Who are you? Not your name, not your career—who is the true you?
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayyigash, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. The emotional moment is among the most powerful in Genesis (44:1–15, translation based on Koren):
And Joseph could not restrain himself before those who stood by him; and he cried, “Send out every man from upon me.” And no man stood with him when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, and Egypt and the house of Pharaoh heard. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph; does my father still live?” And his brothers could not answer him, for they were terrified at his presence. And Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please,” and they came near. And he said, “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. […]” And he fell on the neck of his brother Benjamin, and wept; and Benjamin wept on his neck. And he kissed all his brothers, and wept on them; and after that his brothers spoke with him.
The Midrash takes a frightening lesson from this story (Bereshit Rabbah, Vilna edition, 93:10, my translation):
“He raised his voice in weeping…and his brothers could not reply to him.”
Abba Kohen Bardela said: Woe unto us from the day of judgment! Woe unto us for the day of rebuke!
For Bilaam, the wisest of gentiles, could not stand up to the rebuke of his donkey, as is written (Num. 22), “‘Have I ever dared to do such a thing to you?’ And he said, ‘No.’”
Joseph was younger than his brothers, and they could not stand up to his rebuke, as is written, “And his brothers could not answer him, for they were terrified at his presence.”
When the Holy One, blessed is He, will come and rebuke each person according to who that person is, as is said (Ps. 50), “I will rebuke you and evaluate you before your eyes”—all the more so [will we be unable to stand up to His rebuke]!
Both Joseph’s brothers and Bilaam faced a sudden revelation of the truth. That is what we will eventually face before our all-knowing Creator: the truth.
The good news is that God does not expect us to be perfect. The Midrash says that God will judge “each person according to who that person is.”
This recalls the story of Reb Zusha of Anapoli. When Reb Zusha was on his deathbed, his students saw that he was very frightened. He explained to them, “I am not afraid that God will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you like Abraham?’ or ‘Zusha, why weren’t you like Moses?’ I could say, You didn’t give me the abilities of Abraham or Moses.’ But if God asks, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you like Zusha?’—what could I say?”
It’s a question worth asking: Who am I? What kind of person can I become?
All that God expects from us is to be ourselves, our true selves. That is a great responsibility, but one that, by definition, each of us can fulfill.