Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.
Last week we left Joseph as a slave in prison; in this week’s portion, Joseph begins his ascent to power. He interprets Pharaoh’s dreams correctly and foretells of a great famine. Pharaoh makes Joseph second only to Pharaoh himself and in this role, Joseph gathers food during the years of plenty. The famine begins and spreads through the region up to Canaan and eventually, Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt to procure food.
Now Joseph was the vizier of the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground. When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. He asked them, "Where do you come from?" They said, "From the land of Canaan, to procure food." For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Recalling the dreams he had dreamt about them, Joseph said to them, "You are spies. You have come to see the land in its nakedness."
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1. How do you think Joseph felt, seeing his brothers who had sold him into slavery and remembering his dream that they would one day bow down to him?
2. The words "recognize" (hikir) and "acted like a stranger" (hitnaker) have the same root in Hebrew (nun, kaf, resh). If Joseph knew his brothers, why did he pretend not to? Why does the Torah use variations of the same word to describe this?
3. Why didn’t Joseph reveal himself if only to let his father know that he was alive and well?
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1810) teaches that it is a sign of Joseph’s righteousness that he did not immediately reveal himself. Joseph realized that it would be humiliating to his brothers if they knew that he had prevailed over them and that despite their cruel treatment of him, his dream of power had come true. By making himself a stranger, he made it appear that his brothers were simply bowing to a king, sparing them the pain of humiliation.
Levi Yitzchak says this is also the reason Joseph didn’t send word to his father; he wanted to spare his brothers the bitterness of defeat. Thus the pretense of being a stranger was in fact an act of kindness.
Kindness often seems to be a precious and rare thing. It is doubtful that the brothers experienced Joseph as being kind, given his harsh speech and subsequent actions to them; they must have felt very afraid and in darkness. Perhaps what Levi Yitzchak is teaching us is not how we should act ourselves, but rather how we should interpret other’s actions towards us.
It is difficult to follow Joshua ben Parachyah’s admonition to judge everyone favorably (Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Forebears) 1:6), but Levi Yitzchak reminds us that we can’t always be sure of another person’s motives. We may think that someone is treating us badly, when in fact, they are trying to protect us from something worse. In assuming the best of others and reacting kindly ourselves, we have the opportunity to add holiness to the world, just as we do by increasing the number of Hanukkah lights each night.
May this portion and the holiday of Hanukkah remind us to bring more light and more kindness to those around us!