Joseph, Fully Remembered: Commentary on Parashat Vayyiggash 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary

“Can you take your mask off?”

Not only is this a question many, if not all, of us have been asked at some point or another—it is also a question I have been asking myself through the recent round of quarantine in my own home. As of this writing, half of my family has tested positive for COVID-19 within the last week, and half of us haven’t. Each of us is looking forward to the end of the novel coronavirus’ visit to our home; we longingly realize that soon we will once again sit, eat, play, laugh, and love with one another, with zero barriers in between our faces.

In the Hebrew language, to see the face of the ones we love is to look deeply into the soul of our loved one. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the word panim (פָּנִים) means “face,” but the term literally means “dimensions.” To know the face of those who are dearest to us is to know far more than what lies upon the surface.

As the Book of Genesis tells us, it was difficult for Joseph’s half-siblings to recognize him in the garb befitting his high-ranking political post. Joseph’s life was punctuated, after all, by a series of dramatic outfit changes. The last time Joseph’s half-brothers had seen him, they had stripped him of the “tunic of stripes” (כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים, ketonet passim) their father Jacob personally prepared for his beloved son (Genesis 37:3 and 37:23). After Joseph’s kin had abandoned him in a pit, he found himself sold into servitude in the house of Potiphar, chief cook to the Pharaoh (37:37 and 39:1). However Joseph dressed for this role, this Israelite servant caught the eye of Potiphar’s wife (39:7). Seemingly unsatisfied in her marriage to a eunuch (see 39:1), she attempted to seduce Joseph (39:7–39:13), who refused her advances and ran off without the clothes of servitude she swiped off of him (39:14–18). The lie that she fabricated to explain why she now possessed Joseph’s clothes enraged her spouse (39:19) and landed Joseph in prison (39:20). In due time though, word of Joseph’s dream-interpreting talents reached Pharaoh after a few troubling dreams (41:1–12), and the Egyptian royal servants shaved Joseph and, moving him up the society ladder, “changed his skirts” (וַיְחַלֵּ֣ף שִׂמְלֹתָ֔יו, vaychallef simlotav) (41:14). Once the Pharaoh was determined to appoint Joseph to a vizier position over all of Egypt (41:41), Joseph would need to look the part; the Egyptian leader gave Joseph access to the official royal signet, fine linen clothes, and a golden necklace (41:42). When Joseph’s half-brothers left the famine in Canaan and stood before Joseph in Egypt to request food rations, he knew exactly who they were, but they could not see past the guise of the Egyptian noble before them (42:1–8).

Beneath these costumes, Joseph realized that, in order to repair the brokenness of his relationships with his half-siblings, he would have to reveal the truth of his own identity; he would have to uncover the wounds from the past. Upon hearing their request for food, Joseph provoked his brothers, accusing them of being “foot patrol” (מְרַגְּלִים, meraggelim, in 42:9, 42:14, and 42:16). He surmised, enigmatically, they were driven by a quest to uncover “the nakedness of the land” (עֶרְוַת הָאָרֶץ, ervat ha’aretz, in 42:9 and 42:12)—a place too bare to be covered with deceit and denial. This week’s Torah portion, Vayyiggash, begins mid-conversation as the words between the siblings began to highlight the half-brothers’ bodies. Judah asks permission to speak “into the ears of” (בְּאׇזְנֵ֣י, be’ozney) Joseph with a caveat on the face of it all: “Just do not let your nose flare [with rage]” (וְאַל־יִחַר אַפְּךָ, ve’al yichar appekha) (44:18). As Judah proceeds, he reports to Joseph the intimidation he heard in Joseph’s allusion to Benjamin, Joseph’s only full-brother (who had stayed back in Canaan with their father Jacob): “If your little [half-]brother, does not go down [to Egypt] with you, you will not again see my face” (“אִם־לֹ֥א יֵרֵ֛ד אֲחִיכֶ֥ם הַקָּטֹ֖ן אִתְּכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תֹסִפ֖וּן לִרְא֥וֹת פָּנָֽי׃”) (44:23). The threat of not seeing the face of the man who distributes food—who sustains life—tortured the family; the theme of seeing, or not seeing, the face of this Israelite-Egyptian official appears several more times in the narrative (for instance, 43:3, 43:5, and 44:26). Once Joseph has revealed his identity “though, his [half- and full-]siblings could not answer him, for they were shocked by his face” (“וְלֹֽא־יָכְל֤וּ אֶחָיו֙ לַעֲנ֣וֹת אֹת֔וֹ כִּ֥י נִבְהֲל֖וּ מִפָּנָֽיו”) (45:3). Having requested that all those who tended to him would leave the space (45:1)—thus creating a moment just for the family—Joseph narrates the honest face-to-face encounter with his brothers:


עֵֽינֵיכֶם֙ רֹא֔וֹת וְעֵינֵ֖י אָחִ֣י בִנְיָמִ֑ין כִּי־פִ֖י הַֽמְדַבֵּ֥ר אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃

Your eyes and the eyes of my [full-]brother see that it is my mouth speaking to you. (Genesis 45:12.)


The full-body experience of the chills and warmth in seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling the presence of someone once lost to us lays bare the entire array of feelings once submerged in the face of these old relationships. The ancient midrashic collection Bereshit Rabbah imaginatively retells Joseph’s revelation with graphic detail, featuring (temporary) death and (brief) nudity:


.מיד פרחה נשמתן שנאמר ולא יכלו אחיו וגו’ ולא האמינו לו עד שפרע עצמו והראה להם המילה

Immediately, their breath flew [away], for it says, “but his [half- and full-]siblings [just] couldn’t…” (Genesis 45:3)! And they did not believe him until he unfolded himself and showed them the [evidence of his Israelite] circumcision. (Bereshit Rabbah 83:9.)


Though most of his family once left him for dead, Joseph revived himself in full and in the flesh. Though words and storytelling could have gone a long way to affirm Joseph’s identity, the truth came through in the instance when Joseph, after so much teasing, permitted his family to see the face beneath his facades. This revival of the once-scorned and now-desired brother bears to mind a formulation I first heard from scholar Yishai Barth: the opposite of dismembering—of eviscerating what we have encountered—is remembering—affirming and reaffirming the fullness of what we have witnessed.*

Whether we wear physical masks to prevent the spread of an illness or we assume new personae when we feel we must hide something inside us—there are times when we find or seek relief in accepting and sharing the imperfections and the blessings that define us. We don these masks to protect ourselves as needed—and there often is need—but, when our faces and our stories can resurface, it is good and holy to be fully remembered.


*I draw this teaching from the sermon Barth delivered on the morning of Shabbat Shuvah of 5778 (September 23, 2017) at Beth Israel Center in Madison, Wisconsin. I regret any error in my remembering his phrasing and nuance. Though I recognize that other teachers have professed similarly regarding these two words, I remain moved and inspired by Barth’s own lecture.