Parshat Mikketz: Genesis 41:1-44:17; Numbers 28:9-15; 7:42-47. (Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Chanukah)
Rabbi Ariana Silverman
Jacob’s sons could recognize that a pervasive famine meant their families were on the brink of starvation. They knew there was food in Egypt, and that they could buy food from the one very powerful man who was in charge of its distribution.
What they did not know was that this man was their brother Joseph, whom they sold into slavery when he was a teenager. They came before Joseph, bowed low, and “When Joseph saw his brothers he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger to them and spoke roughly to them … Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.” (42:7-8)
It is a striking imbalance. Why did the brothers not recognize Joseph? This question bothered our sages as well. Talmudic sources suggest that the brothers did not recognize Joseph because he had a beard; and when they last saw him, he was too young to have one. Commentators have also suggested that it was because he was speaking a different language and wearing Egyptian clothes.
Our outward appearance, including facial hair and clothing, do contribute to identification. The verb “to recognize” is l’hakir, which is also used when the brothers have sold Joseph into slavery and covered his coat in goat’s blood. They said to their father Jacob, “‘We found this; do you recognize it? It is your son’s coat!’ He recognized it, saying, ‘My son’s coat! A wild animal has devoured him! Joseph has been ripped to shreds!’”(37:32-33)
In addition to our clothing, we are also identified by our status. Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi, 1160-1235) suggests that it may have been impossible for Joseph’s brothers to imagine that someone who had been sold into slavery could rise to a position of such power. This is understandable, too.
After all, the power dynamic between him and his brothers has also been completely reversed. The brothers, who once held Joseph’s life in their hands and convinced Jacob that Joseph was dead, are now dependent on Joseph for their own survival.
It is only when Joseph’s brothers begin to express their love and remorse, their loyalty and humility, that Joseph is able to reveal himself to them; and they are able to finally recognize him.
The text can motivate us to examine our own relationships. If we identify somebody by their outward appearance, or by their status or power, do we ever really recognize them? What else are we missing when we exist in transactional relationships? What is going unnoticed? We may find it surprising that Joseph’s own brothers do not recognize him, but whom are we failing to truly recognize?
This year at Chanukah, as we see the faces of family and friends illuminated, let us take the time to truly see them. And as we do, let us reflect on our relationships with the people whom we recognize based on their appearance or power, but not by their humanity. Their life, or ours, may depend on it.
Rabbi Ariana Silverman is the rabbi of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue. She lives in Detroit with her family.