Last summer I had a fabulous opportunity to meet a very dear friend whom I haven’t seen for more than 20 years. As I waited nervously, I looked around at the people passing by, wondering, ‘is that him’ ‘is that’… I could not imagine what he would like and was afraid I won’t recognize him. Then he showed up and tapped me on the shoulder, and within seconds we were chatting as if no time has passed. Short of few wrinkles and some grey we both added, it seemed like nothing much has changed.
This week we read about an amazing meeting, when Joseph and his brothers reunite, “surprised” to discover he is the viceroy of Egypt, and yes, I put “surprised” in quotation marks because I can’t help wonder, how come Joseph’s brothers didn’t recognize him?
Sure, it’s been 20 years. And Joseph, who left is 17, grew and was now 37 years old. And he wore different clothing. And had a new name. And was “out of context”. But was he really? After all, if anyone, the brothers knew very well they sold him to a convoy going down to Egypt, the next door neighboring country, only a few miles away! And the convoy was of “Yishmaelites”, possibly distant relatives! And then, this beautiful, wonder child just vanished? And, when they heard about a great wise new leader there who saves the whole region from a horrible famine by “interpreting dreams”, they didn’t even have a slight suspicion that their brother is there?
A careful read reveals that there is a lot of sub-text between the brothers until the final “I am Joseph” “sudden” cry (Genesis 45:3).
Joseph on his end knows who they are immediately and purposefully does not reveal himself. On the surface, this appears as revenge: he is now in power and can mistreat them as they have done to him. But a deeper insight shows otherwise.
Joseph until now, contrary to what we superficially tend to think, saw not much blessing in his dreams: the first set got him thrown in a pit and sold to slavery, while the second kept him in jail for two extra years. Only when he analyzes Pharaoh’s dreams, his fate changes. Upon meeting the brothers, he doesn’t know yet which way is this going to turn. Further, before revealing himself, he needs to know if the brothers have any second thoughts about what they have done to him. Had he, as second to Pharaoh just asked them, they would be likely to say, ‘of course we’re sorry’. Therefore, he had to recreate the situation where they can get rid of him again and see if this time they would do something else. The best way to find out is by putting Benjamin in harm’s way and seeing how they respond.
But how about the brothers?
Judah’s speech is one of the most moving encounters in the whole Bible. It is also one of the most inaccurate retelling of what happened prior, and full of mismatched details between the speech and reality. For example, Judah says, “my master has asked his servants if we have a father or brother (44:19) but Joseph never asked that. Judah also inserts a detail about Jacob which Joseph doesn’t know, that his father is still hopeful to see him.
Reading it so, turns out, Judah’s speech is constructed carefully so that if the person in front of him is not Joseph, none of those details would mean anything to a stranger; but if he is Joseph, then the message of care, remorse, love and hope would come across.
Only when those do, that is when Joseph “can’t hold it back”, asking all the leave as he reveals himself. The Torah if so, like in many other dialogs, demands that we look beyond the superficial content and try to hear the subtext; what’s really going on.
One trip, 3 plans…
With Jacob hears that his son is alive and well in Egypt, he plans his trip “down” there. Indeed, for Jacob, who already once reluctantly left his homeland, traveling away is a “down”, and what he tells himself is that he is just going to see Joseph before he (Jacob) dies for a short visit (Genesis 46:28).
Joseph, however, knows this can’t be a short visit for there are another five years of famine (45:6).
But G-d knows the bigger plan yet, which is revealed to Jacob on his way, in a nightly vision: “”Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt for these I will make you a great nation… (46:2-4), and clearly, it is going to take longer than a short visit or even five years to make a nation.
When G-d gives this vision, He calls Jacob – Yisrael, his “national”, spiritual name. Jacob finally is assured that unlike his father and grandfather, all his children will be united for one cause and become a whole nation. Towards the end of his life, even the challenges and hardship of life come together and make sense.
It’s a longer discussion whether Jacob was lucky or not to hear the full plan. At least we were left with a message that somewhere, Someone knows and Things are supposed to make sense, even when we don’t quite see it.