Many years ago, I taught an adult education class on biblical heroes. Among those we studied was Joseph. We focused on Parashat Mikeitz and discussed Joseph’s contentious relationship with his older brothers and their later reconciliation. We also talked about Joseph’s learning to use his ability to interpret dreams for others and recognizing that his talent was a gift from God. Although intellectually I believed that Joseph had indeed matured, emotionally I felt otherwise, and sensed that somehow, we hadn’t grasped the full story. I asked the class: if Joseph had indeed matured, why hadn’t he communicated with his father? After all, he had been his father’s favorite. Jacob hadn’t thrown him into a pit or plotted to sell him into slavery. It’s not as if Jacob would have inquired about him, for the brothers had taken Joseph’s tunic, dipped it in blood and let Jacob think that Joseph was dead. Surely, Joseph could have imagined the impact of such news on Jacob. Perhaps Joseph’s anger towards his brothers was so great that he wasn’t ready to return home and forgive them. But didn’t he have any compassion, or love, for his father?
It’s not until his brothers’ second visit to Egypt (Genesis 43:27) that we first hear Joseph asking about Jacob. When they first go to Egypt, the brothers (who don’t recognize Joseph) mention that they have a father, but Joseph (who immediately recognizes them) doesn’t take this opportunity to ask how Jacob is. It is only when they come back with their brother Benjamin, as Joseph had instructed, that he asks: “How is your aged father of whom you spoke? Is he still alive?” (Genesis 43:27). How can we understand Joseph’s initial lack of interest in Jacob considering Joseph’s supposed maturity? By the end of the class session to which I earlier referred, my adult learners had convinced me that I was being too hard on Joseph. What he had experienced was so traumatic that years later, he still was not ready to face or forgive his family and so, repressed the past.
Yet in the years that followed, as my sons became b’nei mitzvah, and more recently, got engaged or married, my discomfort with Joseph’s seeming lack of concern for his father has resurfaced, but from a different perspective. My earlier discomfort had to do with my unsuccessfully trying to see myself as Joseph. Being extremely close to my parents, I couldn’t imagine being apart from them for so long without wanting to know how they were doing and letting them know that I was okay. Now, at the age of 66, I read the text through Jacob’s eyes, feeling his pain when he learns from his sons that Joseph is dead. I’ve come to realize that the story of Jacob and Joseph in Parashat Mikeitz is not really one of a father’s grief and a son’s anger turned to indifference, but rather one of a once-close parent-child relationship that comes to be characterized by separation, loss, and silence. As close as I remain to my sons, bar mitzvah, like marriage, is celebrated as a rite of passage in which a child separates from his or her parents. In the case of bar and bat mitzvah, this is by becoming a full adult member of the Jewish community and deciding for oneself whether or not to accept the privileges and obligations of Jewish adulthood; in the case of marriage, it is by embarking on a life with one’s spouse and creating a new sense of family. As the decisions my children make get tougher, and things don’t always go as they had planned, if there are traumatic events that they are forced to endure, will they wind up blaming me as Joseph blamed Jacob? Will we go through periods of silence, in which one or more of them doesn’t return my text messages or calls?
While the biblical text never explicitly states that Joseph harbored ill feelings towards Jacob, how else can one explain Joseph’s choosing to remain in Egypt long after he was freed from slavery? If he were only mad at his brothers, why didn’t he return to Jacob or at least let him know that he was alive? Perhaps ultimately, the person Joseph blames most for his misfortunes is Jacob. I can imagine his saying to himself: “It’s all my father’s fault. If only he hadn’t singled me out, pampered me, and said how he loved me best, my brothers wouldn’t have hated me and I never would have been sold into slavery.” Thus, when Pharaoh decides to make Joseph second in command, Joseph jumps at the opportunity to create a new identity, with a new name, homeland, and family, marrying Asenath, daughter of an Egyptian priest, who gives birth to sons whom Joseph aptly names Manasseh (“’For God has made me forget all the troubles I endured in my father’s house’”) and Ephraim (“’For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction’”) (Genesis 41:51-52). For over seven years, Joseph puts his past behind him, seeing himself and seen by others as an Egyptian, who finds in his new homeland personal contentment, and political and financial success.
Had his brothers not come down to Egypt, he would have let Jacob and his brothers die of starvation. To him, they were no longer his family and their problems weren’t his. But when they return with Benjamin, as Joseph had instructed, Joseph is overcome with emotion at seeing his beloved, younger brother (Genesis 43:30-31) and realizes how much he missed during those years of separation. Joseph recognizes that the real reason he had stayed in Egypt wasn’t that he didn’t want to face his family, but that he didn’t want to face himself. His older brothers weren’t blameless, but neither was he. What’s more, even if there was much in his father with which he could find fault, it was still his obligation to honor him. What about Joseph’s other obligations as a full member of the covenantal community into which he’d been born? In contemporary parlance, what about his Jewish identity? Joseph comes to understand that he had taken resentments and anger towards his family and projected them onto Judaism itself. Thus, when he asks his brothers about Jacob, his words reflect a new more mature Joseph who emotionally and spiritually is ready to come home. Joseph realizes that Jacob’s shortcomings as a father don’t exempt or excuse him from being the kind of son, or human being, that he knows he is capable of being.
Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT; Professor of Religious Studies; and director of the university’s Bennett Center for Judaic Studies. She is a long-time member of Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY.