Even in the best of families, relationships are enormously complicated. Some of the stories rabbis hear, all too frequently, of families in crisis are excruciatingly painful: parents who disown their children because of radical disappointment with the life choices their children have made; siblings who refuse to be in the same room with each other because their anger is irreconcilable; courts clogged with family members fighting over contested wills, and so forth. The possibilities for family chaos are almost endless. When things go wrong, they often go very wrong.
That is just simply a given of social life and structure, and even our patriarchal ancestors were not immune from the challenges of keeping families together, as we have been reading in the Genesis narratives these past few weeks: Abraham sends away his concubine wife and his son with her, and the family separates after the episode of the Akedah. Isaac sees his twin sons in a homicidal fight over the birthright, and one of his sons has to leave home. Jacob loses his favorite son to a diabolical plot launched by his sons against their brother. These are hardly thes tale of a happy, well-adjusted family.
But in this week’s parsha, there is the beginning of a reconciliation among the sons of Jacob; a glimpse of hope for future family life. The brothers are to be reunited in Egypt. Ten sons of Jacob come to Egypt in search of food; they meet their younger brother Joseph, now the vizier of Egypt, and the second-most powerful man in the known world.
When the brothers are brought before Joseph, in what seems like a throwaway line, the Torah gives us a glimpse into what is arguably the most important verse in the entire Joseph narrative, in what is a key to understanding the source of the tension in this family dynamic — and the key to strengthening the dynamic in every family:
“For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:8). How is it possible they didn’t recognize their own flesh and blood, the object of their earlier jealousy and their resentment and their homicidal rage?
One answer, perhaps, is that Joseph recognized his brothers because they had not changed, but they did not recognize Joseph because he had. The 11th century commentator, Rashi, indicates as much, as he quotes the Midrash in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 69b) that states that when Joseph left home as a 17-year-old kid, he was clean-shaven. Now, more than 20 years later, Joseph was standing before them as a grown man with a full beard, and he was unrecognizable to his brothers. But more than just the beard, I suspect, had changed in Joseph; the brothers, on the other hand, had not changed at all from the time they were young men. None of the experiences of life had much of an effect on them. They talked about the same things they had always talked about. They dressed the same. They looked the same. It was easy to recognize them.
Joseph, on the other hand, had seized every opportunity he could to grow. He accepted every challenge put before him as a way to learn life’s lessons, as a way to develop skills and wisdom and to grow into a mature adult. The man standing in front of these shepherds from the hill country of Israel was not, by any definition, the same young man who was thrown into the snake pit so many years ago.
Some two centuries after Rashi, the 13th century commentator, Ramban, is skeptical of this answer. He notes that Issachar and Zevulun were not that much older than Joseph; if the difference in age between them was not that great, the difference in a beard would not have made that much of a difference. How could they not recognize him?
A second answer is suggested, one more troubling than the first, an answer that has to do with a basic character flaw we see in each of us: an innate inability to recognize our brothers, to see them separate from us, in their own autonomy, with their own matrix of needs, desires, hopes and motivations. That was the problem in Jacob’s family all along: the inability of brothers to recognize each other’s humanity.
When Joseph was 17, all he was to them was an exasperating nuisance. Their jealousy, anger and rage at his adolescent arrogance blinded them to who he really was, and allowed them to behave with violence. If they had been able to see Joseph for who he truly was, the way the Torah and God see him, it is highly unlikely they would have sold him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites.
And so it is with us. When we are able to see each other’s humanity and recognize the dignity in each other, holiness and kindness prevail. Families have the chance of staying together, where everyone nurtures each other, and love dominates. The inability to recognize our brothers (and sisters, of course) is the beginning of enmity and strife, often times leading to family divisions.
And if we can do this in our own families, can we not do this as well with our communal families? Have we not all one Father?