Needless to say, the Jewish People don’t need any explanations about the complexity of family ties. We are, after all, the living proof that family over-the-top-everything is genetic. And whether we like it or not, our holy book is so full with family transgressions, that one cannot imagine a family wrongdoing that the Torah fails to have. At the top of the list of horrible relations we find siblings. Being a biblical sibling is a risky business: Theft, fraud, selling into slavery and – of course – murder, are all part of the Torah’s siblings story. And while we might be accustomed to hear the word ‘Brother’ as term of closeness: from those who share a joint faith or cause, through Labour Union solidarity to the life in the hood, the Torah indicates that brotherhood is a war zone were human emotions run free and risks are high. Take cover.
None of this should come as a surprise to Joseph. He knows all too well what a pack of brothers can do to their young, naïve, and somewhat vain brother. Being sold into slavery, exiled to a foreign land, making it all on his own - is his story.
This week’s parasha finds Joseph on the height of his success: he occupies a high level position in Pharaoh’s administration, he is wealthy and powerful, and at his feet are his brothers, bending to him just as in his prophetic dream of long ago. Joseph recognizes his brothers. Do they recognize him? We don’t know. Rashi says they sincerely did not recognize him because he had become so Egyptian in his dress and manners; Joseph even had an Egyptian interpreter to translate the Hebrew for him. But of course, that could have been a ruse.
Joseph summons his brothers to inspect them. He then falsely and intentionally accuses them of spying, and blames his brother Benjamin of theft. He demands to keep Benjamin as prisoner and orders the brothers to leave without him. He examines his brothers’ reaction: Are these men who were full of hate, grudge and envy towards him will yet again sacrifice their youngest brother on the altar of self needs?
Then rises his brother Judah, and with a well-crafted and striking speech argues against Joseph’s wrongful accusations. He mentions the family’s past – some of it is known to Joseph, and some is news, mentions their father Jacob’s sorrow, and advocates for his brothers. Joseph – seemingly overwhelmed by Judah’s speech is emptying the room to be left alone with his brothers and then reveilles his true identity to them. He is weeping, the brothers are speechless with dread and awe, and they all reunite in tears while Joseph promises them a bright future. The melodrama hits the roof.
Yes, this scene is melodramatic but it is so much more than this: first it is a masterpiece of the written word. It is landed with clues, hints, and riddles that make the head spin. And indeed the commentators - and there are many – seem to offer countless explanations. I read many of them and found myself more confused than ever: Joseph and Judah: who is genuine and who plays a game? Both? None? Who is driven by self-interest and who is devoted to family? Who is right? Who is righteous? Who embodies the future of Israel? Which tears are real, which joy is fake?
Rabbi Elchanan Samet claims that the story of Joseph reuniting with his brothers is a Rashomon Effect: when a same event is given contradictory interpretations by the different individuals involved. The term Rashomon Effect addresses the motivations, mechanism, and occurrences of the people involve with the circumstance. It is all about the existence of disagreements regarding the evidence of events, and the subjects of subjectivity versus objectivity in human perception, memory, and reporting.
Rabbi Samet is aware that with the Torah Omniscient narrator, a Rashomon Effect cannot take place. Nevertheless, he claims, the text is so rich with embedded memories, speeches, unexplained acts and gestures that we cannot really tell what is going on between Joseph and Judah, and thus the multiple contradictory commentary.
So what one can do when the commentators are so many and so contradicting? Go to their Rabbi, of course! But what if their Rabbi is in California at this moment? In such case, one can go to the Rabbi they secretly stalk on Facebook. And so I did: I went to Rabbi David Menachem of Jerusalem my hometown, trusting him to guide me to where my heart feels content.
And this is what Rabbi Menachem had to say:From the beginning of the Torah, siblings seem to be in a state of animosity: Kane and Abel, Noah’s sons, Ismael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers. Someone must put and end to this animosity: someone must make a tikkun. And this someone is Joseph. There is no coincidence that Joseph is the one that coined the phrase: “מבקש אנוכי אחיי את. I seek my brethren” Which contrasting Kane’s infamous: “?אנוכי אחי השומר Am I my Brother’s keeper?” Joseph, almost as a first, is seeking his brothers; their company, their acknowledgment. And when he reunites with them he is willing not only to forgive the wrongs that they have done to him, not only to support them and provide for all their needs, but to also leave behind his own pride and arrogance, and to be a brother once more.
When we look at things this way, the Rashomon of the scene becomes smaller. It is no longer a question of which brother is right and righteous. The brothers are one.
In the TV show Rick and Morty, parasite aliens take over a household. They invade people’s minds and implant false memories that make the people believe that the aliens are family members. With each day that passes, more fake relatives appear, and the humans cannot tell who is a real relative and who is a parasite. “Is uncle Daniel a true uncle? I remember him teaching me how to ride my bike when I was ten…” “…Is cousin Darla really my cousin? She must be, I love her since we were little girls I remember us going to camp together…” The humans feel lost; they cannot tell a true relative from a parasite, the memories are too real.
How does the episode ends, you may ask? Well, the humans find a way to tell real from fake: They realize that if their memories of a person are all sweet and positive, the person must be a parasite. Because when it comes to their true relatives, oh, the memories of them are full of bitterness, disappointment, pet-peeves and resentment. Only happy memories with a family member? Impossible! The people can finally tell real from fake. They destroy the aliens and celebrate the true meaning of family: if it bitters you belong ☺
Joseph knew this all too well. I suspect that so do we. At the end of the day, family is not about fake happy memories. At the end of the day family is about seeking our brethren. It is about letting go of past transgressions and providing for those we care for. It is about weeping when we can no longer hold it together. It is about tikkun and forgiveness. And it’s about the understanding that when the melodrama’s dust settles down, you might just have a good thing going.