This will be the fourth year I will watch him do this, and I still don't quite fully understand this rite. "Remind me why you do this," I requested last year. He looked at me with a patient, long-suffering gaze, "I put on the star every year on the Shabbat after Thanksgiving. I take it off on the Shabbat after New Year's Day. I wear it throughout December so that everyone sees that I am a Jew. It's my own personal statement of identity."
Alright, so maybe I do understand. December is a difficult month for Jews. It's not that we're grinches. Most of us like Christmas. It's nice to see the beautiful lights and festive shop windows. People in the streets and stores are so friendly. We're used to the ubiquitous trees, Santas, elves, and reindeers. They're cute in their own way. We're glad that most Jews live in countries in which it is possible for us to go to our Christian friends' (and relatives') Christmas celebrations, a world in which Jews and Christians live together in peace. But the seemingly universal "spirit of Christmas" renders Jews (and other non-Christians) painfully invisible.
The Jewish community breathes a collective sigh of relief every January. No more explanations to bewildered friends that Jews really truly do not celebrate Christmas. No more visits to our childrens' school to attempt to explain our own culture through token "equal time" Hanukah stories and latkes. No more daily barrage of smiling shop clerks wishing us, "Merry Christmas." What do we reply? "Thank you" sounds pretty phoney. "Uh, thanks, but I'm Jewish" seems a bit rude. The truth is that there is no perfect answer. Eleven months of the year Jews are spared the acute awareness of our minority status, but not during December.
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.
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.
In our society, gay people face this dilemma regularly. My friend Linda, who is a lesbian, and I were renting a car on vacation in Hawaii. The clerk asked her, "Are you married?" She answered, "Uh, no," but a look of guilt and confusion crossed her face. I had officiated at her wedding several years before. "Uh, I mean yes," she said. The clerk asked for her husband's name. She replied, "I don't have a husband, I'm married to a woman," to which the clerk replied, "Really, is that legal where you live?" Suddenly she was forced to explain her entire life story to the rental car agent.
In ways mundane and profound, many of us know what it is to be Joseph. Sometimes, even our most deliberate donning of dread locks, wedding rings, saris, rainbow earrings, chadors, political buttons, and fist-sized Stars of David may well go unrecognized. Ultimately, in many ways, we decide when to stay hidden in order to have safety or control--or because it's too big a hassle--and when to reveal ourselves in order to have genuine relationships and integrity.
There is no easy right or wrong here. Though clearly Joseph's moment for genuine identity had arrived, the years of hiding were also part of God's plan. The most each of us can do is work for a larger society in which every person has the opportunity to say, "I am Joseph, your brother."