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.