Joseph and Yiscah, a story of fluid identities

There are many aspects of the Joseph story that have bothered me over the years and this year is no exception except now perhaps I have an approach that provides perhaps some answers or at least a new perspective.

What are the problematic elements?

  1. Why during the nine years that Joseph was viceroy of Egypt did he not contact his family and put his father out of misery? Had he lost their email addresses? Did WhatsApp not work in those areas of the globe? Could he not have sneaked a letter out when he was not busy seducing or being seduced by Mrs. Potiphar? Surely there were opportunities.
  2. Why, when his brothers travelled to Egypt for food, did he play such a cruel, manipulative ‘game’ on them: keeping Shimon in jail, threatening to enslave Benjamin thereby bringing more grief to Jacob, his father?
  3. Why did Joseph instigate such a seemingly cruel economic policy upon Egypt once the drought hit as predicted: forcing the people to buy back their own bread, selling their livestock and land, becoming permanently indebted to Pharaoh, and then enforce mass relocations of the population making them strangers in their own land? Wasn’t there another way to save Egypt other than such absolute centralization of power that eerily reminds one of similar policies by his namesake in the 20th century Soviet Union?

Can we be proud of any of these actions? Do we not flinch, even slightly, by his behaviour? Isn’t it obvious that what occurred just a couple of generations after, namely the enslavement of an entire people, the descendants of Jacob, was a direct result of such treatment of the native population. No wonder there was such little sympathy towards us as our babies were cast into the Nile and our bodies groaned under the whips of our overlords.

This week I was blessed to have a new insight (new for me) into understanding the complexities of this story. On Sunday evening I attended a screening at the Pardes Institute of Torah Learning of the film “I Was Not Born a Mistake” directed by Rachel Rusinek and Eyal Ben Moshe about the remarkable life of Yiscah Smith who went from being a secular Jewish man in America, to a Chabad rabbi, married with six children living in the Old City of Jerusalem, to a divorced, gay man living in California, to a beautiful woman and amazing Torah teacher back in her beloved Jerusalem. The film describes her early discomfort while living in the body of a young boy called Jeffery, laughed at and bullied by the other boys, who, when a teenager, came for the first time to Israel, stood at the Kotel and made a ‘deal’ with God: I will serve you with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my being and in return You give me peace in who I am. Jeffery became Yaacov and Yaacov became frum – Chabad frum (frum is the frum term for very orthodox). He imbibed Torah day and night, met with the Rebbe, married, had half a dozen children, moved to Jerusalem, lived in the Old City and taught in Beit Chabad. All good and wonderful. Another success.

But then one day or maybe two, the veneer, the façade, began to peel and crack and instead of light coming in there was only darkness, and Reb Yaacov began to feel that he was living a lie, a sham, a deceit, and that God had not delivered on Her side of the unilateral agreement.

In the film, Yiscah describes how, after a wonderful Shabbat meal with tens of guests all admiring the ‘perfect’ Jewish family, someone confronted him in private and compassionately and insightfully accused him of being a fake.

In the middle of the Gulf War, hiding behind gas masks with sirens wailing and missiles crashing, Yaacov told his wife that he was gay and could no longer stay in a marriage that required him to be inauthentic to his true self – whatever that was (Yiscah’s book is called Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living). As the war ended, as Purim was celebrated, as the masks went on and off, as Esther, the Jewish queen, revealed herself for who she truly was, Yaacov and his wife divorced. But such an act never goes unnoticed nor unpunished, especially in the frum world, and Yaacov found himself cruelly ostracized from his adopted community and eventually forced to leave the country filled with anger, pain and shame.

In New York and then California he lived as a secular, gay man faking happiness. He was still tormented by existential discomfort, of a sense of being and not being, of disembodiment, of a stranger in a strange body. And then his long-term lover accused him of being a her and left.

So there was Jeffrey, ex-Yaacov, with no family, no wife, no partner, no access to his children or grandchildren, no nothing, just a lot of false identities – like a spy without a home.

And then, having hit rock bottom, the wheel begins to turn – again – and she begins the journey of transformation – again – in the courageous, unenviable but essential search for self. And as she transitions even her father and sisters turn their backs on her like Joseph’s brothers must have done when they sold him to the Ishmaelites… or was it the Midianites – even the Torah is not certain of the buyer’s identity. Only her mother stayed loyal and took her shopping.

