web analytics
January 31, 2015 / 11 Shevat, 5775
 
At a Glance
Judaism
Sponsored Post


The Disguises In Genesis


Joseph is now the ruler of Egypt. The famine he predicted has come to pass. It extends beyond Egypt to the land of Canaan. Seeking to buy food, Joseph’s brothers make the journey to Egypt. They arrive at the palace of the man in charge of grain distribution:

“Now Joseph was governor of all Egypt, and it was he who sold the corn to all the people of the land. Joseph’s brothers came and bowed to the ground before him. Joseph recognized his brothers as soon as he saw them, but he behaved like a stranger and spoke harshly to them … Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:6-8).

We owe to Robert Alter the idea of a type-scene, a drama enacted several times with variations; and these are particularly in evidence in the book of Bereishit. There is no universal rule as to how to decode the significance of a type-scene. One example is boy-meets-girl-at-well, an encounter that takes places three times: between Abraham’s servant and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, and Moses and the daughters of Jethro. Here, the setting is probably not significant (wells are where strangers met in those days, like the water-dispenser in an office). What we must attend to in these three episodes is their variations: Rebecca’s activism, Jacob’s show of strength, and Moses’s passion for justice. How people act toward strangers at a well is, in other words, a test of their character. In some cases, however, a type-scene seems to indicate a recurring theme. That is the case here. If we are to understand what is at stake in the meeting between Joseph and his brothers, we have to set aside three other episodes, all of which occur in Bereishit.

The first takes place in Isaac’s tent. The patriarch is old and blind. He tells his elder son to go out into the field, trap an animal and prepare a meal so that he can bless him. Surprisingly, Isaac hears someone enter. “Who are you?” he asks. “I am Esau, your elder son,” the voice replies. Isaac is not convinced. “Come close and let me feel you, my son. Are you really Esau, or not?” He reaches out and feels the rough texture of the skins covering his arms. Still unsure, he asks again, “But are you really my son Esau?” The other replies, “I am.” So Isaac blesses him: “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field blessed by G-d.” But it is not Esau. It is Jacob in disguise.

Scene two: Jacob has fled to his uncle Lavan’s house. Arriving, he meets and falls in love with Rachel, and offers to work for her father for seven years in order to marry her. The time passes quickly: the years “seemed like a few days because he loved her.” The wedding day approaches. Lavan makes a feast. The bride enters her tent. Late at night, Jacob follows her. Now at last he has married his beloved Rachel. When morning comes, he discovers that he has been the victim of a deception. It is not Rachel. It is Leah in disguise.

Scene three: Judah has married a Canaanite girl and is now the father of three sons. The first marries a local girl, Tamar, but dies mysteriously young, leaving his wife a childless widow. Following a pre-Mosaic version of the law of levirate marriage, Judah marries his second son to Tamar so that she can have a child “to keep his brother’s name alive.” He is loath to have a son that will, in effect, belong to his late brother so he “spilled his seed,” and for this he too died young. Judah is reluctant to give Tamar his third son, so she is left an agunah, “chained,” bound to someone she is prevented from marrying – and unable to marry anyone else.

The years pass. Judah’s own wife dies. Returning home from sheep shearing, he sees a veiled prostitute by the side of the road. He asks her to sleep with him, promising, by way of payment, a kid from the flock. She asks him for his “seal and its cord and his staff” as security. The next day he sends a friend to deliver the kid, but the woman has disappeared. The locals deny all knowledge of her. Three months later, Judah hears that his daughter-in-law Tamar has become pregnant. He is incensed. Bound to his youngest son, she was not allowed to have a relationship with anyone else. She must have been guilty of adultery.

“Bring her out so that she may be burnt,” he says. She is brought to be killed, but she asks one favor. She tells one of the people to take to Judah the seal and cord and staff. “The father of my child,” she says, “is the man to whom these things belong.” Immediately, Judah understands. Tamar, unable to marry yet honor-bound to have a child to perpetuate the memory of her first husband, has tricked her father-in-law into performing the duty he should have allowed his youngest son to do. “She is more righteous than I,” Judah admits. He thought he had slept with a prostitute. But it was Tamar in disguise.

That is the context against which the meeting between Joseph and his brothers must be understood. The man the brothers bow down to bears no resemblance to a Hebrew shepherd. He speaks Egyptian. He is dressed in an Egyptian ruler’s robes. He wears Pharaoh’s signet ring and the gold chain of authority. They think they are in the presence of an Egyptian prince, but it is Joseph – their brother – in disguise.

