A Secret Identity
It is a dance we do in silence
Far below this morning sun
You in your life, me in mine
We have begun
This week’s parsha has us in the middle of the lengthy and involved story of Joseph and his brothers. A lot has happened to Brother Joe since they sold him into slavery. A lot to Joseph that is; the brothers – not so much. Joseph went from most-favoured son to being sold as a slave, then to trusted servant in the house of Egyptian officer, Potiphar, then to prisoner after being framed for rape, and now finds himself as the Viceroy of the powerful nation of Egypt. He certainly has had his ups and downs, to say the least
And as fate (read: God) would have it, at this juncture of his life, Joseph meets his brothers when they come to Egypt to purchase food during the famine in the region. The Torah narrates that when they first meet each other, “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.”
Why not? How come he knew who they were but they could not tell who he was? There are a number of factors that could have contributed to this. Rashi, citing the Talmud, says that the last time they were together he didn’t have a beard, but now he did.
Hmmm, that on its own seems to be a little lame. I have the same problem with this explanation as I did when I watched those old Superman shows from the 60’s and wondered how Lois Lane or Jimmy Olson could not recognize that Clark Kent and Superman were one and the same. I mean, really – eyeglasses and a hat doesn’t change a person’s look that much! A beard? That’s it? Nah, there has to be more to it than that.
The commentary Chizkuni (13th century France) rounds out the Talmud’s idea and makes it more plausible by adding that in addition to the beard, he had a different name that Pharaoh had given him. “Yosef, Goldstein, Rosenberg – those names don’t fly here in Egypt. From now on you will be Tzafnat-Panayach.” A different look, a different name plus the fact that Joseph spoke Egyptian could have very well concealed his true identity.
But more than that, the last time they saw their brother, 22 years ago, he was on his way to a foreign land as a lowly slave. It would never cross their mind that the powerful official and leader whom they now stood in front of, garbed in royal raiment, would be their little brother. And this is probably the biggest reason they would never assume that His Royal Highness, Tzafnat-Panayach and Yosef were one and the same.
The last they remember of their brother was that he was the annoying favoured child of their dad. And, along with that, the feelings of jealousy and animosity over his tattle-telling habits, his tone-deaf insistence of relating his dreams which smacked of hubris, and his prancing about in his fancy-schmancy Hugo Boss coat.
What they never witnessed was their brother as a mature, successful adult in a role and position that he excelled at. They never saw their brother at “work”. They never saw him doing the things he is great at doing: Winning the confidence of everyone he meets with his honesty and sincerity. Offering sagely advice and taking charge to the best and the brightest as he did when he ran the stately home of Potiphar. Or running the prison where the warden has him in charge of the rest of the inmates. And finally saving a country from ruin with his perceptive insight into the soul and dreams of its leader, Pharaoh and advising him what he has to do to save his nation.
And this is the real reason why they didn’t recognize him. Because they never previously saw Joseph in any of these roles. It is not too dissimilar to when a parent sees their child for the first time in their professional career. This person in scrubs, confidently treating patients – this is the little pisher we raised? The kid who becomes a lawyer, or therapist or runs a business or is deftly running the cash-wrap at one of the busiest stores in the county is almost unrecognizable to the parent who has, up until that point, pigeon-holed their child and has always seen him or her in a very limited way.
And this goes for all types of relationships. I recall as a young teen the first time I went to visit my father at his place of work, Grace Meat Packers. It was a meat-packing plant, which is a nice way of saying a slaughterhouse, where they killed over 200 steer a day and employed about 75 workers. After touring the “killing floor”, the freezers where they stored the sides of beef and the rest of the plant, we then went up to his office. It must have been pay-day because there were a number of workers cramming the area for their check. His office was further in and as soon as he arrived, the workers all deferentially stepped out of the way for him.
You have to imagine this scene. My dad was a five foot four inch immigrant “mit a haccent” and these guys are all super big and burly; they work in a slaughterhouse for crying out loud! And yet the moment he arrived it was like Kriat Yam Suf – the Splitting of the Sea – the way they made way for him. It made me look at him in a totally different light. I had never seen him in this role. Who was this man? And this is the guy I regularly mouth-off to at home? Gulp.
Yeah Joseph now had a beard and his outer appearance changed dramatically over those many years. But it was more than his appearance that changed. Then he was a boy. A boy with dreams of grandeur and with lots of potential, but still a boy. But now he was a man with a mission and with innumerable accomplishments under his belt. But in their minds eye he was always that little kid, and so of course the brothers didn’t recognize him. They never could have imagined that he would indeed become that great leader he foretold them about so long ago.
And to Joseph’s credit, he never allowed their restrictive and limiting view of him squash his dreams and visions. And neither should we. We must never allow another to do the same to us. Even, and especially, if it comes from those closest to us.
But it’s a long way that I have come
Across the sand to find you here among these people in the sun
Where your children will be born
You’ll watch them as they run
Oh it’s so far the other way my life has gone