Joseph Comes Out
So many people hide their true identities. We must work for a day when everyone can say, "I am Joseph, your brother."
There have been many times and places where Jews did not have the luxury of invisibility. Historically, Jews often have been forced to wear stigmatizing clothing, restricted to living in certain neighborhoods, and limited to low-statue professions. In order to avoid overt discrimination and persecution, in order to enroll in universities and achieve in professions, Jews have "passed" as non-Jews, changed their names, joined the "right" clubs, even nominally converted. But "passing" exacts its own cost. It eats at our sense of self-worth and personal integrity. Even the relatively benign contemporary December experience takes a toll.
This week's Torah portion, Vayiggash, probes the emotional tension of coming out after a lifetime of passing. It brings us to the dramatic climax of the Joseph story. Though a Hebrew, Joseph is now living as an Egyptian lord. He dresses as an Egyptian, he speaks as an Egyptian, in every outward respect he is Egyptian. His true identity is known only to himself and God.
In last week's portion, Joseph sees his brothers for the first time since their youth. He is moved to tears, but he removes himself to another room and cries alone. Joseph sees, but he is not seen.
From the time of his imprisonment until this climax, Joseph has assumed a more hardened and calculating face to the world. He cleverly guides Pharoah into making him vizier of Egypt. He strategically deals with a great famine and makes a profit. He lies to his brothers and tests them. Joseph is no longer the guileless and imprudent boy of the early chapters of the tale. Joseph has learned how to maneuver and manipulate in an unfriendly world, but at the cost of personal authenticity.
At last, in this week's portion, Joseph must choose whether to allow himself to be vulnerable--to be seen for who he is. His brothers have passed his test. They do not abandon each other at times of danger.
The situation is as psychologically "safe" as Joseph can make it. Now he must take the risk of honesty. It is a moving moment indeed when the Torah recounts how Joseph sends everyone away, so that he is alone with his bothers, his "own kind," when he reveals himself. Finally, letting go of his worldly, calculating, Egyptian facade, he comes out. "I am Joseph," he sobs.
For good or ill, it seems that it is part of the destiny of the Jewish people to relive Joseph's struggle between identification and assimilation. However, Jews are not the only people who understand what it means to be Joseph in Egypt.