The Yosef (Joseph) story begins in Bereishit (Genesis) Chapter 37 and ends at the conclusion of the book of Bereishit. Yosef, the second youngest of Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) twelve sons, is hated by his ten older brothers. They hate him because their father favors Yosef and because of his dreams of becoming their leader. Eventually the dynamics between the brothers and Yosef become so negative that they throw him in a pit, after which he is sold into slavery and ends up in Egypt.
In Egypt, Yosef eventually rises from slavery to become the second most powerful person in Egypt, the Viceroy to the Pharaoh. In that capacity, he prepares Egypt to survive the impending famine he foretold. The famine reaches the land of Canaan and the brothers have to come to Yosef to get food for their family. The brothers do not know that Yosef is the Viceroy of Egypt. When they come before him they do not recognize him. He of course recognizes them.
Finally in Bereishit Chapter 45 Yosef reveals himself to his brothers. When he does this he says in line 3 “Ani Yosef, Ha’od Avi Chai”, “I am Yosef, is my father still alive?” It seems strange that this would be the first question that Yosef would ask his brothers upon revealing himself.
Yosef has been separated from his family for twenty-two years. For nine of those years he has been the Viceroy of Egypt with almost unlimited power. He had every resource in the world to contact his father and yet he made no effort to do so. Why now upon revealing his identity does he suddenly demonstrate such concern for his father in hiis opening line, “I am Yosef, is my father still alive?”
Furthermore, even before revealing himself Yosef and his brothers make multiple references to their father. In Chapters 42 and 43 there are thirteen references to Yosef either inquiring about the brothers’ father, the brothers telling Yosef that their father is well, or the brothers simply speaking about their father. Thus it is clear to Yosef that his father is alive before he reveals himself to his brothers. His question seems superfluous. Lastly, why does he say “…is my father still alive”? Should he not say “…is our father still alive?”
Is it possible that when Yosef says: “I am Yosef is my father still alive?” that he means something entirely different from the question’s literal interpretation? Perhaps Yosef’s question “…is my father still alive?” is code for a different question. In order to understand what Yosef is really asking we need to ask another question. How do we understand Yosef’s Jewish identity during the period of his life that he lived in Egypt – particularly the nine years that he served as the Viceroy?
In Bereishit 41:45 we see that Yosef is given an Egyptian name by Pharaoh, Tsaphenat- Paneach. We also learn that Yosef married an Egyptian woman. Not just any Egyptian woman, but Asnot the daughter of Poti Ferah, who, according to Rashi and Ramban, is Potifar, the person who owned Yosef when he was a slave. This could mean that Yosef has become so assimilated into the culture of Egypt and is so accepted that he is able to marry the daughter of his former owner, a very man who at one point had Yosef thrown in jail. Furthermore, Potifar is an important member of the Egyptian Aristocracy, a government leader and a Priest in the idolatrous religion of Egypt.
We see further proof of his assimilation based on the names he gives his sons. In Bereishit 41:51 we are told that Yosef names one of his sons Menashe which means “. . . God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s household”. In naming his son, Yosef acknowledges God but he also seems to separate himself from his heritage. In line 52 the other son is named Ephraim, “. . . God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering”. This line indicates how comfortable Yosef feels living in Egypt.
The fact that Yosef is not recognized by his brothers although he recognizes them is also significant. Why does Yosef recognize his brothers? They probably look the same as they have always looked, just twenty years older. Yosef, on the other hand, presumably looks completely different. In other words, the brothers look like Israelites and Yosef appears Egyptian.
It seems that Yosef is considerably assimilated into Egyptian culture. Now that we have established this, let us return to our original question. What does it mean when Yosef says “I am Yosef, is my father still alive?”
In the Torah, the Father and the Mother are often used to represent tradition, specifically Jewish Tradition. Perhaps when Yosef says “I am Yosef, is my father still alive”: What he really means is “I am Yosef; I am not Tsaphenat-Paneach. Is Judaism still alive within me?” More importantly, how is Judaism alive within me? What is the nature of the Judaism that is alive within me? How will Judaism function in my life?
Maybe what is happening in this moment is Yosef sees his brothers and he is reminded of Judaism. He deeply desires Judaism to be alive within him but he understands that he will approach Judaism differently than his brothers do. In reality this has always been true. The brothers and Yosef have always differed about Judaism. Perhaps this is really what the argument between Yosef and his brothers was about.
