In the Joseph story, when “the seven years of famine set in, just as Joseph had foretold. There was famine in all lands, but throughout the land of Egypt there was bread.” Gen 41:54 Then, at Jacob’s bidding “…ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to get grain rations in Egypt.” Gen 42:3 These are part of the chain of events that find Joseph’s brothers bowing down before him, unaware that they were acting out the exact scene that had so outraged them when they first heard and interpreted it from the dream Joseph had shared with them in his graceless, cosseted, seventeen year old way.
Now Joseph’s brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground. When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, and he acted like a stranger toward them. Gen 42:6-7
Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev teaches that when the Torah says, he acted like a stranger toward them, we are meant to understand this as evidence of Joseph’s righteousness. How so? Levi Yitzhak teaches that it’s only natural when someone has been defeated by someone they know, where the one loses and the other one wins, there can be a painful edge to the loss. But when they are defeated by someone they don’t know, the loss is not as painful. Now when his brothers bowed low to Joseph and he held power over them, it’s not hard to imagine Joseph wanting a big reveal and a little payback. These brothers who had brutally betrayed him when he was defenseless were at his mercy in that moment and yet, instead of rebuking them or confronting them with their history he acted like a stranger toward them.
Levi Yitzhak teaches that this was Joseph’s righteousness, that Joseph acted like a stranger toward them:
so they would not be bitter and it would appear to them that they were bowing to someone else . . . Indeed, Joseph was a king, but they were untroubled by this because they thought they were bowing to another king. When the Torah says that “they bowed low to him…” and “he recognized them” it means, he recognized that they would suffer if he disclosed his true identity, so “he acted like a stranger toward them,” so they would not suffer on account of his victory over them.
I learned from my friend, chevruta and Vipassana teacher, Rhonda Rosen, the Buddhist teaching that “Not knowing is most intimate.” Joseph could have held on to the idea that his brothers were still the same brothers he had known—the ones who had thrown him into the pit. One can imagine everyone taking up their old family roles, their old resentments, old pain, old narratives. The truth is that they all had been changed over time. Operating from the idea that they knew what there was to know about each other would only obscure the reality before them. In “acting like a stranger”, Joseph not only spared his brothers pain, as Levi Yitzhak taught, but where pain causes constriction, it’s opposite creates space – and Joseph’s deliberate action created the space that allowed his brothers to show up. It didn’t eliminate their history. It didn’t eliminate their responsibility or guilt. But by “not knowing”, by not bringing his past into it, Joseph was able to listen with an open heart to the brothers that were actually in front of him. His “not knowing” allowed his love to surface — the love that had made the original betrayal so acute in the first place and showed up in the tears he hid in their presence. In acting like a stranger toward his brothers, Joseph made space for transformation, space for something new to develop.
An invitation to practice:
In the next days, either by memory – or by actually writing them down on a slip of paper (that you can glance at through the day,) bring those two ideas to your awareness:
“Acting like a stranger toward them”
“ Not knowing is most intimate.”
As you interact with people, experiment with allowing what you “know” about them to subside. It may be useful to try this with people you are most comfortable interacting with first – and then try it with people with whom you may have a little friction. Of course, the opposite may also be true! So choose people and/or situations for practice as wisely as you are able. Allow past resentments to rest, leave the past out of this present interaction to the best of your ability. Listen with and try to speak from an open heart. Notice when thoughts form in your mind that label that person. Notice the mental short cuts that tell you “how they are” and “what they are like.” Notice when thoughts send you down a cascade of prediction and expectations, maybe even a clinging to particular outcomes (be like you were last week when you were doing what I wanted!) And finally, I invite you to notice when you’ve made space for something new to develop.
Source for Kedushat Levi teaching :
Speaking Torah, vol 1; Arthur Green, with Ebn Leder, Ariel Evan Mayes and Or N. Rose
Offered to our JMMTT5 cohort by Julie Newman, December 5, 2018