A Study in Character
As last week (belatedly) I wrote about Hanukkah alone, this time I shall discuss together the two parshiyot of Miketz and Vayigash, which in any event constitute a single continuous sequence. Indeed, Miketz is the original “cliff-hanger,” ending on a note of total suspense, leaving the reader/listener wondering “How will Judah and his brothers get out of this one?”
The story is a familiar one. The central issue in this narrative, as I see it, is that of character: that of Joseph, and that of his brothers. Why does Joseph treat his brothers as he does: as soon as they come down to Egypt to buy provisions for their families in Canaan, Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him (42:7-8): after all, they had no expectations of seeing him, least of all in the guise of a high Egyptian official, with all that implies in terms of dress, language, style of beard and hair, trappings of office, whereas they were much as he lad left them—somewhat older, but otherwise much the same in appearance, manner of dress, speech, etc. Joseph was hardly the frightened teenager they had last seen thrown at the bottom of a pit, twenty or more years earlier. In any event, he immediately decide to behave as a stranger, concealing his true identity, putting them through a series of trials and travails. Why the masquerade?
There are several possible answers to this, which fall under two basic headings. The one, of course, is that of vengeance. They had treated him with unspeakable cruelty, mocking him, stripping him of his precious garment, no doubt beating him, throwing him into a pit without food or water, some of them openly speaking of killing him, and later (here the text is a bit murky and even self contradictory) selling him as a slave to a caravan of Midianites, or perhaps Ishmaelites. Thus he began on a course in which he lost everything and everyone that was precious and familiar to him, and forced to survive on his wits—which, fortunately for him, were good. It would have been perfectly natural for him to hate them and to attempt to “pay them back in the same coin” once the tables were turned and he had the power and they were at his mercy. In particular he must have detested Simon and sought to wreak revenge on him; Shimon, whom, according to both the Midrash and even the biblical text itself, following a simple process of elimination (Reuven tried to save him; Judah spoke up and sent “why spill his blood, why not sell him?”; the sons of the concubines and the younger sons of Leah had a lower status; while Shimon and Lev were already known as hot-heads from their behavior in the incident of Dinah and Shechem), was the ringleader of the violence performed upon him. But even in his case, he seems to have released Shimon from imprisonment as soon as the brothers were out of sight.
But did he hate them? A few weeks ago an Israeli television program about the parshat hashavua featured a young man from Djerba named Rafram Hadad who some years ago was imprisoned in Libya for no apparent reason; he described the arbitrary, Kafkaesque nature of his sudden arrest, and described his feeling, like that of Yosef, that “I have done nothing that they placed me in this hole!” In other words, he simply didn’t understand why what had happened did, and suggested that, like him, Yosef was clueless as to why his brothers hated him; in his naïve narcissism, he sincerely thought that everybody loved him, and that they even perceived him and accepted him as their [future?] leader, and did not bear any grudge for his dreams/visions/fantasies of greatness. In this view, Yosef’s estrangement from his brothers, playing the harsh, suspicious official, was naught but a test of their character, to find out who they were and whom they had become.
Joseph’s ambivalence comes out strongly in the scene in Parshat Miketz: “When he saw his brothers he recognized them, but he estranged himself from them and spoke harshly” (42:8). But once he hears them talking among themselves, saying “We are guilty to our brother, that we saw the distress of his soul, pleading to us, but we did not hearken” (42:21), Joseph quickly turns aside and weeps. A second time, in the banquet hall scene during the brother’s second trip to Egypt, he is overwhelmed by emotion upon seeing Benjamin and, after a cursory blessing, quickly turning to a side room to weep—and then washing his face and composing himself, so as to conceal the depth of his emotion (43:29-31). The image gained is of someone who is at heart a deeply emotional, perhaps even sentimental person, who has decided to maintain a tough, impassive exterior—but finds it hard to do so, and thus periodically breaks down and reemerges to hide his feelings.
In the dialogue between Joseph and Judah with which Parashah Vayigash begins, all that comes to an end. Yehudah, still ignorant of Joseph’s identity, presents e series of passionate arguments, relating to the “Egyptian official” the intimate history of his family in the hopes that he will elicit some feeling of humanity, of compassion, in the stone-faced man. Most of all, he expresses his concern for his old father: If the old man, whose “wife” (i.e., Rachel, the only true love of his life) bore him two children, one of whom is lost, then if you take the youngest as well, you will kill him. A person would have to be very hard indeed to hear these words and not be moved.
Joseph’s original plan was to force the ten brothers to return to their home in Canaan a second time, without Binyamin, thereby forcing Yaakov to come down to Egypt with them without yet knowing that “the man” is in fact his long-lost son Joseph. In that way, Joseph’s second dream would be carried out: “the sun and moon and eleven stars”—clearly symbolizing his eleven brothers (including Benjamin!), his father, and Leah, the surviving matriarch of the family, his own mother being dead—would all bow down to him.
