night. It has stayed with me 40 years. Perhaps this poem was my way of getting to “at the end of”.
p.s. The Biafran situation was the impetus for Doctors Without Borders, a truly amazing group. Any spare Chanukah gelt would definitely be put to good use.