It has become popular of late in certain circles to append to one’s electronic signature one’s “preferred pronouns,” a set of pronouns that an individual would like others to use when talking to or about that individual. My preferred pronouns are “He/Him/His.” While my opinion regarding this custom is irrelevant to this essay, I suggest that one of the first people to struggle with preferred pronouns was Joseph.
Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, experiences a meteoric rise to fame. He is yanked out of prison, where he has languished for two years, crowned the Grand Vizier, second only to the Pharaoh, and given sole responsibility for the Egyptian economy. When the Middle East experiences a once-in-a-generation famine, his brothers come to Egypt to procure grain. Joseph immediately recognizes them and sets into motion an elaborate ruse that culminates when he frames his brother, Benjamin, threatening to enslave him while freeing the rest of his brothers to return home to the Land of Canaan.
Joseph’s brother, Judah, pleads for Benjamin’s freedom. Judah’s words touch a chord and Joseph decides that the time has come to reveal himself to his brothers [Bereishit 45:1] “Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants and he cried out, ‘Have every man taken from me!’ So there was no man with him when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers.” This verse is striking. The Torah seems to be actively engaged foreshadowing, clearly telling us that Joseph is about to reveal himself to his brothers. As predicted, immediately after Joseph clears the room, he does indeed reveal his true identity [Bereishit 45:2-3]: “He wept out loud, so the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’” Why does scripture not simply state “So there was no man with him” – full stop? Another oddity in the verse are the words “So there was no man with him when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers.” The subject of the verse is Joseph. The Torah could simply have stated “So there was no man with him when he revealed himself to his brothers.” Why is the name “Joseph” repeated?
Preferred pronouns can help address these questions. Joseph’s life was rife with pronouns. When the Torah first introduces Joseph [Bereishit 37:2], it refers to him as a “lad (na’ar)”. Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, teaches that Joseph was called a “lad” because he behaved like a teenager, “fixing his hair and touching up his eyes so that he would appear handsome.” When Pharaoh’s Royal Butler speaks before Pharaoh, who has dreamt two strange dreams that seemingly defy interpretation, the butler remembers how Joseph had two years earlier interpreted his own dreams when they shared a prison cell [Bereishit 41:12]: “There with us was a Hebrew lad.” Rashi comments that the butler was hinting to Pharaoh that Joseph was a childish fool and unfit for high office. One can only imagine Joseph’s jailers banging on his cage, shouting “Hey, you dumb kid, the king wants to see you!” The pronoun “lad” also appears in Judah’s plea for Benjamin’s freedom, where he refers to Benjamin as a “lad” no less than six times.
Another one of Joseph’s pronouns is “child (yeled).” After Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt, he accuses them of espionage and throws them into prison. His oldest brother, Reuven, bemoans their fate, convinced that they are being punished for selling Joseph into slavery years earlier [Bereishit 42:22] “Didn’t I tell you, saying, ‘Do not sin against the child,’ but you did not listen.” Joseph hears Reuven’s words and he cannot hold back his tears.
Perhaps the most frequently-used pronoun in Joseph’s life, and simultaneously the pronoun imbued with the greatest assortment of meanings, is “man (ish).” After Joseph accuses his brothers of espionage, they deflect the charge, asserting [Bereishit 42:13] “We are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the Land of Canaan.” That one “man” is Jacob. It is important to note that our Sages in teaching that the Torah always uses the word “man (ish)” to confer importance, like the royal “Sir.” Sir Jacob the patriarch is a deserving recipient of this title. And so for that matter is Joseph. He is, after all, second only to Pharaoh.
When his brothers return to the Land of Canaan to tell Jacob of their Egyptian exploits, they refer to Joseph as a mysterious all-powerful [Bereishit 42:30] “man, the lord of the land.” Even Joseph refers to himself as a “man.” After he frames Benjamin, Joseph scolds his brothers, saying [Bereishit 44:15] “What is this deed that you have committed? Don’t you know that a man (ish) like me practices divination?”
There is one more mysterious “man” in Joseph’s life. When Joseph’s brothers go to Shechem to tend their flocks, Jacob sends Joseph to see how they are doing. Joseph searches for his brothers but he cannot find them [Bereishit 37:15]: “Then a man (ish) found him, and behold, he was straying in the field.” This mysterious “man” tells Joseph that his brothers have moved on to Dothan. Joseph goes to Dothan, finds his brothers, and the rest is history. Were it not for this “man”, Joseph might very well not have found his brothers and, instead, might have safely returned home to his father.
We require one last piece of background before tying things together: I once had the honor of briefing a high-ranking delegation of AIPAC officials on Iron Dome. Due to a combination of the late hour of the briefing, the fatigue of the AIPAC guests, and the fact that none of my bosses were in attendance, I began my presentation speaking with a thick Israeli accent. After about ten seconds, I paused, stared at them and said in perfectly unaccented English, “Do you know how difficult it is for me to speak English like this?” These words were so unexpected that they broke the ice, enabling ideas to flow freely.
Now let us return to Joseph, posing as a mysterious Egyptian ruler, standing opposite his brother, Judah, who is trying to convince Joseph to release Benjamin in return for his own freedom. I suggest that Joseph is in the throes of an identity crisis. Who am I? Am I still the silly reckless teenage “lad” that infuriated my brothers enough to kill me? No, that “lad” can’t be me, that “lad” is my brother, Benjamin. Am I the “child” who was sold into slavery? No, that can’t be me, either. I am now a full-grown “man” with immense power and influence. But wait: Isn’t the “man” my revered father, Jacob? Suddenly, Judah says something unspeakable. He tells Joseph how difficult it was to convince Jacob to permit Benjamin to be brought to Egypt lest he come to harm. [Bereishit 45:26]: “We [told our father that we] cannot go down; [only] if our youngest brother is with us will we go down, for we cannot see the man’s face if our youngest brother is not with us.”
Judah is speaking to “the man” – his father, Jacob – and yet when Judah refers to “the man”, he is referring not to Jacob, but to Joseph. Joseph is shattered: How could he allow his father to be so degraded? My father is “the man”, not I! Joseph stews until he can take it no longer. When Judah says [Bereishit 45:34] “For how will I go up to my father if the lad is not with me?” Joseph thinks to himself “The lad is not with you? That is because I am the lad!” He cries out in Hebrew “Have every man (ish) taken from me!” I am not “the man” – our father is! Joseph’s exclamation in their native Hebrew stuns his brothers. The Torah continues: “So there was no man (ish) with him when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers.” Joseph stands exposed before his brothers, not as an Egyptian leader but as a Jewish lad.
Joseph was correct but he was also mistaken. Joseph was not “the man” but neither was his father. The most important man in this story, the man who was responsible for Joseph’s enslavement, his incarceration and his redemption, was the mysterious “man” from Dothan who had encountered him on that fateful day. The Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel in the twelfth century, summarizes, “These ‘men’ are not mortal men, they are angels, Divine Emissaries, showing us that nothing happens by chance and teaching us [Proverbs 19:21] ‘It is G-d’s Plan that shall stand.”
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.
 Note that the Yiddish word “narishkeit” – nonsense – comes from the word “na’ar” – lad.