Your Brother’s ID: Commentary on Parashat Vayyiggash 5784

By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President & Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary


If you are a celebrity, the names of your first pet, your childhood best friend, and the street on which you grew up might be just a few clicks away. These security questions provide little protection to folks with public lives. As for the rest of us? We all are asked to distribute our private information: to banks, to medical offices, to schools, to our government, and to anybody who asks for a signature or a payment. How long can our personal info remain safe?

As Ben Franklin put it nearly 300 years ago in Poor Richard’s Almanack: “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead” (Waterloo, Iowa: U. S. C. Publishing, 1914 reprint; p. 53, #559). When we share any secret with just one more person, we surrender control of that private facet of our identity. This slippery slope might explain why the Federal Trade Commission easily received more than half a million identity theft complaints in the first half of 2023.

Thousands of years ago, in an age before driver’s licenses and passports, Joseph and his siblings wrestled with proof of ID. The big reveal—that the second-in-command in Egypt was Joseph, son of Jacob and brother to siblings who had abandoned him—overwhelms Parashat Vayyigash. The brothers who once betrayed Joseph narrate to him their family story, including that they have a brother they (incorrectly) claim is dead (Genesis 44:20), and why they have come to Egypt to find food (Genesis 42:7) when food was scarce in the land of Canaan (Genesis 41:57). Ten of Jacob’s sons, standing in the court of this Egyptian politician, did not recognize their brother in new royal Egyptian garb (Genesis 41:42); with a new Egyptian name, Tzafenat Pane’ach; and a new Egyptian wife, Asenath (Genesis 41:45). Why would the relative whom they had long ago sold into slavery (Genesis 37) be not only alive but living a life of success and glamour?

Proving to someone that you are a living being whom they assumed was dead is no enviable or easy task. Readers have trouble pinpointing exactly when Joseph’s brothers figured out that their father’s favorite son (Genesis 37:3) was right in front of them. Jewish sages have often pointed to Joseph’s reminder to his brothers—“עֵֽינֵיכֶם֙ רֹא֔וֹת וְעֵינֵ֖י אָחִ֣י בִנְיָמִ֑ין כִּי־פִ֖י הַֽמְדַבֵּ֥ר אֲלֵיכֶֽם” (“your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin have seen that it is my mouth that is speaking to you”) (Genesis 45:12). In the first half of the 1st millennium C.E., the editor of Genesis Rabbah 93:10 explained that “כִּי־פִ֖י הַֽמְדַבֵּ֥ר” (ki fi hamedabber, “that it is my mouth that is speaking”) is a reference to their speaking “בלשון הקדש” (bilshon hakkodesh, “in the language of the holy”) they shared, Hebrew. A common tongue may help mark that we are part of the same family and the same network. However, Rabbi Yehudah Löwe ben Betzal’el (יהודה ליווא בן בצלאל), also known as the Maharal of Prague, questioned the sufficiency of this form of proof in his Gur Aryeh commentary, composed near the end of the 16th century. Commenting on Genesis 45:12, Rabbi Löwe wrote, “הרבה יש שיודעין לשון הקודש” (“there many [people] who know the language of the holy”), for it is after all “שפת כנענית” (sefat kena’anit, “the Canaanite language”), spoken throughout an entire land in the Middle East.

Anyone can claim to be anyone, but not all claims are true. What do we do in a court where your word counters my word? The midrashic imagination entertains the idea that Joseph brought his brothers close to show off another form of proof, his circumcised body (Genesis Rabbah 93:8 and 93:10). Unseemly as such exposure may seem in light of modern mores, Rabbi Chizkiyyah ben Mano’ach in his book Chizkuni (חזקוני), commenting on Genesis 45:4, opined that this sort of proof was very convincing. Reflecting on what he knew in 13th century France about the differences in the surgical procedures and the customs Muslim men and Jewish men followed in their respective circumcisions, Rabbi Chizkiyyah claimed that the Jewish ceremony yielded smoother results. This degradation of Muslim circumcisions evidently did not stand the test of time though, for the Maharal of Prague (cited earlier) claimed that Ishmael’s male descendants were circumcised and therefore undiscernible from circumcised Jews. This led the Maharal back to square one: How did they know this was Joseph?

If Joseph spoke a common language, looked the same as all the men around him, and came across even more deeply entrenched in high Egyptian culture than the standard ancient Egyptian—what could ever persuade Jacob’s sons to believe that their Israelite brother Joseph was alive?

For his brothers, Joseph’s real proof of identity must have been something you cannot submit to the Department of Motor Vehicles; after all, Joseph had no such documentation. In fact, it appears that something completely intangible made all the difference in the mind of Joseph’s brothers. It is true that, in Genesis 45:4, Joseph declares to his brothers, “אֲנִי֙ יוֹסֵ֣ף אֲחִיכֶ֔ם” (ani Yosef achikhem, “I am Joseph your brother”). But, according to Rabbi Tuvyah ben Eli’ezer’s 11th century anthology Midrash Lekach Tov, Joseph’s words went further, promising, “דרך אחוה אנהוג בכם” (derekh achavah enhog bakhem, “I will conduct myself in a fraternal way among you”).

Joseph demonstrated an unexpected degree of mercy towards his brothers who had so deeply wronged him. In a teaching preserved in Kitzur Ba’al HaTurim (קיצור בעל הטורים), an alleged “abbreviation” (קיצור, kitzur) of a longer commentary of Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher (13th–14th century France and Spain), Rabbi Ya’akov asserts that Joseph’s words were calculated to forgive. Employing gematriyyah (גימטריה), an ancient assignment of numbers to every Hebrew letter, Rabbi Ya’akov equated the sum total of “כִּי־פִ֖י הַֽמְדַבֵּ֥ר אֲלֵיכֶֽם” (“that it is my mouth that is speaking”) in Genesis 45:12 with the total of the legal phrase “בעגלה ערופה” (be’eglah arufah “with a broken-necked calf”). The shorthand of be’eglah arufah refers to a ritual whereby leaders who cannot identify the culprit in an unsolved murder sacrifice a calf to absolve society of its guilt (Deuteronomy 27:1–9); be’eglah arufah implies that anyone and everyone could have been a sinner. All of Joseph’s brothers could have been complicit in crimes committed against him, but Joseph turned toward them with compassion.

The real proof of identity was not Joseph’s look, body, or language, but the emotional connection he reignited—or perhaps finally initiated—with his brothers. (The hatred Joseph’s brothers felt towards him date back to Genesis 37:4, the first narrative we have of the siblings interacting with him.) Only after Joseph has kissed his brothers and cried all over them do they speak words that affirm their acknowledgment of who he is—and word of Joseph’s reunion with his family makes its way throughout Pharaoh’s palace (Genesis 45:15–16).

These are not the ways that we verify ourselves to TSA officers at the airport. The urge to connect, to relate, and to empathize is how we prove who we are among loved ones, and even among those with whom we have fallen out of touch and aim to reconnect. For all that we may fear identity theft—because we might lose our money, our possessions, and our home (just as Joseph did)—the essence of who we are is ours to hold onto for as long as our health allows. The relationships that we have forged ground us in our sense of self and our sense of responsibility to those whom we love. Holding onto the stories that have made us who we are—along with learning to love others in moments of hardship—grants us names of good repute.

Our bodies may change, our voices may change, our habits may change, and our names may even change, but by loving the ones who matter most to us, we prove time and again exactly who we are.




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