“What is real is almost always, to begin with, hidden and does not want to be understood by the part of our mind that mistakenly thinks it knows what is happening.” — David Whyte
We’ve got questions.
How will we get through this? Why is this happening? What will make me happy? When will this end? Where is that pint of ice cream I hid in the back of the freezer?
How? What? Why?
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, the great distiller of Jewish mysticism, shares (in his 1991 book, God was in this Place and I, I did not Know) an insight he learned from his teacher, Gershom Scholem: the ultimate question one can ask is not “What?” or “Why?” or “How?” – but, rather, “Who?”
“Who?” is the most important question, the question of all questions. Rabbi Kushner explains: “Like all questions, its syntax predetermines the range of possible answers. And the question “Who?” is a request for either a name or a personal pronoun. The answer, in other words, must be personal. It must be a self.”
Who am I? Who do I want to be? Who are you?
The art of hiding is, paradoxically, part of the process of becoming ourselves. Hiding is the precursor to birth, and a necessary step in understanding who we are. We witness such a process in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash. The culmination of this process of hiding and revelation occurs in five powerful words, the words that form one answer to that most important question: אני יוסף העוד אבי חי : “I am Joseph. Is my father still still alive?”
Joseph has been reunited with the brothers who violently betrayed him. But the intervening years have manifested a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Joseph has, in a turn of events that defies all expectations, become the most powerful man in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. His brothers, made desperate by famine, have come to Egypt seeking food. Joseph hides his identity from them – as a test, or in an effort to exact revenge. But hiding is not a new thing for Joseph; he has been struggling to sort out his identity since his arrival in Egypt. When Joseph ascended to power, Pharaoh dressed him “in robes of fine linen” and put “a gold chain about his neck.” (Genesis 41:42) Pharaoh gave Joseph an Egyptian name and Joseph married an Egyptian wife. Joseph is thus so transformed that he is unrecognizable to his brothers when they arrive. Perhaps he is unrecognizable to himself.
Joseph uses his power like a puppeteer, forcing his brothers into a situation mimicking the scene all those years ago when, out of jealousy, the brothers sold Joseph and faked his death. This time, Joseph is outwardly generous, but sets them up so that it appears as if Benjamin has stolen his goblet. When Judah pleads to take Benjamin’s punishment to protect his elderly father from more grief, Joseph is overwhelmed with emotion. Judah, the brother who hatched the plan to sell Joseph into slavery, has offered to take the place of Benjamin and become a “slave” to Joseph. In hearing Judah’s remarkably selfless offer, Joseph realizes that personal transformation is possible, and that reparation is possible – only if and when Joseph comes out of hiding, and renews his relationships with his family on new terms.
The poet David Whyte writes enthusiastically about the unsung virtues of hiding. Whyte says that “hiding is a way of holding ourselves until we are ready to come into the light.” There is wisdom in hiding. Buds stay hidden inside the trees until the end of frost, babies stay hidden in their mother’s womb until they are ready to be born. Hiding is also, for Whyte “an act of freedom from the misunderstanding of others” – as such, hiding is protective. The songwriter Beth Orton describes the necessity of mystery by simply reminding us that “so much stays unknown until the time has come.” A certain amount of hiding, therefore, is necessary and healthy for development. But too much hiding leads to deceit, falsehood, and a loss of a sense self.
Several other biblical characters are masterful at subterfuge: Jacob pretends to be Esau in order to steal his brother’s birthright (Genesis 27:24). Abraham, and later Isaac, pretend that their wives are their sisters (Genesis 12:10-20, 20:1-16, and 26:1-33). Rachel hides the household idols she has taken from her father’s house (Genesis 31:34).
But the biblical character who is most adept at hiding is, of course, God. We sense this when reading the Book of Esther; many say it is possible to feel God’s presence more keenly by virtue of the fact that God stays hidden throughout the Book of Esther. What does it mean for us to be in relationship with a God who is unseen? This is the question that Judaism offered the world, and we continue to live this question in our daily lives.
People love to ask questions about God that start with “What?” or “Where?” Ultimately, the most important question of God is: ‘Who?” The answer (as Rabbi Kushner reminds us) must be personal, and, as such, is the basis for a relationship.
The Sfas Emes (Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, a Hasidic rabbi of 19th Century Poland ) notes that Joseph’s name means “more” or “something extra” and understands this “something extra” to be an “inner point” of divinity hidden within each of us. This “inner point” can be hard to access. The Sfas Emes understands Judah’s opening remarks to his brother, בי אדני not as “Please, my lord..”, as it is usually translated, but as “God is within me.” Judah obtains this insight, this knowledge of the divine spark within (according to the Sfas Emes) through his selflessness. By not putting himself first, by prioritizing his relationships and the needs of others, Judah learns the truth of our connectedness.
When Joseph reveals himself and in the very same breath asks after his father, we learn immediately about who he is and how he defines himself. We see that Joseph’s identity is bound up in relationships. Who is this man? Only through the process of concealing himself in the garb of an Egyptian, of masking his identity before his brothers and himself, has he come to understand: He is Joseph, someone who adds something “more,” his father’s son and his brothers’ brother, the sustainer of Israel, the link in the chain that brings us down into Egypt and ultimately provides for our release.