These winter months it’s all about Joseph (NOT Mary’s man – his ancestor) – the hero of the weekly Torah saga. In this week’s episode, MIKETZ, we encounter a 30 years old man, freshly out of prison, summoned to the royal court to analyze the King’s disturbing dreams. Very pre Freud, and very Cinderella like, Joseph is propelled from prisoner to courtier within a matter of minutes, or verses, based on his uncanny talent of dream analysis. The king, who bestows honors, favors Joseph’s talent: a new wardrobe (!), an Egyptian wife, a new job, and a new name. In previous explorations of this hero’s journey we examined Joseph’s garment and the meanings of its many changes, but the transformation here is even more radical – with one royal command Joseph becomes an Egyptian. His new name is what particularly calls our attention:
Genesis 41:45 And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him to wife Osnat the daughter of Poti-phera priest of On. And Joseph emerged in charge of the land of Egypt (JPS)
The new naming places Joseph in the name-change convention that we made particular note of in our exploration of his younger brother Benjamin. But this time the name is not Hebrew to Hebrew, but Hebrew to Egyptian. Joseph is called Zaphnath-paaneah. Most translators merely transliterate the word, some try to figure out what it might have meant in archaic Egyptian. The Fox translation names him ‘The God Speaks and He Lives.’ The pseudo-Jonathan’s is ‘The man who reveals mysteries’. Some Medieval commentaries such as Maimonides, on the other hand, think the name is Hebrew derived, suggesting it means ‘he who explains what is hidden’.
Lauvitiucs would like to suggest: ‘And the King renamed him: ‘Know-It-All’ and wed him to Osnat, the daughter of the Priest of On, PotiPehra, and a new ruler rose over Egypt.’
The long and the short of it is that Joseph, perhaps the archetype of the assimilated Jew, takes an Egyptian wife, an Egyptian name, and functions in a position of power in a culture not his own. Some see him as the ultimate court Jew who can be accused of a willing suppression of his outsiderness for the sake of safety and prosperity. Yet, like Queen Esther, Joseph, for whatever reasons and by whatever means, is just where he needs to be to rescue family and clan. Does his new name hint at a deeper meaning for what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land with super powers both honored and suspected?
Perhaps his cryptic new name suggests a function and an attribute that will have bearing on the lives of his descendents, assimilated Jews in many countries, for generations to come. Accused for being too smart, too rich, or too engaged in world politics, ‘know-it-all’ Jews, public or not, like Joseph himself, will reap the benefits and pay the price for analyzing the dreams and wishes of leaders and mobs worldwide.
But apart from world politics and the tricky role of Jews in history – Joseph represents the inner voice that helps us analyze our dreams and plan our future. Who in your life, this time of year, is the voice that best serves your needs for clarity, vision, dream, and a brighter future?
The December Dilemma –Red & Green and/or Blue & White – may be a new narrative for American Jews – but is actually, in some form, as old as the Bible. This week in the Lauvicus Blog, a deeper look at intermarriage and assimilation as Joseph marries an Egyptian princess and gets a new and perplexing name. Assimilation, right or wrong, is what this Hebrew man, newly named, brings to the table this holiday season…