Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Parshas Miketz - Not Recognizing Your Own Brother

Parshas Miketz sees Yosef finally released from prison, given power over all of Egypt and what does he do with all that power? He prepares for a vast regional famine, yet seems to give no thought to his family. When his father finally sends his brothers down to Egypt to buy food, he puts them through a prolonged psychological torture session. Was it a need for revenge or something else? Did Yosef need to make the dreams come true so badly that he put his brothers and his father through hell? What was he really after?

When Yosef first encounters his brothers in Egypt, it tells us twice that he recognized them, and once that they did not recognize him. Why repeat that he did not recognize them twice?

First it says, וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת-אֶחָיו, וַיַּכִּרֵם And Yosef saw his brothers and recognized them. First he saw them then he recognized them. He saw his brothers, but he did not yet recognize them as brothers. His first reaction was emotional. They had sold him into slavery in a far-off land and taken him away from his father. He saw them, he recognized them, but he did not accept them as brothers.

Then it says, וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף, אֶת-אֶחָיו; וְהֵם, לֹא הִכִּרֻהוּ And Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. Now Yosef recognized them as brothers. But they did not recognize him at all. Not as a man. Nor as a brother.

What happened in between these two recognitions? Yosef asked where they came from. They told him that they had come from Canaan to buy food. With that response, Yosef knew that they still did not recognize him at all. They were here only to stock up their larder. They had not come to bring him back home. They didn't even know who he was.

When the brothers had seen him coming from afar, they had not called him their brother, but the Baal Halomot, the Master of Dreams. When they had cast him into the pit, they had not called him anything at all. When Reuven came back to retrieve him, he had called him Yeled, a child. Only when Yehuda had proposed taking him out of the pit where he been thrown to die of hunger and thirst, did he call Yosef a brother. His main argument for selling Yosef was that he was a brother.

When Yosef made them choose between slavery and starvation, he was echoing Yehuda's proposal. That is why the brothers immediately recognized in prison that they were being punished for what they had done to Yosef. Mida Keneged Mida. But Yosef was not in place of G-d, a point that he makes to the brothers later on. It is not his place to punish them. Only to make them come to the same recognition that he had. A recognition vital to the survival of the Nation of Israel.

The descent of the children of Israel to Egypt began with the arrival of the brothers, who are described as Bnei Yisrael, they are the sons of Israel in a national sense. Their descendants would be a minority in a mighty nation, eventually enslaved and broken down in every way. They would have to survive those trials and torments as a united people.

The enmity between brothers had led them to sell Yosef into slavery in Egypt. If the sons of Israel were to survive the centuries of slavery, Yosef had to know that they could put enmity aside. And so he set a simple test for them. Would they agree to escape slavery by leaving the brother that they had the least in common with in the chains of Egypt while they return home. Or would they refuse to leave a man behind.

The test that he placed for his brothers was a test of brotherhood pitted against the peril of slavery. It was only a test, but after the death of the brothers, it would become a reality. Would the sons of Israel do the bidding of their Egyptian masters and betray one another to gain more favorable treatment? Would the Pharaohs be able to pit tribe against tribe, and family against family? If that were to happen, there would be no nation to emerge from Egypt.

Despite everything he had gone through, Yosef was able to recognize his brothers as 'brothers'. He needed them to show that they would do the same for Binyamin even in the face of slavery-- setting an example for their descendants to stick together as brothers no matter what the pharaohs would do to try and break them.

Throughout the enslavement of the people of Israel, we see examples of such passive resistance, the midwives refuse to murder Jewish children, the taskmasters refuse to beat Jewish slaves. In each case, they put the welfare of the nation above their own. On the other hand we have Datan and Aviram who later play a role in instigating a tribal revolt in Levi and Reuven to gain power for themselves. When they refused to recognize Moshe's authority, they proclaim, הַעֵינֵי הָאֲנָשִׁים הָהֵםתְּנַקֵּר--לֹא נַעֲלֶה Even if you put out the eyes of these men, we will not go up. But Yosef sought to open the eyes of his brothers and his own. He wanted to see that mutual recognition that they were all Bnei Ish Echad Anachnu, the sons of one man, not just in words, but in deeds.

And while the brothers did show they would stand up for Binyamin, their descendants would later war with one another. And throughout history the test of Yosef has not yet been fully met. We have still not recognized our brother. Or are willing to stand up for them even in the face of slavery and death.

1 comment:

  1. Quite thought provoking. I never saw that. How often history repeats itself. Could it be that G-d is still waiting for those who believe him to demonstrate that belief by loving one another more than their own life? How easily we sacrifice the lives of others in order to purchase our own safety, honor or position. The midwives risked their own freedom, livelihood and lives for the lives of the babies. I never thought of this as a national loyalty issue, only as a believing G-d issue. But, I guess the national loyalty issue is also a believing God issue for a Jew. Hmm, interesting.