“Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers: The Triumph of Jewish Identity”
(updated and revised from Vayigash 5763-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In a very real sense, according to several commentators, 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 both Joseph’s personality and spiritual identity.

Invoking a bit of poetic license, we may assume that Joseph grew up in the Patriarch Jacob’s “committed” Jewish home. But, after he was sold by his brothers to be a slave in Egypt, Joseph developed some real issues concerning his relationship with his “Jewish” family. As for his father, Joseph probably had issues with him as well, since he felt that 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 Miketz and Vayigash, it seems rather obvious 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 41:14, describes the scene: וַיְגַלַּח וַיְחַלֵּף שִׂמְלֹתָיו, And Joseph shaved and changed his clothes, וַיָּבֹא אֶל פַּרְעֹה, and he came to Pharaoh.

Surely, Joseph realizes that in order to impress Pharaoh he can’t enter the palace looking like a disheveled 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 even though Joseph plays down his Jewish identity, he still is thoroughly committed and faithful to G-d and to monotheism. Time and again, Joseph attributes his powers to interpret dreams not to his own talents, but to G-d. In Genesis 41:16, Joseph announces to Pharaoh’s court, בִּלְעָדָי, “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 like 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 unlimited material pleasures. To clinch the transformation, Pharaoh gives Joseph not only an Egyptian name, Zaphenath-Paneach, but also a new wife, Osnat, the daughter of Poti-phera, the High Priest of On. How’s that for a quick makeover?

Is Joseph homesick for his father or his for brothers who are back in Canaan? No way! He never calls, never sends a messenger, never even an e-mail! He’s having the time of his life in Egypt, and seems to have no interest in his former, very dysfunctional, family back in Canaan!

Two sons are born to Joseph and Osnat. Their names confirm Joseph’s disdainful attitude toward his early years. In Genesis 41:51, we learn of the birth of the royal couple’s first child. Joseph calls him Menashe, explaining: כִּי נַשַּׁנִי אֱ־לֹקִים אֶת כָּל עֲמָלִי, וְאֵת כָּל בֵּית אָבִי, 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: כִּי הִפְרַנִי אֱ־לֹקִים בְּאֶרֶץ עָנְיִי, 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 finally encounters his brothers, who come to Egypt to buy food for their hungry families. Joseph is filled with anger and appears bent on vengeance. He, subsequently, accuses his brothers of spying. To prove their innocence, Joseph demands that the brothers 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: הֲשָׁלוֹם אֲבִיכֶם הַזָּקֵן, אֲשֶׁר אֲמַרְתֶּם, הַעוֹדֶנּוּ חָי “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 dramatically reveals himself to his brothers. Joseph says, Genesis 45:3: אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי “I am Joseph, is my father yet alive?”

Of course, Jacob is alive! What is Joseph asking? Hadn’t the brothers informed Joseph upon arriving in Egypt that Jacob was alive?! Perhaps, Joseph is declaring as well as asking: I am Joseph–the assimilationist, I am Zaphenath-Paneach, the Viceroy of Pharaoh, married to the daughter of the High Priest of On, whose children are named in honor of forgetting my past, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי, Does my father still live in me?!

At that moment, confronted with this existential choice, Joseph declares, אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, I am not the noble Egyptian Zaphenath-Paneach, I am Joseph the Jew! As much as I thought I preferred life as an Egyptian, I realize that being Jewish is an inescapable part of me and 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 דאָס פִּינטעֶלעֶ ייִד–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 the hearts of all the Jews around the world, wherever they may be, who are distant from their beautiful Jewish heritage. As committed Jews, we must encourage our beloved brothers and sisters to ask that most vital question, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי “Is my father still alive in me?” With G-d’s help, may the answer be a resounding, ”Yes!”

May you be blessed.