Four scenes. Four disguises. Four failures to see behind the mask. What do they have in common? Something very striking indeed. It is only by not being recognized that Jacob, Leah, Tamar and Joseph can be recognized – in the sense of attended, taken seriously, heeded. Isaac loves Esau, not Jacob. Jacob loves Rachel, not Leah. Judah thinks of his youngest son, not the plight of Tamar. Joseph is hated by his brothers. Only when they appear as something or someone other than they are can they achieve what they seek: for Jacob, his father’s blessing; for Leah, a husband; for Tamar, a son; for Joseph, the non-hostile attention of his brothers. The plight of these four individuals is summed up in a single poignant phrase: “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.”

Do the disguises work? In the short term, yes; but in the long term, not necessarily. Jacob suffers greatly for having taken Esau’s blessing. Leah, though she marries Jacob, never wins his love. Tamar had a child (in fact, twins) but Judah “was not intimate with her anymore.” Joseph – well, his brothers no longer hated him but they feared him. Even after his assurances that he bore them no grudge, they still thought he would take revenge on them after their father died. What we achieve in disguise is never the love we sought.

But something else happens. Jacob, Leah, Tamar and Joseph discover that, though they may never win the affection of those from whom they seek it, G-d is with them – and that, ultimately, is enough. A disguise is an act of hiding – from others, and perhaps from oneself. From G-d, however, we cannot, nor do we need to, hide. He hears our cry. He answers our unspoken prayer. He heeds the unheeded and brings them comfort. In the aftermath of the four episodes, there is no healing of relationship but there is a mending of identity. That is what makes them not secular narratives but deeply religious chronicles of psychological growth and maturation. What they tell us is simple and profound: those who stand before G-d need no disguises to achieve self-worth when standing before mankind.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

8 Responses to “The Disguises In Genesis”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Didn't someone coin the prhrase "Oh what awfull webs we weave, when we practice to deceive".

  2. Thank you Rabbi Sacks, really enjoyed reading your enlightening and uplifting article.

  3. Very good. Is this from Robert Sacks? I just finished his Gen commentary

  4. Very good. Is this from Robert Sacks? I just finished his Gen commentary

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
Jeremy Bird, working for Israeli campaign outfit V15, shown at Ted Talk, May 20, 2014.
V15 US Political Operative Marinated in Hate-Israel Activism
Latest Judaism Stories
Staum-013015

People often think that all they are missing is “just a little more” and then they can be truly happy.

Torah-Hakehillah-121914

The Midrash is teaching a fundamental message of what it means to be a religious person.

Rabbi Sacks

Torah opposes slavery; G-d desires the free worship of free human beings, yet slavery’s permitted-?!

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

France allowed Islamists to flourish despite their loyalty to Islamic sharia law not French values

Approximately 18 years ago, my uncle called me into his office saying he had an urgent matter to discuss. I didn’t know what he had in mind.

“Where is God?” asked the Kotzker Rebbe “God is not everywhere but only where you let Him enter”

An Explosion In The Trench
‘With A Glowing Hot Knife’
(Yevamos 120b)

Her first tactic was tefillah; she immediately began to recite one perek after another of Tehillim.

When a miracle occurs that transcends nature, Hashem has broken the laws of nature to create the miracle.

“How could you have expected my glasses to be there?” argued Mr. Weiss. “You shouldn’t have to pay.”

Rather than submit to this fate and suffer torture and humiliation, Shaul decided to fall on his sword.

How can the Da’as Zekeinim say this was Hashem’s plan to allow them to become the Torah Nation? We know it was actually a punishment.

A strange midrash of fruit trees surrounding the Nation of Israel as they walked to freedom

Leading by example must be visible, regarding where, when and how-like Nachshon entering the Red Sea

Rabbi Yaakov Nagen, a Ram at Yeshivat Otniel, notes that the verse is suggesting that retelling the story of the Exodus is so important that Hashem is performing ever-greater miracles specifically so that parents can tell their stories to future generations.

More Articles from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Sacks

Torah opposes slavery; G-d desires the free worship of free human beings, yet slavery’s permitted-?!

Rabbi Sacks

Pharaoh perverted symbols of life (the Nile and midwives) into agents of death.

The 5th cup is supported by a 5th expression of Deliverance: “And I will bring you to the land…”

The first recorded instance of civil disobedience is the story of Shifra and Puah, defying Pharaoh

Truthfulness is a fundamental value in Jewish yet truth isn’t its highest value. Peace is. Why so?

Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim over Manasseh had nothing to do with age and everything to do with names

Tamar’s conduct bears an uncanny resemblance to Ruth’s; virtuous outsiders at the margins of society

A Jew is an iconoclast, born to challenge the idols of the age,whatever the idols, whatever the age.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/jewish-columns/rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks/the-disguises-in-genesis/2012/12/12/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: