This Shabbat takes us to the heart of Bereshit’s longest and most intricate tale of family disunity: the story of Jacob’s sons, of Joseph and his brothers.
Sibling relationships gone awry is one of the central motifs of Genesis. For weeks now, we’ve encountered the painful tales of Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob. This Shabbat takes us to the heart of Bereshit’s longest and most intricate tale of family disunity: the artfully told story of Jacob’s sons, of Joseph and his brothers.
Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous siblings, has risen to prominence and power in Egypt as Pharaoh’s second-in-command. Married to the daughter of an Egyptian priest, he is now the father of two, and the director of Egypt’s effort to endure a famine afflicting the entire world. That very famine brings Joseph together with his brothers after many years. In search of food, Jacob’s remaining sons travel to Egypt where they are greeted by “the vizier of the land…who dispensed rations to all the people of the land.” (Genesis 42:6)
Joseph recognizes them immediately; they, however, do not recognize him at all. In a few short lines, the Torah describes the widest possible chasm among siblings. “When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them.” (Genesis 42:7) The Hebrew for “acted like a stranger,” va’yitnaker aleikhem, carries a sense of foreignness. Joseph has actually become “other”: no longer “us,” he is now “them,” utterly unrecognizable.
Can such a gulf be bridged? What might repairing such a breach look like? In the flow of the story, it takes the presence of Benjamin, Joseph’s lone full brother, to begin the process of reconciliation and reconnection. On their next trip to Egypt to procure food, the brothers bring Benjamin along. The moment in which Joseph first sees Benjamin after so many years serves as the major hinge in the narrative. Hear the Torah’s poignant description: “And he raised his eyes and saw Benjamin his brother, his mother’s son, and he said, ‘Is this your youngest brother of whom you spoke to me?’ And he said, ‘God be gracious to you, my son.’ And Joseph hurried out, for his feelings for his brother overwhelmed him and he wanted to weep, and he went into the chamber and wept there.” (Robert Alter translation) [Genesis 43:29-30]
The Midrash beautifully and evocatively expands the moment, imagining a lengthy conversation between the brothers. “He [Joseph] asked him: My son, do you have a brother? He [Benjamin] said to him: I had a brother but I do not know where he went. He [Joseph] said to him: Do you have a wife? He [Benjamin] said to him: I have a wife and ten children. He said to him: What are their names? [After listing and explaining the names of his sons] Joseph asked: Why did you give them these names? He said to him: I named all of them after the name of my brother … At that moment, ‘his feelings for his brother overwhelmed him’ [lit. his compassion — rahamav — burned hot].” [Bereshit Rabbah 93]
Joseph’s sense of compassion, his warm feeling for his brother, is aroused by Benjamin’s affirmation that he, Joseph, has not been forgotten. Despite the dramatically different trajectories of their lives, these brothers remain connected. Joseph, the cultivated, sophisticated Egyptian dignitary, and Benjamin, the sheltered, youngest son of an Israelite shepherd, narrow the gap between them by opting for the path of mercy. Strangeness can be overcome with compassion.
The Torah’s narrative contrasts powerfully with a difficult wrinkle in the most “historical” version of the Chanukah story available to us. The First Book of Maccabees hints at a violent internal struggle within the Jewish community of the Land of Israel under Hellenistic rule. Mattathias and his sons rebel not only against the oppression of Antiochus Epiphanes IV but also against fellow Jews who “gladly adopted his religion, sacrificing to idols and profaning the Sabbath.” “Mattathias and his friends went about and tore down the altars; they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel…” [1 Maccabees 1:43, 2:45-46] Perhaps the gap of that time was too wide to bridge. Perhaps no amount of rahmanut — mercy and compassion — would have sufficed. Perhaps.
We live in a moment marked by deep and difficult divisions within the Jewish community. To my ear, our story feels more like Joseph’s and Benjamin’s than Mattithias’s. We face challenges galore coupled with utterly unprecedented freedom to be ourselves. Among our greatest challenges is that of keeping the extended family called the Jewish people together. Like Benjamin and Joseph, we disagree and differ about much; and yet, like Joseph and Benjamin, we remain deeply connected to one another. What will it take to bridge the gaps that divide us from one another?
The ancient rabbis chose a remarkable passage from the prophet Zechariah as the Haftorah for the Shabbat of Chanukah. I wonder if they had the sorts of divisions we face in mind when they opted for these words as the tagline of this week’s prophetic message: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit — said the Lord of Hosts.” [Zechariah 4:6] That divine spirit, it seems to me, begins and ends with the kind of mercy and compassion exhibited by Joseph and Benjamin in Parashat Mikketz. The way to reconciliation lies down that path.
Rabbi David Ackerman is senior rabbi at Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.