Consider the dreams of Yosef. Let us focus on the first dream Bereishit 37:5-7. Yosef dreams of sheaves of grain. The brothers’ sheaves of grain bow to Yosef’s sheaf. The classic way this dream is interpreted is that Yosef will one day be the leader, and this is accurate. However, if the dream was just about leadership, of all the images that could have represented leadership, why sheaves of grain? A crown, a throne, a scepter, all would have been better images to represent leadership. Furthermore, there is something strange about Yosef dreaming about sheaves of grain.
The dream is essentially about agriculture, farming. What is strange about this? What was the profession of Yosef and his brothers and for that matter anyone in Israel at this time? Sheep herders. Yosef understands that the world is evolving from a herding economy to an agrarian economy. For Israel to be successful economically they are going to have to be part of this evolution.
Now this is terrifying for the brothers. Why? Which is the profession that leaves more time for spirituality, the farmer or herder? The herder. Why? The sheep pretty much do what they need to do themselves and the herder just watches them. The farmer works all day long. The Torah itself picks up on this. The Torah sees this evolution, and the Torah does not say, do not be a farmer. The Torah says, be a farmer, but be a Jewish farmer. Be a spiritual farmer. In fact, what topic in the Torah has the most lines dedicated to it? Shabbat? Kashrut? Prayer? No – farming. The Torah understands that the world is making this economic evolution. For Judaism to be relevant people need to see it in the context of their real life. So God wrote the Torah of the farmer. Today we have to write the Torah of the doctor, the lawyer, the business person, the home maker and any other profession you can think of.
Not long ago I heard a story about a couple who felt they had no spirituality in their life. They met with a local Rabbi and they described their daily schedule, which was full, with both professional and household responsibilities. They said to the rabbi “We do not feel that we have any spirituality in our life”. The Rabbi said: “Obviously, you both work many hours and also invest a lot of time with your family. You have no time for spirituality. What you need to do is to make a commitment that you will go to services once a week”. Question? Did the rabbi give good advice or bad advice? Now I am Rabbi and I feel it can never be bad advice to go to services. Nonetheless, the Rabbi gave bad advice. Why? The Rabbi devaluated the majority of that couple’s week. The Rabbi essentially said through this suggestion that there is no way that you can achieve spirituality in your real life, in your work, in your home. You can only achieve spirituality through prayer. Again, prayer is not a negative path towards spiritual growth. It is an important element to improving one’s spiritual self. However, we also need to think about how to engage in spirituality in the most regular experiences in life.
To this end, I would like to suggest an exercise. Stand in front of a mirror and say, “I am (insert your own name). Are my father and mother still alive within me? Is Judaism alive within me, and how is Judaism live within me?” Then sit down and think about how Judaism can be experienced in your day to day life. Not just in Jewish learning, prayer and other ritualistic experiences (all of which are important). How does Judaism function in the way you work, in the way you play and in the way you interact with your friends, your family and anyone else you meet? If we can all articulate in a meaningful substantive way the answers to these questions then we will be able say. “We are the Jewish people. The tradition of our fathers and mothers is alive and well within us.”
The following is excerpted from “See Me, Feel Me” which is a subsection of the song “We’re Not Gonna Take It” from the Rock Opera “Tommy” by The Who.
Listening to you, I get the music
Gazing at you, I get the heat
Following you, I climb the mountain
I get excitement at your feet
This week’s song truly fits the drama of the moment when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers. “See Me Feel Me” is a portion of the song “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and plays an important role in the Rock Opera “Tommy” by The Who. To learn more about “Tommy” click here. On September 18th 2011 at Prudential Center in Newark NJ, I saw the full and complete version of “Tommy” live. Before the Opera began, Roger Daltrey, the lead singer of The Who, explained that on a certain level we are all Tommy at different points in our life. Hopefully none of us experience the horrible events that Tommy had to deal with; nonetheless we all have challenges. I thought about what Roger Daltrey said later in the evening, when the band reached “See Me, Feel Me.” I felt this is the moment where Tommy was saying he could
be reached, despite his challenges. Then when the band goes into the next part of the song, “Listening to you…,” That is Tommy’s moment of redemption. My mind went to the Yosef story and I saw Yosef to be similar in some ways to Tommy. I feel that when Yosef says, “I am Yosef, is my father still alive?” That is a similar moment of Yosef wanting to be reached and of redemption, not just for Yosef but for the brothers as well. The brothers and Yosef come together as a family once again at this moment. It is also the moment where Yosef has his realization about Judaism.