We read the climax of the Joseph story in this week’s portion of Vayigash, as the sons of Jacob are reunited.
Joseph’s brothers hate him because he was their father’s favorite, and he tended to have dreams that indicated his superiority. First they plan to kill him, then decide to sell him into slavery in Egypt. After getting on the wrong side of his master’s wife, he is thrown in jail where he correctly interprets the dreams of two of his cellmates.
Later, when the Pharaoh has dreams, Joseph is summoned and again correctly interprets them, predicting that Egypt is about to experience years of plenty followed by years of famine. Joseph is put in charge of the economy and the nation prepares and has plenty in reserves during the lean years. Canaan, Joseph’s homeland, is also affected, and so his brothers go to Egypt seeking food. When they present themselves to Joseph, they do not recognize him, but he recognizes them. After testing them, he realizes his brothers have changed their ways and so he reveals himself to them.
The emotional moment is when Joseph reveals himself:
Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dumbfounded were they on account of him. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt…”
There is much to be made of this reveal and what it means for family dynamics and sibling relationships. But the reveal is personal as well as relational. For Joseph is not just revealing his identity to his brothers, but he is revealing it to himself.
When he was brought out of prison to Pharaoh, Joseph dropped the vestiges of his Israelite identity. He put on new clothes, donned Egyptian cultural markers, adopted a new language, took on a new name, married into the society. He put the old Joseph behind him.
Now in this moment, he remembers who he was—not only a son of Jacob and brother to these 11 other men, but a son of Abraham and an inheritor of the Hebrew covenant. While his outer appearance says one thing, his heart says another.
We too know what Joseph is like, ourselves navigating the identities of being Jewish and a part of a majority culture. Our names, language, clothing, and habits are often not reflective of a native Jewish identity. And yet, our outer appearance may say one thing but our heart another. And it is incumbent upon us, as Joseph did, to harmonize the two and realize that there are times we will be called upon to reveal ourselves to the world.
Last Saturday, while we celebrated my son’s bar mitzvah, a man attacked a Hanukkah celebration in the Hasidic Jewish enclave of Monsey, NY. This attack happened near where I grew up and about three miles from the synagogue where I celebrated my bar mitzvah three decades ago. This horrible attack comes amid a wave of anti-Jewish violence and at a time when general anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise and anti-Semitic rhetoric is more pervasive.
There is much to be done in response to attacks such as this one: ongoing conversations about the role of social media in festering intolerance, the need to investigate and expose hate groups, how to best approach synagogue security through physical means and behavior, continued relationship building with other targeted groups, and more.
But the one thing that we can do immediately, and simply, is to reveal ourselves for who we are. That while many aspects of our identities harmonize with others, there is a uniqueness to our identities as Jews. And while the tendency is to want to hide in the face of attacks and hatred, we should overtly commit to our practices, our traditions, our languages, our stories, our songs, and our history. It is in this way we guarantee our present and secure our future.