“Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers: The Triumph of Jewish Identity”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In a very real sense, the story of Joseph, as depicted in parashat Vayigash, is the story of Joseph’s internal battle with his own “Jewish identity.” Like Noah in the time of the Flood, the Torah narrative seems ambivalent about Joseph’s personality.

Invoking a bit of poetic license, we may assume that Joseph grew up in a “committed” Jewish home. But after he was sold by his brothers to be a slave in Egypt, Joseph developed some real issues about his relationship with his family. As for his father, Joseph probably had issues with him as well since he felt that his father Jacob had played a big part getting him into the mess that he was now in.

If we are sensitive to the implications found in the texts in parashiot Mikeitz and Vayigash, it seems eminently clear that Joseph was a committed assimilationist. Pharaoh dreams his dreams, the butler informs Pharaoh that there is a Jewish lad in prison who interprets dreams, and Joseph is rushed from the dungeon to Pharaoh’s palace. Genesis 41:15 tells us: “Va’y’gah’lach va’y’chah’layf sim’loh’tov,” And Joseph shaved and changed his clothes, “Va’yavo el Paroh,” and he came to Pharaoh.

Surely Joseph realizes that in order to impress Pharaoh, he can’t enter the palace looking like a slovenly Jewish slave boy. So Joseph shaves off any vestiges of his Jewish identity, and rids himself of his “Jewish” garb. It is however, important to note that despite the fact that Joseph plays down his Jewish identity, he still is thoroughly committed and faithful to G-d and to monotheism. Time and time again, Joseph attributes his powers to interpret dreams not to his own talents, but to G-d. In Genesis 41:16 Joseph says, “Bil’ah’dai,” It is not in my hands, only G-d can interpret dreams. It is beyond me. G-d will respond to Pharaoh’s welfare.

Joseph successfully interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, and his career is now on an incredible upward trajectory. The little Jewish slave boy is appointed second in command of the great Egyptian empire. Pharaoh removes his royal ring and places it on Joseph’s hand. Joseph is dressed in garments of fine linen, and has a gold chain placed around his neck. He looks and acts as if he is Egyptian royalty. As he is driven around in the royal limousine, the entire nation bows down to him.

Without much effort, Joseph adjusts to his new, affluent and thoroughly Egyptian lifestyle–growing increasingly comfortable in the royal palace, the stretch limousines, and with the unlimited material pleasures. To clinch the transformation, Pharaoh gives Joseph an Egyptian name, Zaphenath-Paneach, and Osnat, the daughter of Poti-phera, the High Priest of On, is given to Joseph for a wife. How’s that for a quick makeover?

Is Joseph homesick for his father or his brothers who are back in Canaan? No way! He never calls, never phones, never faxes, never sends a messenger, never even e-mails! He’s having the time of his life in Egypt!

Two sons are born to Joseph and Osnat. Their names confirm Joseph’s disdainful attitude towards his early years. In Genesis 41:51 we learn of the birth of the royal couple’s first child. Joseph calls him Menashe, explaining: “Kee na’shah’nee Elokim et kol ah’mah’lee v’et kol bayt avi,” G-d has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s household. When their second son, Ephraim, is born, Joseph announces (Genesis 41:52): “Kee hif’rah’nee Elokim b’eretz ahn’yee,” G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction. You thought Egypt would be bad for me? It’s turned out to be an incredible blessing.

After being separated from his family for 20 years, Joseph encounters his brother for the first time. He is filled with anger, and appears bent on vengeance. He, subsequently, accuses his brothers of spying. To prove that they are innocent, the brothers may not return to Egypt without their youngest brother, Benjamin. After a long delay, the brothers and Benjamin come to Egypt. Rather than introduce himself to his long lost brother Benjamin, Joseph instead asks first about the welfare of the boys’ father, Jacob. In Genesis 43:27, Joseph asks: “Ha’shalom avi’chem ha’zah’kayn asher ah’martem? Ha’o’deh’nu chai?” Is your elderly father of whom you spoke, well? Is he still alive? The brothers reply that Jacob is fine, and that he still lives.

The plot thickens, Benjamin is accused of stealing Joseph’s chalice, and a momentous confrontation takes place between Joseph and Judah. Joseph can no longer contain himself, and reveals himself to his brothers. Joseph says (Genesis 45:3): “Ani Yosef. Ha’od avi chai?” I am Joseph, is my father yet alive?

Of course Jacob is alive! Why is he asking? Haven’t the brothers told Joseph just a few moments before that Jacob was alive?! What Joseph is obviously asking is: I am Joseph–the assimilationist, I am Zaphenath-Paneach, married to the daughter of the High Priest of On, whose children are named in honor of forgetting my past, “Ha’od avi chai? Does my father still live in me?

At that moment, confronted with this existential choice, Joseph declares, “Anee Yosef,” I am not the noble Egyptian Zaphenath-Paneach, I am Joseph the Jew! As much as I thought I preferred it the other way (as an Egyptian), I realize that being Jewish is an inescapable part of my destiny. My father surely lives in me!

Joseph then embraces his brothers and his Jewish identity, reconnects with his family, and reaffirms his connection with the Abrahamitic promise of Jewish posterity.

The re-embracing of his identity represents the triumph of Joseph’s inner spirit, what we call in Yiddish Dos Pintele Yid–the spark of Jewishness that is in every Jewish soul, no matter how distanced or alienated. It is this spiritual triumph that we hope will take place in America and around the world, where so many Jews are asking, “Ha’od avi chai?” Is my father still alive in me?

May you be blessed.