Especially in recent times, society has seemed to perfect the art of breaking things. Much that we've come to know and rely on has been beaten up and even busted. While it's nature's way that most everything eventually falls apart, spiritually speaking it's also nature's way for us to lean in, repair and build. We've got the tools, if only we'll use them. And use them we must – especially now.
Mikeitz 5784 (2023)
Note: These words come during the 2023 Israel-Hamas War, sparked by a terror attack on Israeli innocents that became the world's most lethal day for Jews since the Holocaust. Because current judicial ethics rules ban me from discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,
I focus instead on some of the emotional and spiritual implications for us and Judaism.
For over two months, daily news reports have graphically depicted the Mideast events that began on October 7. The list of what broke, and what keeps breaking, seems endless.
And not only in the Mideast. Everyone has their list of what seems most obviously broken – domestic politics, a shared sense of objective truth, economic priorities, societal values, global climate harmony.... The list goes on and on.
But none of that is news. The real news is that, in fact, together we have the power to repair and rebuild. We tend to forget how potent this power is – because cognitively we're more prone to note the bad than the good, because bad news makes better news, because repair sometimes is more difficult than the original breaking.
But it's true. As Rabbi Nachman of Breslov famously taught, "If you believe you can destroy, believe that you can repair." Both destruction and repair imply the same capacity, the same core agency: by their nature, we can't be capable of one without the other.
This essential spiritual truth is a core message of this week's Torah portion (Mikeitz), which on the surface continues the Joseph story as he catapults from forgotten enslaved prisoner to prime minister of Egypt.
Five years ago, I wrote what follows, which would become part of my book, A Year of Building Torah. These words feel even more poignant now amidst war, antisemitism and political breakdown. I offer them here with a "SketchNote" from Steve Silbert, my colleague at Bayit (a Jewish innovation nonprofit I helped create).
Think about what you build and how you build. We can, and nowadays we must.
Parashat Mikeitz offers answers: first build a granary to store food for the future, and powerfully organize community to make it work.
Torah’s plot is familiar. Pharaoh lifts Joseph from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph foretells of famine. Pharaoh empowers Joseph to save Egypt. For seven years, Joseph stores grain as a pikadon (reserve) (Gen. 41:36). As the 19th century Malbim recognizes, this reserve was as much for the land as for the people: otherwise both would starve (Malbim Gen. 41:36).
Because Pharaoh and Joseph acted with powerful resolve, Egypt had a future and therefore so did the Children of Israel, who came to Egypt in desperate search for food when famine hit.
Had Pharaoh and Joseph not acted, there might be no Jewish future.
Had Pharaoh not empowered Joseph to build Egypt’s reserves, there might be no future. We learn that effective leaders must delegate, empower, trust and back away. This same pattern will repeat to build the Mishkan: God tells Moses and also empowers Betzalel (Tribe of Judah) and Oholiav (Tribe of Dan) (Ex. 31:1-6). Building requires diversity and teamwork.
Had Pharaoh not lifted Joseph from jail, there might be no future. Pharaoh instead might have turned to his royal court, well-known people of seemingly high stature. Sometimes needed skills, tools and powers come from outside our native circles and comfort zones.
Had Pharaoh acted mainly for himself, there might be no future. Pharaoh easily could have sought to protect his own hide, but instead he and Joseph acted to save others. (Granted, they later centralized power and dispossessed land owners: we’ll get to that.) Effective builders cannot legitimately use power to build only for themselves.
Had Pharaoh sunk in despair or blindly clutched optimism, there might be no future. Both despair and excess optimism inhibit needed action. Effective builders must harness the power to see needs clearly and act decisively.
Had Pharaoh and Joseph not enforced structure, there might be no future. Had each Egyptian been left to decide how much grain to keep for oneself, there might be too little: the result would be starvation, violence and national decline. Rules matter and must be enforced for the public good. Without wise use of power to enforce rules, people needlessly suffer.
Spiritual building requires both the power of vision – without vision, we perish (Proverbs 29:18) – and the power to translate vision into reality. Spiritual building balances powerful physical and societal forces always at play: only in careful balance can structures and systems stay stable and nimble, sturdy and with just enough give in the joints to move when they must move. To balance these forces, spiritual building needs the power to uplift and deploy expertise, teamwork and discipline. Thus, wise spiritual building requires capacity to design and enforce structure lest powers become unwieldy or abusive, or appetites exhaust finite resources, or inertia drive structures off shifting foundations.
Builders with these power tools can build and thrive for the future. Builders without these power tools will starve and die out: they will have no future.
I confess discomfort with these words. With 25 years of experience in public life, I know that power risks danger: left to its own devices, human power tends to aggrandize itself and grow rife with abuse. Even Pharaoh and Joseph, whose decisive action saved life, also used the crisis to dispossess Egyptians and seize their land (Gen. 47:13-20) – which has fueled much debate about the Biblical economics of coercion and opportunism.
Especially today, when abuses of power seem like daily news items, cynicism about power and “powerful” people has become a fixture in modern life. Our challenge and opportunity – and the urgent call of this time of Jewish, societal and planetary change – is to rectify our collective relationship with power. Too little power to effect change and we’ll starve both spiritually and literally. Too much power wielded wrongly, without balance from outside itself, also can destroy.
It will take tremendous effort to reorient political life and spiritual life to build better for the future. Thus, if we’re to build a better world, first we must shed fear of power.
Power is a tool, and we must not fear to use the right tool for the right job. Like most tools, the practical and moral value of power depends on how we use it. Power tools comes in two forms – control (power over) and capacity (power to). Builders must use both kinds of power tools in balanced and careful measure: one without the other builds nothing.
That’s the deep meaning I find in the Chanukkah haftarah about Zerubavel, Persian governor of Judea who laid the Second Temple’s cornerstone after return from exile in the early 500s BCE. Zerubavel received an angelic message: “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit, says God” (Zakharia 4:6). He learned that power flows from the Source: as the angel continued, only by that power flow can ground become “level” on which to build the future (Zekharia 4:7).
Power tools – both the power of control and the power of capacity – are holy. They don't belong to any of us: they come on loan from their Source, and we must use them in that spirit.
Only by skillfully using these power tools could Pharaoh and Joseph build and fill granaries for the future of Egypt and the Children of Israel. Only by responsibly using power tools on loan from their Source could Zerubavel “level” the ground and begin building the Second Temple.
Only by using our own power tools likewise can we build wisely for the future of Judaism, and for a planet that urgently needs wise use of power.
So power up, everyone. Use your power tools wisely: it’s the only way to build.