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I Am Joep
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

In Disguise

There were two beggars sitting side by side on a street in Mexico City. One was dressed like a Christian with a cross in front of him; the other one was a Chassidic Jew with a black coat and a long beard.

Many people walked by, looked at both beggars, and then put money into the hat of the one sitting behind the cross.

After hours of this pattern, a priest approached the Jewish Chassidic beggar and said: "Don't you understand? This is a Catholic country. People aren't going to give you money if you sit there like a real Jew, especially when you're sitting beside a beggar who has a cross. In fact, they would probably give to him just out of spite.

The Chassidic beggar listened to the priest and, turning to the other beggar dressed as a Christian, said: "Moshe... look who's trying to teach us marketing."

A Brother's Identity Disclosed

The story of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers after decades of bitter separation is, no doubt, one of the most dramatic in the entire Torah. Twenty-two years earlier, when Joseph was seventeen years old, his brothers despising their younger kin, kidnapped him, threw him into a pit, and then sold him as a slave to Egyptian merchants. In Egypt he spent twelve years in prison, from where he rose to become viceroy of the country that was the superpower at the time. Now, more then two decades later, the moment was finally ripe for reconciliation.

"Joseph could not hold in his emotions," the Torah relates in this week's portion (1). "He dismissed all of his Egyptian assistants from his chamber, thus, no one else was present with Joseph when he revealed himself to his brothers. He began to weep with such loud sobs that the Egyptians outside could hear him. And Joseph said to his brothers: 'I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?' His brothers were so horrified that they could not respond.

"Joseph said to his brothers, 'please come close to me.' When they approached him, he said, 'I am Joseph your brother -- it is me whom you sold into Egypt.

"'Now, be not distressed, nor reproach yourself for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that G-d sent me ahead of you … G-d has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival in the land and to sustain you for a momentous deliverance."

Analyzing the Encounter

Emotions are not mathematical equations that could or should be subjected to academic scrutiny and analysis (besides, perhaps, in your shrink's office). Emotions, the texture through which we experience life in all of its majesty and tragedy, profess independent "rules" and a singular language, quite distinct of the calculated and structured ones of science.

Notwithstanding this, we still feel compelled to tune-into the particular phraseology employed by the Torah in describing this powerfully charged encounter when Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers.

Four observations immediately come to mind (2).

1) After Joseph exposes his identity to his brothers, he asks them to come close to him. Despite the fact that they were alone with him in a private room, Joseph wants them to approach even closer. At this moment we are expecting Joseph to share with his brothers an intimate secret. But that does not seem to come.

2) After they approach him, Joseph says, "I am Joseph your brother -- it is me whom you sold into Egypt." But he has already told them a moment earlier that he was Joseph!

3) Why did Joseph feel compelled to inform them that they sold him too Egyptians, as though they were unaware of what they had done to their little brother? Why could he not immediately begin his explanation as to why they need not reproach themselves for selling him?

4) The first time Joseph discloses himself he does not define himself as their brother; yet when he repeats himself again he does mention the sense of brotherhood, "I am Joseph your brother." Why the difference?

The Unrecognized Soul

The longest unbroken narrative in the entire Torah is from Genesis chapter 37 to chapter 50, and there can be no doubt that its hero is Joseph. The story begins and ends with him. We see him as a child, orphaned by his mother and beloved by his father; we watch him as an adolescent dreamer, resented by his brothers; we observe him as a slave, then a prisoner, in Egypt; then we see him becoming the second most powerful figure in the greatest empire of the ancient world. At every stage, the narrative revolves around him and his impact on others. He dominates the last third of the book Genesis, casting his shadow on everybody else. Throughout the entire Bible, there is nobody we come to know as intimately as Joseph. The Torah seems to be infatuated with Joseph and his journeys and struggles more than with any other figure, perhaps even more than with the two pillars of Jewish faith, Abraham and Moses. What is the mystique behind Joseph? Who is Joseph?

Joseph's life embodies the entire drama and paradox of human existence. Joseph on the outside was not the Joseph on the inside; his outer behavior never did justice to his authentic inner image. Already as a young teen, his brothers could not appreciate the depth and nobility of his character. The Midrash (3) sees The Torah's description of Joseph at the age of seventeen as a "young boy" as indicative of the fact that he devoted much time to fixing his hair, grooming his eyes, and walking at the edge of his legs, appearing to most people around him as spoiled, vain and pompous.

Then, when Joseph rose to become the vizier of Egypt, he donned the persona of a charismatic statesman, a handsome, charming and powerful young leader, a skilled diplomat, a savvy politician and a wise economist, with enormous ambition. It was not easy to realize that beneath these qualities lay a soul on fire with moral passion, a kindred spirit for whom the monotheistic legacy of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob remained the epicenter of his life; a heart overwhelmed with love toward G-d.

Joseph's singular condition -- embodying the paradox of the human condition -- is poignantly expressed in one biblical verse (4): "Joseph recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him." Joseph easily identified the holiness within his brothers. After all, they lived most of their lives isolated as spiritual shepherds involved in prayer, meditation and study. Yet these very brothers lacked the ability to discern the moral richness etched in the depth of Joseph's heart. Even when Joseph was living with them in Israel, they saw him as an outsider, as a danger to the integrity of the family of Israel. Certainly, when they encountered him in the form of an Egyptian leader, they failed to observe beyond the mask of a savvy politician the heart of a Tzaddik, the soul of a Rebbe.

The Fire in the Coal

This dual identity that characterized Joseph's life played itself out in a most powerful way, when his master's wife attempted to seduce him into intimate relations. On the outside, she thought, it would not be very difficult to entice a young abandoned slave into sacrificing his moral integrity for the sake of attention and fun. But, when push came to shove, when Joseph was presented with the test of tests, he displayed heroic courage as he resisted and fled her home. As a result of that act, he ended up in prison for 12 years.

