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To See Or Not To See

  • To See Or Not To See

    Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1−44:17
D'var Torah By: 

For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. (Genesis 42:8)

With the famine in Canaan at a critical point, Jacob's sons travel to Egypt to procure food. They are given an opportunity to plead their case before Pharaoh's vizier, their brother Joseph. When they enter the room, Joseph immediately realizes who they are, although they do not recognize him.

How could this be? How could not one of the ten brothers standing before Joseph identify him? Had Joseph changed that much?

Our tradition offers at least three possible explanations for this odd occurrence, each of which, in turn, raises many new questions about how we interpret—and often misinterpret—reality.

Explanation I: The Man

Some sages tell us that Joseph's physical appearance had indeed changed since the brothers had last seen him. A boy of seventeen when he had been abandoned, Joseph was now a man of thirty, bearded and more mature in appearance. Other commentators focus on the numerous ways in which Joseph had assumed the fashions and appearances of the Egyptians. But what if the cause of the brothers' failure to recognize Joseph was not Joseph at all but rather their own blind spots, their own inability to perceive what was literally before their eyes?

Indeed, at least one commentator suggests that while the brothers' memory of the young Joseph they had left to die may have faded over the years, the older Joseph closely resembled the very familiar countenance of their father (Zar Zahav). Did they, in fact, "see" Jacob in Joseph? How might that have been an obstacle to recognition rather than a clue?

Explanation II: The Context

According to another commentator, the reason the brothers didn't recognize Joseph is that even if it had occurred to them that their brother might still be alive, it would never have occurred to them to find him in this place or in such a high position. To what extent do we make assumptions about people based on the position in which we encounter them?

On the other hand, perhaps the reason that the brothers failed to recognize Joseph was that they were so focused on this place and on their own needs that they missed something that should have been obvious to them. Or might it have been that, riddled by guilt for what they had done, they had so often "seen" Joseph in other people that they no longer paid attention to such sightings? Rashi raises the question of whether or not the brothers had ever really "seen" Joseph. If they had, could they have acted as they did?

To what extent are the people we regularly encounter invisible to us? Could we walk past someone sleeping on the street if we really saw that person? In what ways do we fail to recognize people who might be our brethren? People who can help us? People whom we have wronged or abandoned?

As in the case of the brothers and Joseph, we see such people but we do not recognize them, for in order to do so, we need to see parts of ourselves to which we prefer to shut our eyes. We cannot recognize the people we have wronged without also seeing ourselves as wrongdoers, and that is very difficult to do.

In this situation, the brothers saw themselves as the vulnerable party—after all, they were the ones who were hungry and entirely dependent on the kindness of one whom they assumed to be a stranger. How often does our own perception of ourselves as vulnerable stand in the way of our examining our behavior toward others—the members of our family, the people with whom we work, and the people among whom we dwell?

Explanation III: The Disguise

This last explanation suggests that Joseph's invisibility to his brothers was his own doing. Vayitnaker, the text tells us: "He acted like a stranger toward them." (Genesis 42:7) How so? At least two commentators suggest that Joseph actually disguised himself by pulling his hat over his face (Ramban) and by changing his voice (Rashbam).

Why did Joseph do this? Was it, as some suggest, in order to fulfill the earlier dreams he had had? Or perhaps, as others hold, he disguised himself to give his brothers an opportunity to do teshuvah by subjecting them to the various trials and tribulations that he proceeded to inflict upon them.

Perhaps Joseph disguised himself because he was ambivalent about being recognized, about having to acknowledge his own familial responsibilities. Perhaps it was at that moment that Joseph recognized his own transgression in never having made an attempt to contact his father or even to let him know that he was still alive. How often do we take the easy way out of facing up to our obligations as parents, children, spouses, and ex-spouses?

The meeting between Joseph and his brothers pointedly reminds us that truly seeing requires more than mere sight and that real comprehension begins with a better understanding of ourselves.

At the time of this writing in 1998, Rabbi Peter B. Schaktman was the associate director of the UAHC (now URJ) Greater New York Council of Reform Synagogues in New York City.

Joseph: Separate and Alone
Davar Acher By: 
Keren Alpert

In Parashat Mikeitz, we encounter the narrative at a truly dramatic time. Having successfully interpreted Pharaoh's dreams, Joseph has become a vizier in Pharaoh's court and is financially and socially successful. (Genesis 41:37-45)

How do we as Jews separate ourselves from non-Jews?

Joseph, the dreamer, is the only Jew in town. Although he has been assimilated into Egyptian society and has married an Egyptian woman, he is lonely. He does not even eat with the Egyptians since "that would be abhorrent" to them. (Genesis 43:32) Therefore, symbolically perhaps, he dines alone, away from his colleagues and away from his family.

  1. Are there times when the non-Jewish world does not understand the importance of Friday night or of major Jewish holidays and, as a result, conflict is created?

  2. Do the laws of kashrut separate us from non-Jews? How?

  3. Are there times when it is important for us to be apart from the rest of the world and times for us to be together? Give examples of such times.

How has Joseph separated himself from his family?

Joseph's pain is always just beneath the surface. Although the episode of his brothers' abuse of him is in the far past, Joseph still remembers it everyday, as witnessed by the names that he has given his sons, which remind him of his tragic adolescence: Manasseh, which means "God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home," and Ephraim, which means "God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction." (Genesis 41:51-52) What names! What memories! What a festering sore is the unfinished business of Joseph and his brothers!

Joseph's brothers come to Egypt in search of food. They approach Joseph, who recognizes them and provides for their needs. But the brothers do not recognize Joseph! Truly, Joseph has separated himself both physically and emotionally from his family.

  1. How do you think Joseph's appearance has changed?

  2. What could have "blinded" the brothers so that they could not see Joseph?

How can a family heal after great tragedy?

Intent on revenge but yearning even more for contact with the only family he has in the world, Joseph tests his brothers to see if they have changed since they sold him into slavery. Indeed they have. They are loyal to and protective of Joseph's full brother, Benjamin, and they have not forgotten the harm that they have done to Joseph.

  1. Why is Jacob's advancing age such an important factor to Joseph and his decision to forgive his brothers?

  2. Why does Joseph forgive his brothers?

  3. What are the steps of teshuvah that the brothers have taken prior to their being forgiven?

Joseph, the lonely dreamer, sees all: He has seen the future of Egypt and he now sees the true identity of his brothers. He experiences the pervading loneliness of his life, being the only Jew in Egypt, and he resolves to repair the breach with his family.

By saving his brothers, Joseph has saved all the Jewish people. Through his reunion with his family, the Jewish people are once again unified. Joseph, the dreamer, performs the work of God, the Ultimate Dreamer.

At the time of this writing in 1998, Keren Alpert was the educator at Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City, OK.

Reference Materials: 

Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1-44:17
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 264–277; Revised Edition, pp. 267–283;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 233–258