This week’s Torah portion finally sees Joseph reunited with his brothers. The sheer emotion contained in the story is palpable. (It is especially striking because Torah rarely records emotion.)
As you may recall, Joseph had been living in Egypt for some time. Upon his release from prison he was placed in a role second only to Pharaoh and was tasked with overseeing preparation for the coming famine. Once the famine arrived, he was responsible for distributing the food they had collected and stored.
Joseph had acculturated to such a degree that his brothers, who had come to Egypt for food, did not recognize him. Joseph was dressed like an Egyptian. He spoke the native tongue. And he married an Egyptian woman with whom he was raising two children.
Joseph maintained the charade that he was “just an Egyptian” and played a game of cat and mouse with his brothers. After a time, however, the power of the moment overwhelmed Joseph who, according to the text of the Torah, “ . . . . could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.
The moment was so overwhelming that, “[Joseph’s] sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.”
On the surface it looks fairly obvious what transpired here. Joseph was unrecognizable and used that fact to his advantage as he “tested” his brothers. He wanted to know if they were the same people who sold him into slavery or if they, like him, had grown and matured in the ensuing years. Ultimately, however, the moment was so rife with emotion that he could not continue the charade and, in an emotional outburst, revealed his true identity.
There is, however, another way to understand this exchange.
Perhaps Joseph wasn’t hiding his identity in order to test his brothers, but instead did so in order to protect himself. Years prior, his brothers had considered murdering him but, at the last moment, took the “kinder” path of selling him into slavery. In the ensuing years Joseph suffered even more but ultimately found his way into a life filled with power, authority and wealth. But the pain from the brotherly betrayal years earlier, as well as the false accusation of attempted rape that landed him in jail didn’t simply disappear. How could it?
And yet, in order to move forward in life, Joseph had to set that pain aside. It was still there but he had found ways to compartmentalize it. Perhaps seeing his brothers once again brought all of the pain he had endured back, but for a time, he hid his pain from his brothers AND himself because he feared that if let loose, his emotions might consume him.
Of course, they didn’t. In fact, it is only AFTER he allowed himself to truly feel, that he was able to make himself vulnerable to his brothers and ultimately, reconcile with them.
We live in a society that often sends the message that we too need to compartmentalize our pain. Too often we run from our hurt or simply deny it. But when we do, we, like Joseph before us, eventually come to realize that denying hurt doesn’t make it any less painful, and that ignoring grief actually prevents us from living fully. Only by allowing ourselves to feel deeply are we able to reengage with life.
It is, in part, why the immediate family often begins the final burial process at graveside by picking up a shovel, filling it with dirt and then placing that dirt into the open grave. It is among the most painful things we can do. But the ritual is not a reflection of a sadistic tradition that seeks to amplify our grief. Instead, it “forces” us to feel the pain of our losses, and by doing so, clears the path for us to reengage with life fully.
As the number of COVID cases begins to rise once again and we brace ourselves to see what the Omicron variant may do, I am reminded of the multiple losses we have all endured since the pandemic began. The pain, the loss and the grief is real. And while it may sound paradoxical, by recognizing our pain, and the pain of others, we equip ourselves with the tools we need to live life fully.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen