Mikeitz: Shock Therapy

November 24, 2013 at 9:20 pm | Posted in Mikeitz | 2 Comments
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A deep injury always leaves a scar. You can create a new life, a new identity, but you cannot erase your scars.

Joseph was born into a dysfunctional family. His father, Jacob, loved only one of his four wives. After Rachel died, he loved only her two sons: Joseph and his newborn brother Benjamin. Jacob’s other ten sons were naturally jealous. And their father made it worse: not only by giving Joseph a fancy tunic, but also by asking Joseph to report on his brothers.

Joseph also made his older brothers hate him. His reports on them were not good. And at age 17, he was so naïve that he told them his two prophetic dreams. In one dream, his brothers’ eleven sheaves of grain bowed down to his sheaf; in the other, eleven stars bowed down to him.  (See my blog post “Vayeishev: A Difficult Youth”.) **LINK** Yet Joseph, mourning for his mother, loved only by his father, must have wanted acceptance and approval from his ten older brothers. Unfortunately they concluded that he was their enemy.

They took the flocks all the way to Dotan, but Joseph came after them even there. So they threw him into a pit. Then they debated, over lunch, whether to kill him. After they had eaten, they sold him to a passing caravan, and Joseph began his new life as a slave in Egypt.

Blessed with intelligence, good looks, and the resilience of youth, Joseph builds a new identity in Egypt. At age 30, in this week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz (In the end), he becomes a viceroy of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh. Like most people with a traumatic past, he wants to forget everything and concentrate on his new job, his new family, his new country.

When Joseph names his first son, he says: God made me forget all my hardship and all the household of my father. (Genesis/Bereishit 41:51)

He can forget, or repress, his past, but he cannot erase it. As viceroy, Joseph stockpiles grain in Egypt for seven years to prepare for the coming seven years of regional famine. After the first year of famine, Joseph’s ten older brothers show up in Egypt.

And the brothers of Joseph came, and they bowed down to him, noses to the ground. And Joseph saw his brothers, and he recognized them. But he made himself unrecognizable; and he spoke to them with difficulty, and he said to them: From where did you come? And they said: From the land of Canaan, to buy food. (Genesis 42:6-7)

Joseph’s older brothers were already adults when they sold him, so they do not look very different. But Joseph has grown a beard and a deep voice. He speaks fluent Egyptian, wears upper-class Egyptian clothing, and goes by an Egyptian name. Besides finding it difficult to speak to his old nemeses, he might be feigning difficulty in putting together a simple question in Hebrew. This may be the point where he starts using the interpreter mentioned later in this week’s Torah portion.

And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them, and he said to them: You are spies! You came to see the nakedness of the land! (Genesis 42:9)

Seeing his brothers bow down before him, Joseph remembers his two dreams, and then his repressed trauma starts to come back. When he accuses his brothers of being spies, come to see the nakedness of the land, his overt meaning is that they plan to spy out the exposed and vulnerable places of Egypt. But I think Joseph is also remembering his own nakedness, when his brothers stripped off his tunic before selling him, and when he started life in Egypt as a slave working naked in the field. (See Vayeishev: Stripped Naked.) *LINK* Now his hateful brothers cannot see him naked; he is wearing the clothes of a viceroy, and they are at his mercy.

The brothers protest: We are keinim! Your servants are not spies. (Genesis 42:11)

keinim = honest, upright, ethical

They explain that they traveled to Egypt together because they are brothers, and they gratuitously add: Your servants are twelve brothers; we are the sons of one man in the land of Canaan. And the youngest is with our father now, and the other one—he is not. (Genesis 42:13)

At this point Joseph remembers his innocent baby brother Benjamin, his mother Rachel’s only other child. His ten half-brothers were the opposite of keinim with him. What if they turn against Benjamin next?

So Joseph says: In this you will be tested. By Pharaoh’s life, you will not get out of this unless your youngest brother comes here. (Genesis 42:15)

Then he imprisons his older brothers for three days. During these three days, Joseph no doubt remembers the pain he felt when the brothers whose approval he sought turned into callous and murderous enemies, the pain he repressed during his past 21 years in Egypt. Yet instead of having all ten men executed, he decides to give them a genuine test, to see whether they can change. He only tells them about the first part of the test.

And Joseph said to them on the third day: Do this, and you will live …If you are keinim, one of your brothers will be imprisoned in the house where you were under guard, and you will go and bring grain for the hunger in your households. Then you shall bring to me your youngest brother, and then your words will be proved reliable, and you will not die. (Genesis 42:19-20)

Meanwhile, the ten brothers have spent their three days in prison reviewing their own past. Apparently they still believe they had to get rid of Joseph to save themselves, and that they had to trick their father into believing his favorite son was dead. But they do recognize one thing they did wrong, while Joseph was in the pit and when they were selling him.

And they said, each man to his brother: Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, that we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us for compassion, and we did not listen. Therefore this distress has come [to us]. (Genesis 42:21)

And they did not know that Joseph was listening, because of the interpreter between them. Then he turned around, away from them, and he wept. And he turned back to them and spoke to them… (Genesis 42:23-24)

Why does Joseph weep? I think that as soon as the ten brothers admit they were wrong to treat him without compassion, Joseph suddenly sees them as fellow human beings—human beings who now depend on him for their lives. Already shaken by the return of his past trauma, his heart cracks for a moment with compassion for them.

When Joseph is young, he sees his older brothers as important human beings, and yearns for their affection and approval. Joseph is shocked when his brothers sell him like a sack of flour, and for the next 21 years he refuses to think about them—but his subconscious still sees them as heartless, inhuman criminals. Although he is moved to compassion for a moment, he still needs to test them before he can forgive them.

When I was young, I yearned for respect and approval from my parents.  I was angry when they failed to understand who I was, or trust what I said. It took me many years to accept who they were, and let go of that anger. But I did it without testing them, or confronting them, because I felt it would only make things worse.

Does Joseph’s testing enable him to let go of his anger? Does he forgive his brothers? Do they become reconciled?

Those questions remain for next week’s blog post, “Vayiggash: Forgiveness Without Respect”.



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  1. […] Now, at age 39, Joseph is a viceroy of Egypt, and his brothers must come to him to buy grain during a regional famine. He recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. Now Joseph has all the power; he can forgive his older brothers, or he can have them executed. He decides to postpone his decision until he has tested them. (See my last blog post, Mikeitz: Shock Therapy) […]

  2. […] back to Canaan under orders to return to Egypt with their youngest brother. (See my earlier post, Mikeitz: Shock Therapy.) He also supplies them with grain, and hides the silver they paid inside their […]

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