Every Sibling Tells Their Own Family Story


“When kings contend with each other, what has it got to do with us?” asks a midrash on this week’s Torah portion. “It is fitting for a king to contend with a king!” And when Judah came near, his brothers stood back and left the two champions, Judah and Joseph, to have it out.

Judah is ready for anything. Goaded beyond endurance by the inscrutable Egyptian’s sophisticated maneuvers, he finally makes his overture. As with the wrestling match between Jacob and the angel — or Jacob and Esau — we don’t know if this pair is engaged in a fight to the death — or an embrace.

Advantage seems to be on the side of the Egyptian viceroy: Joseph recognizes his brothers, while they don’t recognize him. They seem completely in his power; Judah seems totally obeisant, his abasement complete. And yet Joseph has to rush from his brothers’ presence to hide his emotion when he first set eyes on Benjamin — his younger and only full brother and the “smallest” of the tribes. Judah’s innocent plea to the glacial viceroy — that he should substitute himself for the guilty party — is a patently absurd arrangement. Why, with all this to his credit, does Joseph break down?

Joseph continually asks about his father. When Judah conveys how much his father still grieves for him and for Joseph’s mother, Rachel, latent memories break through the glacial exterior.

From Judah’s broken appeal, Joseph gets a complete picture of his brothers’ version of the story: how, in their father’s emotional world, they felt as second-class citizens; the sense of rejection that had driven them to want to rid themselves of Joseph in the first place. Additionally, Joseph’s breakdown may have been triggered by Judah’s magnanimous and realistic admission of their father’s emotional reality. To Jacob, Rachel was the only real wife. Her sons, Joseph and Benjamin, were the only ones who mattered. To hear this from the lips of one being excluded was some kind of consolation to one who had been rejected long before.

However, the reality for the onetime dreamer was totally the opposite: according to the Zohar, before Joseph was born, from the time of the substitution of Leah for Rachel in Jacob’s marriage bed, the mission Jacob envisioned — of Joseph’s right to kingship — was transposed to the realm of Kabbalistic symbolism, poetry and the dimension of exile. Though Joseph became second only to Pharaoh, in a sense he was still a slave, subservient to a foreign tyrant’s caprice.

According to an old Yemenite midrash, the greatest collective crime around which Yom Kippur centers is not that of the Golden Calf (a crime against God) but the callous and premeditated atrocity the brothers perpetrated against Joseph. In Jewish law, kidnapping, like murder, is a capital offense. To this day the primal scene of the brothers, adult men, strong in their brotherly network, watching the young dreamer’s slow approach and calculating how they would get rid of him sends shivers down the spine; as does Judah’s antiseptic suggestion that they not shed his blood but rather profit from his sale and degradation. We are horror-struck by this violation of one of their own, their stripping naked of their brother, rending his coat from him, casting him into the pit, the particular blend of passion and calculation involved.

As his names for his children spell out, ostensibly Joseph managed to transcend his circumstances and become successful in a foreign land (Ephraim, “fruitful”), he was able to numb himself into seeming forgetfulness of the trauma he had experienced in his family (Menashe, “to cause to forget”). But, in fact, his true emotional memory stopped just there.

Everything turns on alternative versions of the family story. Each sibling, however superficially mature, has his own version of family beginnings. Yet who can remember what really happened 22 years before? Nevertheless, the brothers, like most of us, recall those primal events far better than their present circumstances.

Joseph breaks down because he is overwhelmed by Judah’s capacity to express emotion about something he cares for, while for him that kind of intimacy is closed off, precisely because of what his brothers have done to him and his role in the family.

After prefacing his great speech by saying he is wordless, Judah launches into a veritable flood of expressive language, during which Joseph remains silent, still hurting, still traumatized by what his brothers have done to him. The last time he set eyes on Judah, he was entirely at Judah’s mercy, and though now the tables are reversed and he has total power, he does not feel it. What he might have been looking for in the encounter was some show of remorse or even brotherly feeling, of warmth. He never got it. The most he got was Judah’s readiness to give his life for Benjamin, Rachel’s “surviving” son, because of the pain Benjamin’s loss would cause their father, and Judah’s consequent dishonor. Over their father’s anguish, the brothers come together.

Even behind all these reasons, I believe Joseph breaks down because he is overwhelmed by Judah’s capacity to express emotion about something he cares for, while for him that kind of intimacy is closed off, precisely because of what his brothers have done to him and his role in the family. Emotionally he is still in the pit. Joseph transcends his own needs and reaches out to his brothers without expecting any response because he cares so much for the integrity of his entire family. “Come close, I pray thee.” (Genesis 45:4)

Behind the different, equally valid versions of the family story that are laid bare, what the brothers are fighting about is a most basic thing — the naked need for emotional validation by one’s “brother” within a social context. Despite all his effort, it is doubtful Joseph ever got it.

Freema Gottlieb is the author of The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light, available as a Kindle edition on Amazon.com. She has written for the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, and Partisan Review. Her talks on the weekly Torah reading may be found on YouTube.

Candle-Lighting, Readings:

Friday, Dec. 25, 2020
Tevet 10, 5781

Light Shabbat candles at 4:16 pm

Saturday, Dec. 26
Tevet 11, 5781

Torah Reading: Vayigash: Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28

Shabbat ends 5:20 pm.