Are we, like Joseph’s brothers, strong, weak or as we are?


Rabbi Noah Arnow

Are Jews strong or weak, powerful or oppressed? The answer, of course, is, yes. Israel, the Jewish state, is a nuclear power and, although small, has the strongest military in the Middle East.  And in so many ways, Jews are a strong, proud presence in the United States.

And yet anti-Semitism continues, here and around the world.  Israel needs its military because of real threats to it.

A different question is whether we should portray ourselves to others as strong or as weak, whether accurately or exaggeratedly in either direction.

This is precisely the question Joseph faces toward the end of Parashat Vayigashafter reuniting with his father and brothers: “And from among his brothers, he took five and presented them to Pharaoh.” (Genesis 47:2)  Why did he present only five and not all of them, and which five did he present?

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A midrash suggests that Joseph picked the five least imposing brothers, because if Pharaoh had seen how powerful they were, he would have made them soldiers, putting them at risk.  Pharaoh might have been interested in conscripting them for their strength, but also as a way of controlling strong people who could pose a threat to him.

Moreover, presenting the weakest of the brothers wouldn’t scare Pharaoh or make him anxious about welcoming them into Egypt.

In this version of the story, Joseph is aware of Pharaoh’s insecurity and is wary of threatening him, and he determines that it’s safer to hide his family’s strength.

In contrast, we could also imagine Joseph choosing the strongest five brothers so that his family would appear impressive, like burly, tough shepherds who would help build Egypt and would not require constant help from Pharaoh.

By the way, notice that when we talk about immigrants, we often argue that they are simultaneously strong and violent but also weak, mooching off of us — or weak and peaceful and strong by being self-sufficient. Joseph faces the same conundrum in presenting his family.

Presenting only five brothers, whether the strongest or weakest, allows Joseph to make the most compelling case, to show the five really strong ones, or the five less impressive ones.

Maybe Joseph knows Pharaoh well enough to be worried about presenting his family as either strong or weak. This is to say, there may be times when focusing on our strength, or our weakness, even in an exaggerated way, may be strategic and wise.

But for Joseph, and for us, there is a third option. We can simply read the Torah as it is: Joseph took five of his brothers, without regard to their strength, and presented his family honestly and accurately. And if he presented a representative sampling of five of his brothers, he wouldn’t need to present them all. It would be clear some were stronger, others weaker, so only five could suffice.

Each of us, as a human and as a Jew, ultimately yearns to feel safe presenting ourselves as we are, not needing to pretend we are stronger or weaker than we really are. Are we there yet?  Are you?  

Rabbi Noah Arnow serves Kol Rinah and is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.