Conclusion with Full Disclosure: Joseph Reveals the Man Behind the Mask

 

Throughout the narratives of Jacob and his children, deception—executed by characters assuming false identities—is a recurrent and overarching theme that allows the distinct stories to stand on their own, while also forever uniting them as one interconnected masterpiece of family drama. From the moment Rebecca plots to trick her husband, Isaac, into giving the blessing of the first born to Jacob instead of Esau, she sets in motion a series of events, spanning three generations, in which deceptive performances lead to erroneous assumptions.

Laban switches Leah and Rachel.Poetic justice for Jacob’s trickery; an older man tricks a younger man, an older sister Jacob doesn’t want to marry is substituted for the younger sister he does.

Tamar pretends to be a harlot, so she can secure her legal right (children, heirs to deceased husband’s inheritance) from Judah. Judah loses two sons who are married to Tamar. The first dies without leaving a child behind, and his younger brother is obligated to marry her to continue his brother’s line, but this brother, failing to fulfill his duty, also dies without leaving a child behind. Judah doesn’t want to hand over his next son, presumably afraid of his death. So Tamar tricks Judah into marrying her himself by pretending to be a prostitute and having intimate relations with him. Tamar gets what she wants out of Judah by not revealing that she is Tamar. And this deception is viewed as righteous by the tradition.

Finally, Joseph, Jacob’s son, decides not to disclose his true identity to his brothers until he’s assured of their humanity. He doesn’t impersonate someone else in his position as Pharaoh’s right hand man. Rather, he withholds from his brothers an essential piece of information, namely that he is their brother. He too hides his true identity, but not through falsely assuming someone else’s.

It’s easy to criticize Joseph for the cat and mouse game he plays with his brothers. Making them go back and forth to Egypt, holding Simeon hostage, and demanding that they bring him Benjamin. The problem isn’t so much that we feel badly for the brothers, it is just that Joseph’s actions don’t seem necessary; the stress inflicted on Jacob and Benjamin seems unfair, as they played no role in the brothers’ betrayal. However, when we look more deeply, a fascinating pattern in identity games starts to emerge. How can we truly know whether someone is lying, especially when placed in a position when they would do or say anything to make things better for themselves? Joseph can only really know what kind of men his brothers are if they are unaware that he is their brother. Molière employs the same device in his religious satire Tartuffe as Genesis uses in the Joseph story. It is only when the pious charlatan, Tartuffe thinks he is safe to say anything about his patron, that he can be caught in the act of hypocrisy. Were the patron simply to demand honesty from the trickster he would never get it. Only by hiding under the table, by not revealing himself, does the master of the house learn who his real friends and enemies are. Shakespeare also borrows from Biblical artifice to help his characters learn the truth about one another. Only by pretending to be dead, and then assuming a false identity, can Hero, a female lead in Much Ado About Nothing, give those who have framed her enough rope to hang themselves, while, at the same time, allowing her angry fiancée, who has been tricked into scorning her, the chance to show both how remorseful he is, and how much he truly loves her.

Approached from a structural point of view, the Joseph story is remarkably similar to a romantic comedy. Boy meets girls. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. Jacob loves Joseph. Jacob loses Joseph, Jacob gets Joseph back. The final identity trick of Genesis is done not to coerce its target but to clear them. Joseph learns that the brothers are not rotten to the core. They did a horrible thing, but they are not irredeemably horrible. Had he simply told them who he was from the moment they first arrived in Egypt, they would have, unsurprisingly in their hunger and desperation, professed their shame and poured out their remorse. It is only by withholding his true identity that Joseph can learn their true intensions.

A narrative that begins with a younger brother impersonating his elder brother in order to steal the blessing of the first born, ends with a younger brother withholding the fact that he’s his brother’s ‘annoying little brother,’ so that they can prove themselves worthy of living in brotherhood again.  The low point of the narrative comes when Joseph’s brothers reject him as their own by selling him into slavery: they turn a family member into a commodity, corrupting a personal relationship for a material profit. In contrast, the highlight of the story comes when the truth of brotherhood goes from a being withheld to being revealed in an embrace of reunification.

It is when Joseph ends his “extreme vetting” of the men before him, who wish to purchase grain before they perish from hunger, that we can join the protagonists in tears of reconciliation and rejoicing. It is when Joseph confesses to his brothers that he is their brother, that they can cry like brothers. Stripped naked and cast into the pit all those years ago, Joseph was relegated to weeping alone. Dressed in the clothes of Egyptian royalty, Joseph can still recognize his brothers but they don’t recognize him. When he reveals that underneath the fancy clothes and aloof manner lies their long fjoseph-and-his-brothers_332972orsaken little brother, it is not only about acknowledging who he is, but recognizing who they are. Joseph teaches that we cannot reach the cathartic moments of truths without telling the truth about who we are. To say to them “I am Joseph” is to say, “I know your deepest darkest truth. It’s time for you to know who I am because I’ve known all along who you are.” Estrangement, selfishness, and hate are the cost of rejecting the spirit of brotherhood. Reconciliation, generosity, and love are the rewards for redeeming it.

A plaque outside the Lorraine hotel in Memphis, TN, where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated by a fellow countryman, and a fellow Christian, almost 50 years ago, are these harrowing words from the Joseph story: “They said one to another. Behold, here cometh the dreamer… Let us slay him… and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

One Sabbath from now we’ll be celebrating MLK weekend. Half a century ago he presented the difficult choice before us with these simple words: “We can either live together as brothers or perish separately as fools.” May our response to that challenge prove worthy of the sacrifices that King, and many others made, so that we could start living up to the ideals of democracy. May we work to realize the promise of the words of Torah we sing. Heini Ma Tov Umanayim Shevet Achim Gam Yahad. “Behold how good and pleasant it is to live together like brothers.” May this be our blessing and let us say, “Amen.”

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