Learning to Speak Up

Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1−44:17

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Kari Tuling

Joseph's life has been rough up to this point. However, in this week's portion, Mikeitz, Joseph's life takes a turn for the better: not only do his external circumstances improve, he also starts to speak up for himself and begins to heal emotionally from the abuse he has experienced. When Joseph is released from prison and brought before Pharaoh, he confidently interprets Pharaoh's dreams and makes plans for the upcoming famine (Genesis 41:26-37).

Joseph must have been quite a sight in the Pharaoh's court: a young enslaved man, brought straight from prison, speaking to Pharaoh as an equal and detailing a seven-year plan. When presenting his ideas for managing the famine, for the first time, reticent Joseph has no hesitation in speaking up confidently and boldly.

Joseph's charisma and confidence in this context contrast sharply with his earlier reactions (or implied non-reactions) when he was attacked or abused. Note his history up to this point:

  • When his brothers took his tunic in Genesis 37:23, he said nothing.
  • When his brothers cast him into the pit in Genesis 37:24, he said nothing.
  • When his brothers sold him into slavery in Genesis 37:28, he said nothing.
  • When his new master believed his wife's accusations in Genesis 39:19, he said nothing.
  • When the cupbearer forgot him in Genesis 41:23, he said nothing.

It's possible, of course, that Joseph's responses were not considered important to the story and went unrecorded. However, in Biblical interpretation, it's quite common to find meaning in even the smallest details. In this case, we have five different examples of abuse followed by silence, which seems meaningful given their frequency.

Previously, when people took advantage of him, Joseph became passive and silent. Passivity is a typical defense mechanism of those who have been abused. In Joseph's case, passivity also appears to be a family trait. In Vayishlach, Joseph's father, Jacob, also had to rise above his learned passivity to confront his uncle Laban and face his brother Esau.

In this week's portion, Joseph finally finds the capacity to speak, albeit angrily, when he is faced with his abusers. He has risen above his passivity. When his brothers arrive, he "[pretends] to be a stranger to them and [speaks] roughly to them" (Genesis 42:7). He even goes as far as imprisoning them for three days. At last, we see Joseph getting in touch with his anger, though not yet reaching a place of compassion.

I suspect that the days of his brothers' imprisonment were a time of introspection for Joseph. Perhaps while mulling over his brothers' fates, Joseph realized that he missed his family, particularly his father. He may have realized that he even missed his brothers, despite all they had done to him.

Joseph may have also used that time to come to terms with his own role in the family drama. Though nothing can justify abuse, perhaps he realized that he had been oblivious to his brothers' pain when he bragged about his dreams.

Part of Joseph's healing process involves confronting his brothers while taking steps to adequately defend himself, rather than defaulting to his usual passivity. His greatest personal growth occurs when he finds compassion for his brothers and forgives them. The first step toward that, however, is acknowledging his anger and recognizing its validity.

We each inherit patterns from our family of origin, patterns that are both helpful and, at times, harmful. Real growth comes from learning how to confront those patterns in ways that are healthy and healing. The first step in that process is admitting the truth of the relationship and recognizing our own feelings as valid. The next step is finding the courage to show compassion.

Originally published: