Are we our Brother’s Keeper? : A Reading and Interpretation of Genesis
“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 alive?’ 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…’”
Genesis 45: 1–4
In this week’s parshah, Joseph, at long last, stops the charade. He tells his starving brothers that he is their long-lost brother.
This is quite a moment and a remarkable reveal: The brothers quite reasonably think Joseph is gone for good, since they betrayed him years earlier, selling him into slavery to make a quick shekel (or, to be more exact, twenty shekels).
The brothers do not know that Joseph has- serendipitously and miraculously- beaten the odds, surviving wrongful criminal allegation and jail-time during his sojourn in Egypt. He has risen in the ranks to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man and chief of staff, the quintessential VIP in the Egyptian royal court.
This, in its own right, is worthy of reflection: Joseph’s rise to power is the first example of genuine public, “secular” authority of an Israelite within the biblical narrative. Having shattered this glass ceiling, Joseph is akin to an RBG or Joseph (Note the name!) Lieberman of his time.
OK, let’s return back to the moment in question in the Genesis text:
Joseph’s brothers have come groveling to the anonymous Egyptian bureaucrat before them, hoping that he can access some reserve of mercy and help them acquire food for their family amidst a raging famine.
Thus far, in the narrative, Joseph has not told his brothers who he is, in relation to them. Rather, he has tested his brothers, and demanded that they jump through hoops to have the chance to get the food that they are after. Specifically, he plants a goblet in the bag of Benjamin, the younger of the two children of Jacob and Rachel (Joseph being the older of the two), in an attempt to see if they’ve learned their lesson in the ensuing years after their betrayal of him- of serving as their brother’s keeper.
Judah steps forth and tells this bureaucrat before him that he will go to jail, in Benjamin’s stead (Genesis 44). He beseeches, “Please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.” (Genesis 44:33)
Joseph’s sudden appreciation of the depth of Judah’s learning- and courage and vulnerability- concerning what it means to be a caring brother, leads him to respond in turn with vulnerability as well as honesty. Tears spontaneously gush forth and he suddenly cannot bear to keep the truth of his identity hidden from his brothers. He says, “I am Joseph.”
For the brothers, this is a moment of dumbfounding, disbelief, and cognitive dissonance; the situation is so fantastical as to make it seem more likely to them that the royal misspoke, an unintentional Joseph impersonator, than that he is actually Joseph in the flesh, back from the dead.
It is worth reflecting on Joseph’s introduction to them. Joseph is reintroducing himself to his brothers and reclaiming his identity as Joseph, son of Jacob. Perhaps, in this time in his life, Joseph is tempted to simply live a lavish lifestyle, to forget his roots, and to forsake his Israelite-ness. He is a public personality, an Egyptian influencer. Of what value would it be to him to revisit a troubled past and reveal who he is underneath the robes befitting Egypt’s royal?
Or perhaps, Joseph harbors anger at his brothers, and even derives satisfaction from making them grovel, if not starve. After what they did to him years before, causing them to suffer would seem to constitute both practical and poetic justice.
Nonetheless, though he has attained high station in Egypt and though he could easily harbor grudges, he chooses to affirm who he is at his core.
The biblical description of the choreography of the scene is simultaneously subtle yet profound. The staging is worth paying attention to: Judah humbly steps forward to speak before this royal figure at the beginning of the parshah. Then, after initially sharing who he is, Joseph calls for his brothers to come further forward in Genesis 45:3 (see above). When they do, he once again shares who he is. After doing so, in Genesis 45:14–15, “he embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.” The parshah charts the gradual reintroduction of trust and intimacy between estranged brothers, through their ever-closer physical proximity to one another. As if to further emphasize the importance of small physical movements, the name of the parshah is Vayigash, meaning “And he approached.“ Seemingly unimportant gestures prove significant in the scene.
This parshah causes us to ask:
Who are we at out core?
What are our “names,” and are we able to simply and clearly articulate them?
Do we seek to reconnect with and practice honesty with people in our lives with whom we have lost touch?
Speaking of names, although the text underscores, “I am Joseph,” Judah is the namesake of the Jewish people. His initial act of vulnerability is what precipitates- and catalyzes- Joseph’s emotional shift (which in turn leads to the reunion of the whole family and the sharing of the bounty of Egypt.)
What does it mean to forgo the lineage of Cain and Abel and walk in the lineage of Judah and Joseph, brothers who found a way to approach and even embrace one another, despite their history and despite it all?