Shabbat candles: 4:14 p.m.
Havdalah: 5:18 p.m.
Egyptians in the Bible are not portrayed as sentimental or emotional. They segregate themselves at mealtimes for it would be an “abomination” to eat with the Hebrews [Genesis 43:32]. Later, of course, they brutally enslave the Israelites. So how can a group of Israelites possibly move an Egyptian to reveal himself, to be moved by meager Hebrew pleas and speeches?.
Only if the Egyptian is not an Egyptian but a Jew disguised. Joseph has successfully impersonated an Egyptian for much of his adult life. Joseph has done what many Diaspora Jews aspired to, rising to the top of an alien culture, becoming an indispensable member of the ruling team.
The appearance of his brothers, coming to buy food in time of famine, creates the first crack in Joseph’s façade of dispassion, a disruption in the veneer of absolute power wielded by Joseph, the “governor over all the land” [Gen 42:6] before whom people bow and call Avrech [Gen 41:43]. Joseph recognizes his brothers but they don’t recognize him.
Seth Greenberg, a cognitive psychologist who studies pattern and facial recognition, writes in the forthcoming volume “Reading Genesis: Beginnings” (Continuum, 2013), that the reasons for the brothers’ inability to apprehend their own flesh and blood in the guise of the Egyptian seated before them comes from the fact that they are not expecting to see a Jew. Humans, Greenberg writes, are good at deceiving themselves even about evidence in front of their eyes if it does not fit their expectations of a category.
According to the Midrash [Gen. Rabba 93:8], when Judea pleads with Joseph not to keep Benjamin in prison for allegedly stealing the goblet found in his sack, the brothers are astonished at the detailed knowledge “the Egyptian” has of their crime of selling their brother. Joseph tells them that he will call for the brother they sold, as he, the Egyptian in front of them, was the buyer. Joseph calls out, “Joseph, son of Jacob, show yourself,” and the brothers look around the four corners of the room. Finally he says, “I am Joseph your brother.” He was not believed until finally he “uncovers himself and showed that he was circumcised.”
Rabbi Ari Kahn, in his book “Echoes of Eden,” says of this Midrash that “tragically, the brothers are wiling to look everywhere else, anywhere else, rather than look their brother in the eye and see him for who he truly is.”
After Joseph dramatically reveals himself (whether we think of the plain textual meaning of Joseph revealing his identity or the Midrash that he revealed his circumcision), Joseph removes himself from the equation and directs the brothers to the role of God: “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here, it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you” [Gen 45:5].
It is Joseph’s willingness to provoke his brothers to emotional identifications and reactions, as well as his own ability to uncover himself to his brothers — allowing them to see that not just his face but all of his body is that of a Hebrew — that creates the bond that enables these brothers to eventually become a unified people. The emotional truth to this Midrash is that Joseph’s willingness to move from his Egyptian persona, becoming vulnerable and a Hebrew, makes a new intimacy possible with his formerly estranged brothers.
In Numbers [32:6-7] Moses asks the tribes who chose to stay on the far side of the Jordan River, “will your brothers go to war and you sit here?” The tribes of Gad, Reuben and Manasheh agree that though they themselves are not settling the Promised Land, they will fight for the land, as well, since the fate of some of the Jewish people is the fate of all the Jewish people. Joseph taught his brothers that our fate is always a shared one, that all Jews need to reveal ourselves to each other so that we can see each other clearly, remaining emotionally attached to each other and our peoplehood.
In the speech that so moved Joseph, Judah states that the soul of Benjamin is bound up with the soul of Jacob. The language means literally that the souls are “knotted” together, “nafsho keshurah be’nafsho” [Gen 44:30]. Judah’s distress, his inability to return to his father without his brother Benjamin — because Judah cannot bear to “see the awfulness that would overtake my father” [Gen 44:34] — creates the emotional connection that causes the “Egyptian” (Joseph) to cease acting Egyptian.
Only if we as a people continue to hear each other’s stories and fates and react emotionally will we be able to remain a people. Wherever we are, we must be vulnerable to the pain and suffering of our sibling Jews in Israel, as well as throughout the world.
Beth Kissileff has taught Jewish studies and Hebrew Bible at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.