A digression about dreams: Parashah Miketz is the last in a series of parshiyot in which dreams or dream-like sequences all play a central role: from Rivkah’s surrealistic sense of her two fetuses struggling in her womb, a kind of omen requiring her to consult an oracle; vis Jacob’s ladder vision at Beth-El and his mysterious encounter at Yabbok; to Joseph’s own dreams of greatness; to those of the baker, the cup-bearer, and to those of Pharaoh himself, through which he comes into his own and rises to prominence as a dream interpreter and more. What is the nature of dreams? They belong to the subjective, suggestive, inner part of our life: to the nocturnal world of feeling, of intuition, of subconscious wishes and desires. They are filled with thoughts and impression that the light of day more often than not wants to quickly forget. Yet the Tanakh clearly suggests that they are important and worth reckoning with; if not full-scale prophecies, then they are surely something very akin to it (“a sixtieth part of prophecy”).
At this point, Yosef’s basic softness, his vulnerability, his humanity, his family feeling, come to the fore. “And Joseph could not hold back” (Gen 46:1), and he reveals himself to his brothers. Was this a sign of weakness, or of strength? I leave the question open.
But perhaps even more than the issue of character per se, the basic theme of this parashah is teshuvah. The word has been much corrupted by its use as a synonym for conversion to religious Orthodoxy. I use it here in its classic sense—as contrition, repentance, turning away from any and all wrongdoing and, especially, the entire process of personal change (i.e. in a positive direction). In this sense, teshuvah is extraordinarily difficult (see on this Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 7.3). I have mentioned in the past a profound idea I heard once from Rav Yehudah Amital ztz”l: that the great works of Western culture—Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, etc.—are promulgated on the premise that people don’t essentially change; that character (at times synonymous with fate) is essentially fixed, and that all of human life is the playing out of the flaws and faults that ultimately lead to the tragic end.
Both Yosef and the brothers must do teshuvah. How so? Yosef needs to turn away from the narcissism and self-centeredness of his youth. Through a combination of simple maturation and experiences of suffering (an interesting and important question: What does trauma do to people? Arbitrary imprisonment and unjust treatment? Radical change in life situation? Poverty? Fall from grace? Many become bitter and selfish; only a few, it would seem, are enobled.) In any event, Yosef clearly came to know the world during his years away from Jacob’s loving home, and had ample opportunity to see people at their ugliest—the brothers distorted by hatred; the journey with the caravan, of which we are told nothing; Potiphar’s wife, enflamed by lust, and then driven by spite; the ungrateful wine butler—but in the end he came out as a decent person, perhaps almost too good to be true.
After revealing his identity, even before Joseph and his brothers sit and talk, he displays real generosity of spirit. There is no hint of resentment or hostility towards the brothers. Almost the first thing he says: Do not be cross or angry [at yourselves] that you sold me to Egypt, for God sent me to keep people alive” (45:5). He devotes himself to settling both his father and his brothers as comfortably as possible in this strange country, constantly acting as their intermediary. This is again shown at the very end of the “Joseph cycle”: towards the end of Veyehi, after Jacob has died, is buried, and the family returns to Egypt, the brothers say: Now that father is gone Yosef will hate us and his true colors will come out (50:15). Instead, he is nothing but kindness and forgiveness. (If I may mention my own life experience: there have been certain very difficult relationships in my life but, after a certain time has passed, I found that I was able, not to forgive, but to forget the intense negative emotions of that time—that is, I can recall certain of the events and feelings in my memory, but the negative emotional charge is totally gone—and I am able to accept that person in his/her present situation and humanity.)
Perhaps the underlying idea is that, perhaps as one grows older, one becomes more aware of human mortality, of our vulnerability, and one is able to forgive, to perceive what one once perceived as abominable behavior as simple human weakness, the expression of flaws of the kind common to all flesh and blood. (By the way, this is also the idea underlying the request for seliha ve-kaparah, asking forgiveness of others, prior to Yom Kippur.)
As for the brothers: their teshuvah consisted in turning from their hatred, spite, to genuine feeling and caring for the other—for their father and his sensitivities, for their younger brother. Interestingly, in his speech Yehudah quotes father saying “My wife bore me two children” without any hint of resentment or acrimony—notwithstanding the implication that he, like the other children of Leah were somehow second-class children. Indeed, in a widespread Hasidic schema, where as Yosef is discussed as a Tzaddik by nature, Yehudah is the epitome of the Baal Teshuvah—both in overcoming his anger and tendency to violence, but also in the scene with Tamar, where he transcends conventional patriarchal attitudes towards sexuality.