The Midrash (5) compares Joseph to the fresh wellspring of water hidden in the depth of the earth, eclipsed by layers of debris, grit and gravel. In a converse metaphor making the identical point, the Kabbalah sees Joseph as the blaze hidden within the coal. On the outside, the coal seems black, dark and cold; but when you expose yourself to its true texture, you sense the heat, the fire and the passion. You get burnt.


And then came the moment when Joseph removed his mask.

The Zohar, the basic Kabbalistic commentary on the Bible, presents a penetrating visualization of what transpired at the moment when Joseph exposed himself to his brothers.

When Joseph declared, "I am Joseph," says the Zohar (6), the brothers observed the divine light radiating from his countenance; they witnessed the majestic glow emanating from his heart. Joseph's words "I am Joseph" were not merely a revelation of who he was, but also of what he was. For the first time in their lives, Joseph allowed his brothers to see what he really was. "I am Joseph!" must also be understood in the sense "Joseph is me." Look at me, see the sanctity, and you will discover who Joseph really is.

When Joseph cried out "I am Joseph," says the Midrash, "his face became ablaze like a fiery furnace." The burning flame concealed for thirty-nine years within the coal, emerged in its full potency. For the first time in their entire lives, Joseph's brothers saw the raw and naked Joseph; they came in contact with the greatest holiness in the world emerging from the face of an Egyptian vizier…


"His brothers were so horrified that they could not respond," relates the Torah. What perturbed the brothers was not so much a sense of fear or personal guilt. What horrified them more than anything else was the sense of loss they felt for themselves and the entire world as a result of his sale into Egypt.

"If after spending 22 years in a morally depraved society," they thought to themselves, "one year as a slave, twelve years as a prisoner, nine years as a politician -- Joseph still retained such profound holiness and passion, how much holier might he have been if he spent these 22 years in the bosom of his saintly father Jacob?!"

"What a loss to history our actions brought about!" the brothers tormented themselves. "If Joseph could have spent all these years in the transcended oasis, in the sacred environment, in the spiritual island of the Patriarch Jacob - how the world might have been enriched with such an atomic glow of holiness in its midst!"

Contrasting Joseph's present condition to what might have been his potential, left the brothers with an irreplaceable loss by what they sensed was a missed opportunity of historic proportions.

The Error

At this moment, "Joseph said to his brothers, 'Please come close to me.'" Joseph wanted them to approach even closer and gaze deeper into the divine light coming forth from his countenance.

"When they approached him," relates the Torah, "He said, 'I am Joseph your brother -- it is me whom you sold into Egypt.'" Joseph was not merely repeating what he had told them earlier ("I am Joseph"), nor was he informing them of a fact they were well aware of ("It is me whom you sold into Egypt"), rather, he was responding to their sense of irrevocable loss.

The words "I am Joseph your brother -- it is me whom you sold into Egypt" in the original Hebrew can also be translated as "I am Joseph your brother -- because you sold me into Egypt." What Joseph was stating was that the only reason he reached such tremendous spiritual heights is because he spent the last 22 years in Egypt, not in Jacob's sacred environment.

The awesome glow that emanated from his presence, Joseph suggested, was not there despite his two decades in lowly Egyptian society, far removed from his father's celestial paradise; it came precisely as a result of his entanglement with a life alien to the innocent and straightforward path of his brothers. The incredible trials, tribulations and adversity he faced in the spiritual jungle are precisely what unleashed the atomic glow the brothers were presently taking in.

Had Joseph spent the two decades voyaging with his father down the paved road of psychological and spiritual lucidity, he would have certainly reached great intellectual and emotional heights. But it was only through his confrontation with a glaring abyss that gave Joseph that singular majesty, passion and power that defied even the rich imagination of his brothers.

That is why Joseph asked his brothers to come closer to him, so that they can behold from closer up his unique light and appreciate that this was a light that could only emerge from the depth of darkness, from the pit of Egyptian promiscuity.

[This is also the reason for Joseph mentioning, the second time around, the element of brotherhood. For Joseph was attempting not only to tell them who he was, but to share the reality of their kinship, the fact that he, like them, was deeply connected to his spiritual roots].

If Only…

Just as the brothers, many of us, too, live our lives thinking "If only…" If only my circumstances would have been different; if only I was born into a different type of family; if only I would have a better personality… The eternal lesson of Joseph is that the individual journey of your life, in all of its ups and downs, is what will ultimately allow you to discover your unique place in this world as a servant of G-d (7). Sometimes, it is the 22 years in "Egypt" that grant you the deepest clarity and the profundest intimacy with life and with G-d.


1) Genesis 45:1-7.
2) The following observations are discussed by many of the biblical commentators, who offer various explanations (See Midrash Rabah, Rashi, Ramban, Klei Yakar, Or Hachaim).
3) Midrash Rabah Bereishis 84:7. Quoted in Rashi to Genesis 37:2.
4) Genesis 42:8.
5) Midrash Rabah ibid. 93:3.
6) Zohar vol. 1 p. 93b.
7) This essay is based on Chassidic writings. See Sefer Halikkutim under the entry of Yosef and all the references noted there; Sefer Letorah U'Lemoadim (by Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin) Parshas Vayigash (p. 60-61); Sefas Emes Vayigash (on the verse "Asher Mechartem"); Likkutei Sichos vol. 25 pp. 255-257 and the references noted there. My thanks to Shmuel Kuperman (Brooklyn, NY) for sharing with me the nucleus of this insight.  

Posted on February 16, 2005
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