And now she is Yiscah, a beautiful woman living in Nachlaot, filled with self-confidence and the compassion that accompanies such certainly, such knowing, such humility, such gratitude, such wisdom and understanding of who she really is. Her open heartedness is a true wonder. She now lives the life that she always sought: in Jerusalem as a respected Torah teacher and spiritual guide, reconnected to (some) of her children, and (some) of her siblings, curving out an authentic life, reaping in joy what she sowed in tears. No more war, no more pain, no more lies, no more deceit. God, the Great Mother has kept Her side of the bargain after all – the family is reunited, identity fully grounded. Authenticity, shelaimut – wholeness – at last.

And what of Tzafnut Paneach aka Joseph, of beautiful form and appearance, bullied and despised by his older brothers, motherless but loved and spoilt rotten by his father (who also had undergone an identity crisis but that’s another story), with a penchant for colorful, or at least high fashion clothes, and who according to the midrash, liked to curl his hair and elongate his eyelashes, who was he? And here I must disappoint you for I am not suggesting that Joseph was fluid of gender even though a case, based on the above evidence, could be made to the contrary. I am suggesting that he was plagued by lack of clarity as to his identity both national and tribal. As a youth, he felt and thought and dreamt that he was meant for greater things, for a different life. And so he was.

Why did he not protest when his father Jacob (or was it Israel?) commanded him to go and see if there was peace with his brothers way up in Shechem the site of the great deceitful slaughter? Why did he not cry out when accosted by his siblings and thrown into the dry pit? Why did he not struggle and resist when sold to whomever? Because, I suggest, that’s exactly what he wanted. He wanted to get away, to escape, to live his own life free from the trappings of the incessant family dramas and the constant, stifling stink of sheep and goats. Or perhaps like the Tzaddik he really wasn’t, did he put his life in the hands of his dreams and trust that somehow it would all turn out for the good? Probably a bit of both.

And now we find him, after many ups and downs, as viceroy to Pharaoh, lording it over Egypt. But who is this man with his Egyptian wife and Egyptian children, with his Egyptian clothes and chain of gold around his neck? He’s living the good life of an immigrant who made good in his adopted country having successfully thrown off the chains of Das Alte Land. But is he happy? And how does he identify – Egyptian or Hebrew – the dilemma of the Jew in exile? Like Yiscah, I imagine him yearning for his family but not willing to give up his Green Card. He boils with discontent at not being truly this or truly that, just as Yiscah relates how her children told her how angry and short tempered he was as a father. Identity dissonance does that. Living non-authentically does that – Galut from oneself. And how does Joseph respond? He transfers his ambiguity in his own identity onto the people of Egypt. He forcibly uproots them from their habitats causing them to become strangers in their own nation, disassociated from their native lands, villages and way of life until everybody is just like him – of mixed-up identity. Except for the priests, they remain as a permanent fixture, a point of reference, perhaps as a sign of hope, and perhaps it is for this reason we are later anointed as a ‘nation of priests’.

And then his brothers show up – so unexpected and yet so yearned for. Finally family! Finally the masks can be set aside. Finally the truth will out. “But what if they don’t want me? But what if they reject me – again?” The pain of such a rejection repeated would be too painful. So he tests them, moves them, and is moved by them, eventually being moved to tears. And when finally convinced that the charade can end, that they will embrace him as brother, he removes his mask and declares his true identity “I am Joseph!” And the family embraces, and Jacob, the broken patriarch, can become whole (shalaym) and healed – Yisrael.

And at the end of the film I asked Yiscah whether, when she looks back over the ups and downs, twists and turns of her life, can she say what Joseph said to his brothers? And she answered: “Yes. This was God’s intention all the time. It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t my fault. I forgive myself and I forgive you. Please forgive me and forgive yourselves. It wasn’t a mistake at all.”

About the Author
Michael Kagan is the author of the Holistic Haggadah (Urim), God’s Prayer (Albion-Andalus) and The King’s Messenger (Albion-Andalus Books). He is a scientist, entrepreneur, film-maker and teacher of Holistic Judaism. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan.
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