“I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt” (Gen. 45:4). With these words, Joseph, after decades of slavery and exile from his land and his family, reveals himself to his dumbfounded brothers. The build-up to the moment is prolonged and tension-filled. It comes after a long series of deceptions and tests or tricks, depending on one’s perspective, on the part of Joseph. As the great vizier of Egypt, the conceiver of the plan to avert the worst consequences of famine, and the man put in charge of implementing it, Joseph has been dealing with his brothers who have come from Canaan to Egypt to beg for food. They have not recognized him. It is only now, after many misunderstandings and a powerful dramatic speech by Judah to defend Benjamin, that Joseph can no longer contain himself. He asks all the Egyptians to withdraw, but his sobs—of sadness? happiness? relief? hopefulness? an uncontrolled burst of emotion combining them all?—are so loud and heartfelt that even the Egyptians can hear them (Gen. 45:1–2). When his brothers are unable to assimilate the news that they are facing their long-lost brother, Joseph utters those words, “I am your brother Joseph….”
Besides the undeniable dramatic impact of those words if we truly try to put ourselves in the place of Joseph’s brothers hearing them, there is the now inevitable connection we make to Pope John XXIII, who cited these conciliatory words “I am Joseph your brother” when greeting a group of 130 Jewish leaders in 1960. They were seen as the real beginning of a thaw of relations between Jews and the Catholic Church. But just as the meaning of Joseph’s sobs are ambiguous and complex, so are the words he utters to his brothers.
I once presented these words of Pope John XXIII as a basis of discussion in my congregation in order to explore the complicated feelings we Jews have towards Christianity. I had thought them so poignant and so demonstrative of the sea-change that Catholicism had undergone in the last 40 years or so towards Jews and Judaism. One of my congregants piped up quite determinedly and said, Hey, hold on a minute: Joseph’s words could be seen as an accusation. His brothers had rejected him. His brothers had been the ones who left him for dead or, worse, had treated him as a tradable commodity to be sent to a life of slavery. He was the innocent, blameless party, and his words were confronting them with their crime. If these thoughts were transferred to Pope John XXIII, then his words would not be as poignant nor as conciliatory nor as reconciliatory as we have historically taken them to be. Surely this was something that made me pause.
Indeed, immediately upon uttering these words Joseph tells his brothers not to be distressed about their past evil actions for it “was to save life that God sent me ahead of you” (Gen. 45:5). Not exactly a complete forgiveness, is it? It is a way of appeasing them, trying to allay their fear of him, but Joseph has not forgotten their actions nor has he made a clear statement of forgiving or forgetting.
But, he is their brother—inextricably tied by blood and history to them. Families are messy and complicated, full of resentments, jealousies, but also shared memories, companionship, support, admiration and hopefully, deep, transcendent love that can never be fully suppressed. Perhaps this more ambiguous reading can be applied to the words of the Pope five decades ago. We may have reasons for resentment between us, we may have jealousies and ambivalence, but we are ultimately brothers, and sisters—tied by bonds of history and blood. Hopefully, we can remember and reignite some of that transcendent love that siblings have for each other through their shared history, upbringing and companionship.
Rabbi Nancy Morris
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.