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Parshat Miketz: Finding the Other Within Ourselves

They said to one another, “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us” (Berashit 42:21).

After 20 long years, Yosef is finally reunited with his brothers. According to their father’s request, 10 of the 11 remaining brothers have come down to Egypt to buy grain in this time of famine. Suddenly, the same brothers who threw Yosef into the pit and left him for dead are standing in front of him. They don’t recognize Yosef, but Yosef recognizes them. He treats them harshly; he throws them in jail for three days, and he insists on taking one of them as a guarantor until they bring their youngest brother down to Egypt to validate their story. 

But the brothers’ response is strange: “We are being punished on account of our brother.” Why would they assume that their incarceration and ill-treatment had anything to do with Yosef? Remember, they don’t recognize Yosef, and they haven’t seen him for 20 years.  Why do they see their bad fortune as Divine retribution for their treatment of their brother so long ago? And why only now do they suddenly feel such regret for selling their brother as a slave?

When the brothers arrive in Egypt, Yosef treats them as hostile enemies, and thoroughly interrogates them. He tells them: “You are spies who have come to see the nakedness, the vulnerability, of the land.”  He throws them in jail, possibly even incarcerating them in separate cells, and each one sits in solitude for three long days. And in those dark moments filled with fear and uncertainty, they suddenly remember Yosef.

Those three days in solitude, of being unjustly cast into a pit, awakened their conscious. As they themselves tasted the experience of Yosef, pangs of guilt jabbed at their hearts. They finally hear Yosef crying out to them from the pit, a detail that was never mentioned before. 

And when they are reunited after the three days in jail, they all come to the same realization: each of them is guilty for the crime against their brother. Each of them, after 20 years, had found Yosef inside himself. 

When the brothers initially plotted to kill Yosef so many years ago, the text tells us that they saw him from afar, and plotted his murder before he approached. They refused to see Yosef up close, to know Yosef, to see Yosef as a part of the family, as a part of themselves. Only now, after being subjected to unjustified incarceration and separation from their family, can they now start to open their hearts and bring Yosef close.

Yosef realizes this, and reacts in a way that we have not seen from him even in his darkest and most challenging moments: he turns away from his brothers, and he cries.

There is a story told about the second Lubavitcher Rebbe, the son of the Baal HaTanya, Rabbi Dov Ber. While receiving people privately in his office one day, he suddenly stopped, locked his door, and refused to see anyone for several hours. Outside his door the Chassidim heard him praying and weeping, but no one knew why. The rebbe was so weakened that he spent the next few days in bed. When he returned, one of the chassidim asked his rebbe what had happened.

“When someone stands before me and explains their struggles, I try to find that same failing within myself. Because how can I help him unless I have experienced the same problem and fought against the same enemy? But a few days ago one man came to me with a problem so haunting that I could not find anything inside myself that even resembled such a thing. But since God had sent him to me, there must have been something in me that could relate, on some level. The thought shook me to my core and I needed to repent and call out to Hashem from the depths of my heart.”

It can be so easy to keep others at arm’s length, whether it be a casual acquaintance or a close family member. Yosef’s brothers’ attempt to murder and sell him was done with Yosef at a distance. Only once they walked in his shoes, so to speak, could they find Yosef within themselves. 

True, going through a difficult ordeal awakens a compassion for others who have also struggled with that same experience. But we don’t have to walk in another’s shoes to extend compassion to the other. We can make space for others inside our hearts without having to go through their experiences. All of us can find something of the pain and struggle of others in our hearts, even if it at first seems quite distant. 

From the story of Yosef and his brothers, we learn that terrible plans can be concocted when we keep people at a distance. But we also learn that when we bring someone close, there can be reconciliation, understanding, and healing.

What do you think? How can we make space inside ourselves for others with whom we don’t agree?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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