By the time the family of Jacob came to Egypt to find food, their brother Joseph is unrecognizable as the good looking, spoiled young lad who was thrown into the pit at Shechem. He is thoroughly Egyptianised. His name is changed to Zaphenat Pane’ach, his style of dress is Egyptian, he has an Egyptian wife Asenat and native born children. He has status in the community as right hand man to Pharaoh. It is highly unlikely that the brothers, who think that their brother Joseph had most probably died in the intervening 22 years since they last saw him, will suspect Zaphenat Pane’ach of being anything except he court official he apparently is, yet we have the verse early on in their meeting – ”And Joseph saw his brothers and he recognised them, but he made himself strange (unrecognisable) to them. (42:7)
ז וַיַּ֥רְא יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־אֶחָ֖יו וַיַּכִּרֵ֑ם וַיִּתְנַכֵּ֨ר אֲלֵיהֶ֜ם
Va’yar Yosef et echav, va’ya’kireim, va’yit’nakeir alei’hem
There is a peculiarity of the Hebrew language here – the Torah expressing two opposite meanings by employing the same Hebrew root נכּר in two different grammatical voices – one meaning to disclose an identity, to recognise someone, and the other meaning to conceal identity/ to be a stranger/ to be unrecognisable.
Joseph’s purpose in concealing his identity and putting his family through so much anguish is the subject of a great deal of rabbinic commentary. After all, he charged his brothers with espionage, incarcerated Shimon, demanded the presence of Benjamin in Egypt and finally framed Benjamin as a thief before admitting to his brothers his true identity and inviting the whole family to stay with him in Egypt. It is pretty horrible to read this apparent abuse of power, and the traditional commentators have had a hard time refuting the charge that Joseph’s motives for such behaviour were vengeful and cruel. They bring three separate explanations for his unbrotherly conduct:
The first is that he manoeuvred in this way so as to bring about the realisation of the dreams he had had in his youth – the dream that his brothers and father would prostrate themselves before him. The second is that he was attempting to teach his brothers the lessons of his own experiences which they had brought upon him by allowing him to be sold into slavery, framed as a criminal and imprisoned. And the third – that he devised the various experiments and tests so as to assure himself of their complete change of heart and their repentance.
None of these explanations fully satisfies us about what was in Joseph’s mind when he treated his brothers so roughly, but the end result is worth noting, for it becomes clear that the brothers have indeed changed since they last saw Joseph. They no longer hate Rachel’s sons, and they are solicitous of their father’s feelings. The way is paved for one of the recurrent themes in bible- for brothers to become reconciled after a period of estrangement.
So what is going on in this verse where Torah uses the same verb to express the double event of Joseph recognising his brothers while hiding his own identity? The pun draws the eye and ear to the text of this verse, yet Joseph’s actions in the rest of the chapter seem to throw no light on why he did what he did – hence the energy used for the rabbinic apologetics – something important must be happening here, and we must try to find out what it is.
Let’s look at the situation from a different angle:-
Joseph recognises his brothers, but he cannot know them, for 22 years have passed since he last saw them. He already had a foreign persona, and the brothers, described in the text both as Joseph’s brothers and as Jacobs sons will be unable to perceive their relation in Zaphenat Pane’ach: – they will only able to relate to the young vain Joseph as they remember him, not the powerful figure second only to the Pharaoh who sits before them.
Joseph makes himself even more foreign וַיִּתְנַכֵּ֨ר and puts his brothers into uncomfortable situations before finally revealing himself. The extreme foreignness is the prelude to the reconciliation. It is almost as if the difference between Joseph and his brothers 22 years earlier, and their situation now has to be exaggerated to prove that all the protagonists in the story are now quite different people – so that their arguments can be resolved and put into the past; and only then can reconciliation take place.
Far from revealing himself immediately – “look at me, I’m the same Joseph you lost”, Joseph has to show his new characteristics and persona “look at me – I’ve changed”
The brothers too must display how much they have grown and changed. Sometimes, when a fight and a separation have been too hurtful, it is necessary for a period of separation to be followed by proof of change, before reconciliation can be attempted and the situation resolved. With all the other stories of brotherly argument and reconciliation, this proof of change was not needed, presumably because the hurt was not quite so life changing as what had been done to Joseph.
It seems that here in the final story of sibling rivalry and reconciliation, we have an extra dimension to our understanding of necessary change before reconciliation can take place – each side must show they are no longer the people who had been in conflict earlier in their lives but have deepened in their understanding of the other and grown in maturity. Consequently the extra need for “foreignness” or “strangeness” is emphasised in the story. Joseph is no longer the youthful and untested dreamer who had so hurt his brothers with his arrogance and certainty. And they, having lived with the guilt of his disappearance and the grief of their father, are no longer his hate filled siblings.
We are reaching the end of the secular year – always a good time to take stock of our lives. And it is a good time to look at our own hurts and estrangements, as individuals and as a community and as a people, and to question how far we are along our journey towards reconciliations of the hurt and the damage we harbour. We can look within the Jewish world, with its politics and power games, and we can look at the behaviour of Israel both internally to its peoples and externally to its diaspora, and we see much work to be done, much change to happen before the Jewish people become our best selves.
And each of us as individual human beings has our own list of hurts with which we have been unable to deal yet, and maybe we need to change ourselves before we can begin to address them – we like Joseph, need both to recognise the other and also change ourselves.
Le’hit’nacher – to make ourselves different, to hide parts of ourselves and to develop and prioritise other charcteristics within ourselves, to make ourselves foreign to our past faults. It is all part of the small steps we make towards reconciliation and resolution of our hurts and our mistakes. It is something, like Joseph, we can choose to do, even if, like Joseph, we do it in small steps and out of some fear that nothing has yet changed for us from the outside.
Mikketz means “at the end of”. Every new step has the possibility of ending something with which we are familiar or comfortable – it is why the fear of change is so strongly rooted in us. But to follow Joseph’s example, to make ourselves different, foreign, changed from our usual narratives – it seems that we might bring an end to some of our hurts, and open a door for ourselves into the future.
sermon given at lev chadash milano 2017