By Rabbi Jason Bonder
The power of the Hebrew language never ceases to amaze me. Part of its immense beauty comes from its roots. Astonishingly, identifying the root of a Hebrew word can make it more understandable and more mystifying at the very same time.
One such root is comprised of the Hebrew letters ayin, nun, hey.
In this week’s portion, Vayigash, Joseph bravely ends his charade with his brothers. The tables had finally turned. After being treated horribly by his brothers in his youth, Joseph is finally in a position to now get them back. He is Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and his brothers have no idea who he is. After sending them on a fool’s errand and setting up his brother Benjamin, Joseph can’t handle hiding who he is any longer. He breaks down and reveals his true identity.
“Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still well?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dumbfounded were they on account of him.” (Genesis 45:3)
The Torah tells us that “his brothers could not answer him” and the Hebrew for “answer” is la’anot. The root of the word la’anot is the one mentioned above — ayin, nun, hey. Knowing the root makes this very simple and very complex at the same time. Yes, the word means “answer or respond,” but perhaps that’s not all it means.
Reading this week’s portion, I was reminded of a wonderful discussion we had in Congregation Beth Or’s Torah study class just a few weeks ago. Thanks to our erudite group, we focused on this same root word as it related to the story of Dina, Leah and Jacob’s daughter.
“The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon” lists the meaning of every Hebrew root in the Hebrew Bible. And it just so happens that for the root ayin, nun, hey, there are four separate definitions. One is “answer or respond.” The second is “be occupied or busied.” The third is “be bowed down, afflicted.” The fourth is “singing or chanting.” You can find these definitions in the book beginning on page 772.
The phenomenon of these multiple definitions is a fine example of why Haim Nachman Bialik once wrote, “Whoever knows Judaism through translation is like a person who kisses his mother through a handkerchief.” (H.N. Bialik, “Nation and Language” [Heb.], in idem, Devarim shebe-’al peh (Tel Aviv: Devir, 1935))
I don’t disagree with the translators of the Jewish Publication Society. But by reading this scene featuring Joseph and his brothers in English, I am unable to see or imagine any other understanding of the sentence. In Hebrew, however, there are distinct opportunities for us to draw new and different meaning.
So which one is correct? Which one do we choose? It seems quite logical to say that Joseph’s brothers were astounded by this surprise and, therefore, could not answer him. But I want to suggest another interpretation based on — ayin, nun, hey — the root of the word la’anot translated as “answer.”
Joseph was terribly mistreated by his brothers. They talked behind his back. They teased him. They then took it a step farther and sold him into slavery and figured he was dead. I imagine that this betrayal stayed inside Joseph for a very long time — perhaps even as he was dressed as an Egyptian with all that power over them.
I see this moment of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers as a final eradication of all the mistreatment. I’d like to translate the verse, “Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still well?’ But his brothers could not afflict him, so dumbfounded were they on account of him.” (Genesis 45:3)
When we cover our scars and hide the wounds of the past, it does not end the affliction. When we stand up, stop hiding and say in full force, “This is who I am.” That can be extremely empowering. In that moment, the actions of others cannot afflict you.
These are not easy times for the Jewish people. Anti-Semitism is on the rise globally. Thank God for our organizations committed to combating such hate. Our job in the face of violence is to remain safe no matter what. But in the case of the other kinds of afflictions we face — the teasing at school, the snide comments in the workplace, the well-intentioned comments pregnant with anti-Semitic tropes, in these cases I believe we can take a page out of Joseph’s book.
Before Joseph’s big announcement, “Joseph could no longer control himself.” (Genesis 45:1) I think that is where we are, too, as a Jewish community. We can’t afford to unnecessarily control ourselves anymore. We can’t afford to ignore anti-Semitism so that we appear polite or forgiving or compassionate to those who knowingly or unknowingly propagate hate.
It’s time to call out anti-Semitism wherever and whenever we see it. If it’s not safe to call it out in the moment, then report it later. Let’s stand up and tell the world exactly who we are. We must not let them afflict us.
Rabbi Jason Bonder is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.