mikketz – seeing ourselves as foreign may enable change; or, how a new perspective can open up a new life

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

 

 

 

Vayigash

            The scene in which Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers is emotionally charged and powerfully transmitted to us. Overcome by his feelings in response to Judah’s plea that him that he keep Judah as his slave in the place of Benjamin, Joseph clears the room and, left alone with his brothers, he introduces himself and asks the urgent question:  “Ani Yosef. Ha’od avi chai?”  I am Joseph. Does my father still live?”  Unsurprisingly the brothers are too shocked to respond, so Joseph has to continue and introduce himself in a slightly different way – “Ani Yosef achee’chem – I am Joseph your brother.”  Then he begins to reassure his stricken brothers, pointing out to them how the whole chain of events that has brought them here must be managed by God, from the selling of Joseph in Dotan to the famine which had brought them all to Egypt.  The reconciliation between brothers, a theme that has been avoided since Cain killed Abel at the beginning of Genesis is finally happening, with the stated guilt and repentance on the part of the wrong doers, the punishment exacted by the wronged party, the forgiveness on both sides – and the recognition of God’s part in the problem all along.

            All the way through the Book of Genesis, God has been actively and some may say unhelpfully present in the text, creating situations for people to deal with as best they can, which generally isn’t too edifying for us to read.  Adam and Eve are faced with a forbidden yet deeply tempting fruit tree in their perfect garden- Why?  When they do the inevitable, what happens?  Adam blames Eve, she blames the snake, and they are all forced to move on.  When Abel’s sacrifice is accepted but Cain’s is not – well why not?  We know that there was nothing special about either, but the anger of the rejected Cain led to fratricide within the earliest chapters of the book.  Look where else God meddled – the destruction of Tower of Babel when people were getting on so well together but now were scattered and unable to communicate with each other; Abraham told to bind his beloved son Isaac as an offering for God, and consequently damaging his relationship with Isaac (and God) irreparably.  Jacob and Esau struggling in the womb, predestined to have an unequal relationship.  And yet no one calls God on it, no one confronts God’s role until Joseph does. 

            Joseph, the assimilated Jew.  The man who to all intents and purposes became Egyptian, with an Egyptian name, and Egyptian wife, and Egyptian children.  Joseph, the boy who dreamed his dreams, who showed little of what we might call spirituality in his vanity laden adolescence.   Yet paradoxically it is Joseph who describes himself as one who fears God – et ha’elohim ani yarei (42:18). 

            It is a curious verb – yod resh alef – meaning “to venerate, be in awe or fear”.  Until Joseph’s use of it, it is not used positively, nor is it used about God, – except once in the akedah when God tells Abraham not to kill Isaac, for now he knows he is a Godfearing man (ki yarei elohim ata  Gen 22:12)  But it is already too late in Abraham’s case, for whatever the test was up on that mountain, Abraham had not passed it for he never spoke to his son Isaac or to God again. 

            Only Joseph describes himself as one who is in awe of God, who fears and admires and reverences God.  And only Joseph uses this verb in a positive way – that he will be, to coin a phrase, honest decent and truthful in his dealings with the foreigners whom only he knows to be his brothers.  It is Joseph’s use of the verb to describe himself and the positive essential value which drives him,  which makes him the candidate to effect the sibling reconciliation which has for so long been so elusive in the family story.  Finally there is a person who sees yirat adonai, the fear and awe of God, as a positive statement about themselves and their lives.  It is the characteristic which enables the person to know a little about the Almighty with whom they are dealing, to know a little about how little they know, to avoid the cosiness which can beset such a relationship and also the projections which can blur it.  Yirat adonai is, as the psalmist wrote, “t’horah, omedet la’ad”  – pure, standing forever. (Ps19) – it enables us to be clear eyed in our dealings with God, and to understand a little, and engage a little.  So it is no surprise that towards the end of the Book of Genesis, Joseph is able to see God’s part in the events of his life, and, once his brothers have shown their shame and their unhappiness at what they did, (and Joseph has satisfied his own need to show how his early dreams were indeed correct), that he is able to acknowledge and forgive not only his brothers part in the way his life has turned out, but also God’s part in it too.

            The search for meaning in our lives is something we all do, whether in a religious structure, or in another philosophical framework or setting.  Those of us who use the religious tradition find in it many complex and often mutually incompatible things.  We can be overwhelmed by the richness of interpretations, constrained by our own needs and our own baggage.

 Interestingly, that same psalmist who praised yirat adonai, listed his six stakes of Judaism as being

Torat Adonai (the Teaching of God), Edut Adonai (the Evidence of God), Pikudei Adonai (the Duties of God), Mitzvat Adonai (the Commandments of God), Yirat Adonai (the Fear of  God) and Mishp’tei Adonai (the Judgments of God).  Taken together in the poem they make a bridge that links heaven and earth.  No mention is made of a required belief, or of much that people often say is core to religion-  instead there is teaching and witnessing, doing and considering, acting and fearing – these are what bring people closer to God. 

Joseph, Egyptianised, assimilated, the boy who never tried to contact his home again, is saying in this statement about himself that he never lost his love for his roots, that he was religious in his own way, in the best way – for he was one who could say “et ha elohim ani yarei”.

            The episode where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and is reconciled with them takes place within one chapter. The beginning of it is bound by the question that Joseph asks his brothers “Ha’od avi chai?” -does my father still live?    The end is  marked by Jacob’s disbelieving statement “Rav, Od Yosef b’ni chai”   It is too much – Joseph my son yet lives.

            The echo is too deliberate, too obvious to miss. The whole episode is a complex and beautiful literary structure, and at its heart is the point where Joseph kissed all his brothers, and wept upon them, after which his brothers were able to talk with him.   It is for this that Jacob still lived, for this that Joseph’s life was spared.  The reconciliation enables us to finally close that first chapter in the moral development of humanity, when it can be shown that even great and terrible hurts can be forgiven and laid to rest.  All it takes is  Yirat Adonai:  not the intimate relationship that Adam and Eve had with God, not the fearful and self serving one that Cain had, nor the argumentative one Abraham had, nor the timid one of Isaac nor the bargaining one of Jacob.  The first important person we have in the text  who didn’t have a vision or a face to face conversation was the first person to make explicit that he could see God’s hand in his life.  Joseph was the first to describe God’s part in his misery as well as his great prosperity.  Joseph was the first to lay responsibility not only on his brothers but also on his God.   Yirat Adonai is the prerequisite to relationship with God, it is the first step towards a brit, a covenant of mutual obligation.  With the possible exception of Moses’ view of the back of God, or his death at the kiss of God, we never again see God quite so intimate nor so cosy as he was with the Patriarchs, but Joseph, the link between the Patriarchs and the Peoplehood, gives us another way to God, the way we have to this day.  To live our lives with a sense of the awe and mystery of God, to relate to God as a Power so large and transcendent who yet relates to us, to make our decisions in the light of that sense of God, that is a way to truly be religious.   Whether we are dati or hiloni, Orthodox, orthoprax, scriptural literalists, innovative halachists or identify with any of the many streams within Jewish practise and identity, however we express our religious sense this sidra reminds us that to have a sense of awe about God, to be y’rei Adonai, is the core of our religion. And from this sense of awe and awareness, everything else can flow.