Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Parashat Mikess: Self-Identity

A Message for Parashat Mikess 2016
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Whereas the narratives of Sefer Bereshit are generally clear regarding God’s ultimate plan and purpose in action, the reason for Yosef’s imprisonment is never fully explained. His self-restraint during his encounter with his master’s wife appears commendable, and his rise to power could have conceivably been implemented in a variety of other ways. What, then, was the reason for Yosef’s incarceration and ultimate rise to power by means of dream-interpretation?

Mankind is diverse in every sense of the word. Beyond our various differences in appearance and opinion, we are fundamentally separated from one another by our distinct “identities.” We each possess several defining characteristics, shaped by a myriad of factors, which define who we are and what we stand for. What was Yosef’s core “self-identity” during the various stages of his life?

The Torah first introduces us to Yosef by means of his dreams. His childhood is summed up by two dreams of majesty and the resulting conflict with his brothers. The portrait of Yosef’s early self-identity thus stands out for its clear association to dreams. And dreams would continue to define him in Egypt. His dream-interpretations in prison and then to Pharaoh were the clear sparks of his success.

Yosef is further identified as an “Ivri,” a Hebrew, during his stay in Egypt. Judging by his own self-description and that of others about him, Yosef’s strong association to his homeland played a prominent role in his self-identity while in Egypt.

Immediately following his sale to Potifar, the pasuk summarizes Yosef’s status at that time in a sentence: “And Hashem was with Yosef, and he was a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master” (39:2). The latter part of the verse importantly highlights the contrast between Yosef “the Ivri,” and Potifar “the Missri,” and calls our attention to its association with his success.

Following Yosef’s successful resistance of the sexual advances from his master’s wife, she mockingly exclaims to the members of her household, “See, he (Potifar) has brought us a Hebrew man to play with us” (39:14), and then remarks to her husband, “The Hebrew slave came into me” (39:17). Underlying her claim that Yosef had overstepped his boundaries as a slave looms the possible reality that Yosef had in fact lost sight of his unique “Ivri” identity. And therein lay the rationale for his demise and imprisonment – a loss of appropriate self-identity.

If a loss of self-identity earned him imprisonment, then appropriate recognition would grant him freedom. And so, following his interpretation of the chief cup-bearer’s dream, Yosef begged he remember him, adding, “For indeed I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews, and here, too I did nothing that I should have been put in the pit” (40:15). Notice how Yosef’s identity-recognition now appropriately dovetailed with his other dominant association – dreams! Yosef had now “rediscovered” his true self, honestly self-identifying as an Ivri and symbolically exposing his essence by means of his dreams.

Yosef’s subsequent rise to power, however, brought forth a new challenge to maintaining true self-identity. The drift was precipitated by the public honor that he was immediately granted (41:43), and furthered by a subsequent name change (Safenat Pa’ane’ah) and arranged marriage by Pharaoh (3:45). Indeed, his Ivri self-identity seemed all but lost following the birth of his sons: “And Yosef called the name of his firstborn Menashe, meaning, God has released me from all the debt of my hardship, and of all my father’s house. And the name of the second he called Ephraim, meaning, God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (41:51-2). Reading his life’s story through our current prism, we fear the worst for Yosef at this juncture. He has consciously and publicly shed his self-identity with his sons’ naming!

This time, however, there would be no imprisonment. A far stronger measure was in store for Yosef: “And the sons of Yisrael came to buy provisions among those who came, for there was famine in the land of Canaan. As for Yosef, he was the regent of the land, he was the provider to all the people of the land” (42:5-6). Maintaining a false self-identity in face of his brothers, even as they did not recognize him, would not be simple. He was now staring and conversing with the living reminders of who he really was.

“And Yosef remembered the dreams he had dreamed about them” (42:9). As he opened his mouth to address his brothers, Yosef’s inner conscience stirred. His true self-identity – represented by his dreams – came to mind. He struggled with the dichotomy of what he had become and who he really was. “And he said to them, ‘You are spies! To see the land’s nakedness you have come” (ibid.). It would take time for Yosef to come clean with his true self-identity, and his own self struggle would first play out through a struggle with his brothers.

The irony of his brothers’ subsequent conversation in his “mother tongue,” which they presumed he did not understand, brought him to tears (42:23-4). His self-identity crisis intensified. As they much later sat to eat bread it continued: “They served him and them separately, and the Egyptians that were eating with him separately, for the Egyptians would not eat bread with the Hebrews” (43:32). Yosef was then separated from the Egyptians, and associated with his brothers – the Ivrim. And as his inner struggle came to its end, as Yosef confided his identity to his brothers, he begged they come closer (45:4). The Hakhamim appropriately captured this moment of closure and acceptance of self-identity when they suggested that the purpose of Yosef’s invitation was to expose to them his circumcision – his true mark of “Ivri” identity.[1]

Several years ago, The New York Times ran an article that examined several successful people in varied walks of life. Interviewing a restaurateur, a tennis champion and a rock star, the authors expected to hear that talent, persistence, dedication and luck played crucial roles in their success. They instead wrote about their surprise to find that self-awareness played an equally strong role. Each person recalled the “wrong path” they inadvertently trekked down at the “low points” of their career, and how their ultimate success was only realized by courageously challenging their assumptions, objectives and goals.[2] We are similarly reminded by the unique telling of Yosef’s story that a periodic self-examination – of our beliefs, missions and goals – is a necessity for success.

[2] “Secret Ingredient for Success,” by Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, The New York Times, Jan. 19, 2013. Thank you to Marc and Rita Mishan for sharing this article with me.