Do you who remember in that wonderful movie ET, the “ET phone home” question? In that movie the essential goodness of the alien was encapsulated by his desire to “phone home.” We can ask a similar question about Joseph in today’s parsha: Why didn’t Joseph phone home? Joseph is the favorite son of his father Jacob. And yet when he becomes Prime Minister of Egypt he never phones home. His father loved him, doted on him and spoiled him to the envy of his brothers. His father was grieving inconsolably for 22 years. He could have easily sent word to let his devastated father know that he’s still alive. It seems cruel. What did Jacob do to deserve this?
We, who read the story, know how much Jacob loved Joseph. We know how much he mourned for him. But Joseph didn’t know that. From his perspective the question was not why didn’t he contact his father, but why didn’t his father contact him during all those 22 years? Why didn’t he send out a search party looking for him? The brothers knew he was sold to slavery in Egypt.
Perhaps Joseph felt that his father was rejecting him. After all, the whole history of the family was that one child was chosen and another rejected. It happened with Isaac and Ishmael and it happened again with Jacob and Esav. When Reuven made a play for the succession, his father did not rebuke him. When Joseph expresses a claim on the succession with his dreams, his father rebukes him in front of his brothers. What else can Joseph think but that his father has changed his mind and chosen Reuven, the eldest, to be the successor and not him?
Yes, Jacob gives Joseph a coat of many colors. But that coat creates so much jealousy and tension between him and his brothers. And knowing this, he still sends Joseph to meet his brothers in the field. How could his father be so blind? Didn’t he realize what would happen to him?
It is possible that Joseph blamed his father for his predicament—and not without justification. It is also possible that Joseph actually believed his father may have been complicit with his brothers in his kidnapping and sale to Egypt because Jacob never came looking for him. How could he give up on his favorite son so easily?
The conclusion that Joseph may have reached is that his father didn’t look for him because he didn’t want to find him. Joseph never knew the story that the brothers told the father about how a wild animal had killed him. In this understanding Joseph doesn’t phone home to Canaan because Canaan is no longer his home. He wants to forget Canaan and his family because of the trauma they recall. So he now makes Egypt his home.
The Midrash suggests that there are 3 signs which indicate that the Jewish people, when they lived in Egypt, did not assimilate into Egyptian culture. They did not change their language, their names or their clothes. Joseph, on the other hand, did all 3! He wears Pharaoh’s royal clothes (Gen. 41:42); he now goes by the name Tzafnat Paneyach (Gen. 41:45); and he only speaks Egyptian—that’s why he used an interpreter in speaking to foreigners (Gen. 42:23). He calls his 1st son Menashe, which means “forget,” as he says, “because Gd caused me—nashani—to forget, all of my suffering and the house of my father.” Joseph sees himself, as Rabbi Mordecai Gafni puts it, as “an orphan in time—disconnected to his past.”
When the brothers appear before him in Egypt they don’t recognize him and don’t know that he understands them. When Joseph speaks harshly to them he hears them say, “We are guilty concerning our brother for we saw the pain in his soul when he pleaded with us and we would not hear, therefore this trouble is upon us.” For the 1st time Joseph hears the brothers talk about him not as the hated threat but as a person in pain.
In their recognition of this pain—even so many years later—something moves in him. Rueven then says to the brothers, “Did I not say to you, ‘Do not sin against the child,’ and you would not hear, therefore behold his blood is required.” At this point Joseph is overwhelmed by feelings he barely recognizes and the Torah tells us, “he turned away from them and cried.” Later when Judah pleads for Benjamin’s life—Judah who was the one who suggested they sell Joseph into slavery and now protects his brother Benjamin by saying, “Take me instead”—when Joseph hears this he can no longer control himself and so he reveals himself to his brothers.
What’s the lesson in this story? There are many lessons. For me, number one is the importance of real communication in a family. Without this, any family is headed for disaster. Jacob’s mother and father did not communicate as much as they should have. Rebecca only found out that Isaac intended to give the Blessing to Esav by eavesdropping. And that’s what led her to intervene, to disguise Jacob to deceive his father into giving him the blessing, which led to disaster. Jacob had to run for his life and we can only imagine how angry Esav must have been at his mother after that. All that may have been prevented if only Isaac and Rebecca had communicated, if he had explained to her what he was doing and why, and if she had communicated to him why she objected.
A generation later, Jacob does the same thing. He doesn’t explain to Joseph why he rebuked him in front of his brothers on account of his dream. Perhaps he was only trying to make Joseph more sensitive to the effect his words were having on them. Perhaps he was trying to make him realize that he was hurting their feelings and arousing their jealousy with his prattling. But he didn’t.
No wonder Joseph thought his father had rejected him. And when he sent Joseph to visit his brothers in the field, I’m sure he had hoped they would have a reunion there and return as friends. But he never told Joseph that, and he misunderstood.
And therefore, the 1st lesson I learn from this story is that real communication may be the most difficult but the most important act upon which the welfare of every family depends. Without it, there can be no marriage, no family, no understanding, no peace.
Another lesson: Never, never, never give up on a child. No one can ever predict from what a person is like in his/her childhood and early adulthood, what that person will be like when they grow up. Joseph starts out as a spoiled brat—oblivious to the feelings of his brothers as he struts around in his coat of many colors telling them of his dreams. But Joseph ends up as a sensitive, caring, forgiving, compassionate person. Who would have predicted it?
The story is told that parents once came to the Baal Shem Tov—founder of Chassidut—and asked him what they should do with their child who was disobedient, unruly and always getting into trouble? Do you know what the Baal Shem Tov’s advice was? “Love him more!” Sometimes we have to show that we love our children in tough ways, but there’s no other way to win their hearts than by loving them.
And the most important way we can show our loved ones how much we love them is by really communicating our true feelings with them every day. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis