A Torn Family Comes Together
12/11/12
Special To The Jewish Week
Benjamin Telushkin
Benjamin Telushkin

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:11 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 41:1-44:17; Numbers 7:48-59
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14-4:7
Havdalah: 5:15 p.m

In Miketz, Joseph is reunited with his brothers after a long separation. These brothers — who will soon generate the Twelve Tribes — embody the beginning of our Jewish nation, yet Joseph’s experience is completely removed from theirs. Joseph, at first, does not see himself sharing the Jewish identity with his brothers, as in his dream in which Joseph’s sheaf rises in a field, while his brothers’ sheaves gathered around his and bowed [Genesis 37:7]. Joseph’s dream portrays him as the one brother who embodies the totality of his father’s legacy.

The 10 older brothers felt incompatible with Joseph and wanted to eliminate him from the family. Selling him into slavery was a better option than having him die, which they initially intended and falsely reported his death to their father [Gen. 37:22, 32].

In the two previous generations, the inheritance was selectively passed down to only one son at the expense of the other; Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau. Transmitting the monotheistic belief through one son seemed an appropriate way to reflect God’s unity in the Jewish lineage. The problem, however, is that this pattern conflicts with God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation. If the pattern continued, there would still be only one Jewish family today. Passing down the Jewish identity by family and tribes rather than singular selection was needed in order to fulfill God’s promise.

Even with family and tribes, the idea of preference in the inheritance was not fully abandoned. The fact that “Jacob loved Joseph more than all his sons” [Gen. 37:3] implies that he envisioned Joseph as continuing this singular lineage. This model is suggested when introducing it is written, “These are the descendants of Jacob, Joseph…” [Gen. 37:2] without mentioning his brothers individually.

The brother’s exclusion of Joseph may have been intended to eliminate the threat he posed they perceived. However, by banishing Joseph, the brothers became incomplete, no longer representing the Jewish nation in its wholeness. They imply this when they unknowingly meet Joseph in Egypt. Joseph, appearing now as Pharaoh’s advisor, quickly accuses them of being spies. They deny the charge, explaining, “We are all sons of one man, we are truthful people” [Gen. 42:11]. The Zohar points out that the Hebrew word for “we” in the second part of the verse has an unusual spelling, nachnu, missing the letter aleph. Even if the brothers claim to collectively represent their father, the absent aleph, the first Hebrew letter that represents oneness, reveals the brother’s actual disconnect with the “one man” to whom they link themselves. Though the Jewish promise Jacob embodied was spread amongst his multiple sons, the brothers no longer construct the promise in its wholeness anymore.

Two verses later, the brothers re-word their introduction, saying, “We, your servant, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in Canaan. The youngest is with our father, and one is gone” [Gen. 42:13]. Now the aleph is returned to the “we,” anachnu, since the brothers righteously acknowledge that they no longer comprise the entirety of their generation. This marks a step where the brothers welcome back Joseph but only through their memory of him, unrelated to his current circumstance. Joseph is not “gone” but is alive and Joseph lives right in front of them.

They think Joseph is gone only because they cannot recognize him under his royal garments. The Joseph they think they know was wearing the “fine woolen coat” that they took from him. This becomes a recurring them, as Potiphar’s wife tears off Joseph’s garment just before she falsely accuses him of rape, resulting in his imprisonment [Gen. 39:14]. Joseph’s brothers tear off his garment before throwing him in the pit, an imprisonment. In both cases, the cloak, or coat, is stripped from Joseph and used as false evidence. When separated from holiness, the torn garment can be falsely represented.

Underneath Joseph’s garments and disguises is his unchanging obedience to live according with God’s will, as he explains to Pharaoh and Potiphar’s wife.

Though humans are limited to only seeing the material surface, there is a deeper essence still operating, illustrated in the verse, “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him” [Gen. 42:8].

God’s essence can be blurred by outer garments. What must be remembered is that even when Joseph (or God’s purpose) seems to be gone, he (or He) may still be in the room, the one to whom you’re talking, unaware. 

Benjamin Telushkin has worked for Chabad.org and is studying religion at Concordia University in Montreal.

Last Update:

12/12/2012 - 22:39

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