This week’s Parsha, Miketz, begins with Joseph in prison and Pharaoh dreaming.
Joseph’s God-given gifts to interpret dreams lead him to Pharaoh’s court. When famine strikes Canaan, Joseph’s brothers seek food and appear before Joseph, now, amazingly enough, the prime minister of Egypt. Joseph recognizes them, but they, understandably, do not see, in this bejeweled autocrat, the brother they sold into slavery and nearly murdered.
This is a dramatic setup for testing, trusting, being triggered, trauma and family healing.
No matter how many times we read Genesis, we are overwhelmed by the family dynamics. After the first few dysfunctional generations, the entire book is occupied with the first Jewish family, Avraham, his wives and descendants. It is harrowing stuff, much worse than the average Netflix series.
We know the stories: the brutal sibling rivalries, the deception, the moments of reconciliation sprinkled through the disappointments and betrayals. Why do we read these tales over and over again every year? How could this first family be the vehicle for divinity, spirit and purpose to be channeled to humankind?
Robert Alter responds in The Art of Biblical Narrative: “What is it like, the biblical writers seek to know through their art, to be a human being with a divided consciousness — intermittently loving your brother but hating him even more; resentful or perhaps contemptuous of your father but also capable of the deepest filial regard; stumbling between disastrous ignorance and imperfect knowledge; fiercely asserting your own independence but caught in a tissue of events divinely contrived: outwardly a definite character and inwardly an unstable vortex of greed, ambition, jealousy, lust, piety, courage, compassion, and much more?”
Yes, of course, it is in our families that we experience the deepest needs to be seen and valued and the pain of separation, unfulfilled desire, falling short. It is where we are recognized and not recognized at the same time. The universality of the human condition is mirrored in the tale of this first family. Rather than being paragons of filial love and faithfulness, this family is caught in ongoing scheming fueled by the pain of not being seen fully, not being loved enough.
The issue of recognition is heightened when the brothers come to Egypt to buy provisions. It is interesting that sometimes the brothers are referred to as the brothers of Joseph, sometimes as the sons of Jacob and sometimes as the sons of Israel. In our families we are often known by different epithets — mother, brother, spouse, in-law, step.
Our identity is constantly shifting based on our relationships. In 42:7 we read, “When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger to them … ” The Hebrew for “pretended to be a stranger” comes from the root to recognize. Joseph became unrecognizable to them. In the next verse, the text uses the same root: “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.”
One cannot help recall the earlier heartbreaking use of this same root, to recognize. After the brothers had sold their brother for 20 pieces of silver, they dipped the coat of many colors in the blood of a goat they had just slaughtered and brought it home to Dad. They said to Jacob: “We found this; do you recognize it? Is it your son’s coat?” He recognized it, saying, “My son’s coat! A wild animal has devoured him!” (37:32-33)
This is a moment not to forget. But the Torah story asks us if we can live past these moments, however brutal and wrenching. Jacob, Joseph and the brothers, especially Judah, are making their way from trauma to love.
And don’t we all have those moments in our families? Hopefully they are less severe and dramatic but nonetheless they mark us. They may lie dormant for years and then, at an event, a wedding, a funeral, Thanksgiving, who knows, they are alive again. We are unseen, we are hurt, we are ashamed of how we acted and don’t quite know how to make restitution. We pretend to be a stranger or we recognize the bloody coat.
How then do we move past these moments in a life? Joseph has set up his brothers to test them. He wants to find out whether they will abandon Benjamin, the only other son of Rachel, like they had abandoned Joseph. Joseph plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack. It is Judah who responds, and his admission of guilt is not just for the goblet, but also for the historic injustices: “What can I say to my lord? How speak and how justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants; here we are, my lord’s slaves … ” (44:16)
Healing must include asking forgiveness, but that is only the start. Moving from enmity, rivalry, even hatred into acceptance may be our greatest challenge. Forgiving those who have hurt us, recognizing the limitations in others, and ourselves, expanding our minds and hearts to include those we fear are the spiritual tasks modeled in these painfully real and messy stories of painfully real human beings, our ancestors.
Rabbi Sheila Weinberg was a pulpit rabbi for 20 years. She is the author of Surprisingly Happy, An Atypical Religious Memoir and the forthcoming God Loves the Stranger. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.