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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Joseph’s reunification with brothers marks a ‘cinematic milestone’


Were I to be the director of the film version of our biblical stories, a moment in this week’s Torah portion would certainly be one that I would design as a climax. 

We open with a speech by Judah, the longest oration in the Book of Genesis, as he pleads before an Egyptian leader to save the life of his brother Benjamin and, indirectly, for the life of his father. The Egyptian, moved by the words, cries out for all of his many attendants to leave him and then issues forth a sob so loud that the Torah relates “that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.” The Egyptian potentate then turned to the Israelite men before him and said the famous words: Ani Yosef. Ha’od avi chai — “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”

We, as the audience, imagine the emotion. Joseph is wailing, in anguish, heartbroken at being apart from his family, overwhelmed at the opportunity of being reunited, and suffering as he wonders if he will ever see his father again. 

At the same time, these words evoke a feeling of puzzlement. Throughout Judah’s speech, he has referenced his father. So why would this be Joseph’s first question after his big revelation? 

Moreover, it is clear that Joseph is the second in command to all of Egypt. He is one of the most powerful men in the world. He could have easily tracked down information on his family. He could have easily sent word to his father that he was alive years prior to this moment. Why did Joseph never reach out to his family? Why did he not go home? If Joseph is so emotional at the thought of being reunited with his family, why did he not do so sooner?

To understand this, it is necessary to look back at how Joseph first arrived in Egypt. 

The story of Joseph’s descent into Egypt begins when Jacob sends Joseph to get his brothers. Joseph has already told his brothers about his two dreams, and his brothers are not happy. The brothers accuse Joseph of thinking that he will reign over all of them, including their own parents. There is jealousy among the brothers. Frankly, they do not like Joseph. And Jacob does not help the situation at all and gifts Joseph a special tunic. 

Jacob, who, of all people, should know the impact of sibling rivalry after he ran away from home for fear that his own brother would kill him, sows the seeds of rivalry among his sons, showing Joseph a clear favoritism. 

And then one morning, Jacob sends Joseph out. The Torah describes Joseph putting on the tunic before he leaves, a garment that feels unnecessary in the middle of the day. Joseph goes to find his brothers. The brothers can see Joseph from afar, easily recognizable with his colored garment, and they begin to plot against their youngest sibling. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory offers a fascinating read of this story. He suggests that if we look at it from Joseph’s perspective, all Joseph knows of the situation is that his father has sent him out to his brothers and that when he arrives, his brothers have devised a scheme to get rid of him. They throw him into a pit. He overhears their discussion to kill him. And ultimately, they sell him into slavery. 

For all Joseph knows, according to Rabbi Sacks, Jacob is part of this plan. Perhaps Joseph suspects that Jacob, too, is upset that Joseph’s dreams seem to imply that even his parents — the sun and the moon — will bow down to him. Perhaps Joseph recognizes a pattern in his family: fathers sending away sons, as Abraham sends away Ishmael; brothers fighting against brothers, as his father and uncle do. 

Joseph believes that his father wanted him dead and thus he never reached out to reconnect. So why is Joseph prepared to reveal himself now? 

In Judah’s speech to Joseph he says many things but none more important than describing his father mourning for the son that he lost and the anguish that would ultimately kill him if he lost Benjamin as well. 

It is at this moment that Joseph realizes that all that had happened to him was not part of some elaborate plot from his father, but only the actions of his jealous brothers. 

When Joseph says, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” we hear in his voice a criticism of his brothers: “I am Joseph,” he says, “I am the one you sent away. Is my father still alive? Was he able to survive that sorrow that you caused him?”

 But we also hear in his voice an emotional revelation for himself. His assumptions about his father had been wrong. “Is my father still alive?” My father, not our father. My father who loved me. My father who yearned for me. That man, who I thought had died years ago and wanted nothing to do with me. Is that man truly still alive today?

Years of pain, despair, mourning, perhaps even hatred, and resentment, assumptions, prejudice and false accusations all disappearing in just those five poignant words.

Rori Picker Neiss.
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