When she was 10 years old, R. accompanied her mom to a doctor’s visit because her little brother, M was not well. Mom was hesitant to make the trip from Tzefat to Tiberias by herself, and what’s more, she needed her almost sabra daughter to help with translation. Having arrived recently from North Africa, she heard stories and wanted her eldest with her, just in case.
“The baby needs some care, leave him here” said the nurse, bidding farewell to mom and daughter who left with a heavy heart, schlepping in buses back to their home in the hills. When they came back the next day, things were much worse. “The baby?” asked the nurse, “oh, he died”. The child was never seen again, which would be normal for dead people, but then, some 17 years later, an IDF draft notice appeared in their mailbox, implying that maybe the child did not die at all.
Sadly, Israel is riddled with such tragedies, known as the “Yemenite Children”, and later realized this afflicted other Sefardi-Mizrachi groups as well. In the post holocaust era of newly established Israel, some people had no children, and some had “too many” and “won’t notice if one is given away to someone who really wants a child”… The government has not been forthright with the records and the archives remain closed as the stories continue to unfold privately. The depth and complexity of this saga is well beyond the scope of this post, but what is of interest to me this week, is the fact, that R. now in her 70’s never stops looking for her little brother, M. Everywhere she goes, she checks people closely: Is this person around the right age? Doesn’t he look like someone else in the family? What about his eyes, smile, height, gestures? She sees him in her sons and grandsons. Never has she lost hope that one day, maybe on a bus or waiting in line; in the news or at a random event, she’ll see him. And no matter that 60 some years have gone by, she’s sure, she’ll recognize him and know, right away, it’s him.
I think about this quite often and especially when we read these Torah portions about Joseph and his brothers. Again and again I wonder, how come the brothers didn’t recognize Joseph?
I recently had the lovely opportunity of meeting up with my high school classmates. I was very nervous that I can’t remember and won’t be able to recognize half of them, but as they slowly walked in, it was obvious. It didn’t take long before the “Oh My G-d!’ followed by something along the lines of ‘you haven’t changed a bit!’ and while, of course, we have all changed, there is also something that is very much the same.
Joseph was not a baby when the brothers sold him to a caravan of merchants, traveling south. He was 17. Not quite fully grown, but definitely a young man with a unique look of his own. The caravan is described as “Yishma’elim” (Genesis 37:28), a term used for just about anyone living in Israel who is not Jewish, but originally, it should have been reserved for the descendants of Yishma’el and their band. For Joseph, that meant that he was sold to his half-second cousins. Ok, “half second cousins” are not people we might have dinner with regularly, but this is not such a big family. Surely, they knew who he was and at least that they were somehow related!? How come no one said anything to anyone, like, “hey, I saw them dropping him off at…”? A man disappears for 13 years in a relatively small region, roughly between Hebron / Be’er Sheva and Cairo, fully in the open, and no one knows his whereabouts?
Further, upon meeting him, the brothers don’t even begin to suspect that he looks slightly familiar! I know, I know: he had a different hair-do and new clothing, and maybe even make-up. He was out of context. And at least initially, he didn’t socialize with them and maybe stood at a distance (although later when they bring Benjamin he shared a meal alone with them). But seriously!! If anyone, they knew he was sold to someone going towards Egypt; they knew he was a visionary, a “dreamer”, and then suddenly a dreamer who is a “foreigner”, “Hebrew”, no less as Joseph describes himself, shows up on Pharaoh’s side, the brother just yawn??
As I saw with R. most often people who lost a relative with inconclusive ending, forever keep looking, calculating what age might be this person, what could they be doing, where might s/he be… and here we have ten grown man, later 11, and no one “sees” anything?
Add to that, that he immediately knew them. Of course, they were much more conspicuous; he waited for them; they didn’t know he was there. And yet the contrast is striking.
Perhaps the answer can be found in an earlier reading: “And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him”; (Genesis 37:4). And immediately in the next verse: “And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brothers, and they hated him yet the more” (37:5), and if we haven’t yet quite understood how the brothers felt about Joseph, the text says again: “…And they hated him yet the more…” (37:8).
One of Joseph’s greatest qualities is that he “sees”. Joseph sees dreams, just like his father Jacob did when he was younger; Joseph sees opportunities, solutions and, mostly, he sees G-d wherever he goes. Whether he is in a pit, sold to slavery, a servant in a compromised situation, a prisoner or second to Pharaoh, he feels G-d is with him. The brothers, on the other hand, have trouble “seeing”. The last time the verb “to see” is mentioned with them, is when they see Joseph coming and they conspire to kill him (37:18). It takes a while before the verb to see shows up again, and it is when Jacob finally sees that “there is food in Egypt” (42:1). That “seeing” is what leads to the family’s meeting, resolution and ultimate reunion. Continue and hear Judah’s words when he asks their father to take Benjamin with them. Judah implores Jacob, telling him that Joseph said: “You shall not see my face, unless your brother be with you.” (43:5). And last, after the emotional meeting and revelation, coming up next week, Joseph says to them: “And, behold, your eyes (now) see…” (45:12).
Could it be that what blinded the brothers was the power of hatred? How much do we miss when we let ourselves be guided by negativity and hatred!
We don’t know what Joseph’s intentions were when he initially told the brothers his dreams. We “assume” he was a showoff but the ones who read ill-will into his words were his brothers, not him. Perhaps Joseph wanted to share his joy at the fact that he sees them all together in the future! After all, up until now, the younger one was always “chosen” and the older one went off to establish another nation. This is the first time all the father’s children continue to be the “Children of Israel”! Since one needs to be the leader, maybe it’s Joseph, son of beloved Rachel, and a dreamer like his dad?!
But the brothers couldn’t stand him, and therefore couldn’t even imagine anything good in his words. It is not that because of his dreams, they hated him, but rather, their hatred shut off their ability to see and hear him. How often does that happen to us with our own brothers?
As is the case this year, we usually read about Joseph and his brothers right around Hanukkah. Again there is darkness, and again, we have an opportunity to mindfully add a small light, to make a conscious decision to see the other.