A Tanach teacher of mine once bemoaned the prevalence of what he called the “kindergarten effect.” Because many of us in the Jewish community and broader Western world have been exposed to stories in the Torah since we were quite young, we have a tendency to accept and gloss over aspects of biblical narratives that, if we would approach them with fresh eyes, would present very serious questions. One of those questions is about Yosef and his brothers.
When the Land of Israel was plagued by a terrible famine and the Shevatim first came to Egypt to purchase food, they were brought before their brother Yosef who was now viceroy of the country. The Torah says that the brothers did not recognize Yosef, and they did not realize that this fully grown adult was actually their long-lost brother whom they had sold as a young teenager years back. Having heard this story many times before, we often just accept it at face value. And for a while I did too. But about 10 years ago, I simply couldn’t do it anymore:
Why didn’t the brothers realize that the Semitic-looking person in front of them looked a whole lot like their brother?!
Now, in fairness, the Gemara appears to be bothered by this question as well and explains that Yosef had grown a beard during the 22 years he was away. But that actually just makes the question even stronger. Granted this grown man didn’t look like the 17-year-old boy they had thrown into a pit, but now he should look even more like them!
And the real clincher is that the Midrash says that Yosef resembled his father Yaakov. So now fully grown with a beard, why didn’t one of the 11 people standing in the room even stop and think to themselves for just a minute, “You know what, he looks like a younger version of Dad!”?
If we’re going to try to comprehend the Shevatim’s apparent lack of deductive skills, we first need to understand how the human brain reasons. Neuroscientists assert that we arrive at conclusions in two steps: The first is observation—the sensory information we take in through our eyes, ears, mouth, etc. But that information is just raw, unprocessed data. It gets stored away in our short-term memory (in the temporal lobe of the brain), and only then do we decide how much attention to give to that information. The second step takes place in a completely different part of our brains (prefrontal cortex) when we recall that data and try to put it all together and make sense of that information by comparing it against the way we see the rest of the world.
This two-step process happens so quickly every instant in our lives that it appears to be one thing. When we step outside and get wet, we automatically reason that it’s raining (or that someone is pouring water on our heads from the second story window). But in reality, they are two discrete steps. And sometimes the second one doesn’t always happen; if the observations we make don’t seem to integrate with the way we understand the world, we just unconsciously dismiss them.
The same was true with Yosef’s brothers. They were so sure that Yosef’s dreams of kingship were false, that even though this bearded man in front of them looked a whole lot like a younger version of Yaakov in an Egyptian headdress, and all their observations led to that inevitable conclusion, they couldn’t entertain the notion that this viceroy was their brother! It simply didn’t compute with the way they saw the world.
And that, Rav Pam explains, was ultimately Yosef’s rebuke to the brothers: “Ani Yosef.” I am Yosef. It took you that long to figure it out?! The only reason why you couldn’t fathom it was me is because you had written me off! You were so sure of your own assessment of my potential that you couldn’t entertain the possibility that my dreams would come true.
Much like the brothers, it isn’t difficult to be blinded in the land of Mitzrayim, the world of galut, and shortchange the tremendous potential that every Jew possesses. To write someone off because we are so certain of who they really are. But there’s something else we can learn from the cry of “Ani Yosef.” Something that we can learn from Yosef himself.
As easy as it was for the Shevatim to blind themselves to Yosef’s identity and potential, it was even easier for Yosef to blind himself. Alone in Egypt and ostensibly abandoned by his family, it would have been so easy to dismiss his dreams as adolescent fantasies. To write himself off as a Jew and consign his fate and destiny to being a member of the Egyptian aristocracy. But even after he was elevated to the role of viceroy, he still saw himself as Yosef despite the pressures and temptations that came along with the job. He never lost sight of who he was and who he could become.
As human beings, we have the unfortunate tendency to write off people in life. But all too often, the first person we write off is ourselves. As we walk the well-trodden path of galut like Yosef did before us, it’s crucial to remember the bracha that Yaakov gave him: “Ben porat Yosef alei ayin” (Genesis 49:23)—that Yosef’s greatness was guarding his eyes. Not only eschewing lewdness, but protecting the way he saw the world: a world in which Yosef becomes viceroy of Mitzrayim and still remains faithful to the Torah he studied with his father 22 years earlier wouldn’t seem like an impossible feat.
May we merit to guard our eyes to protect and treasure the way we see the world: a world in which each one of us—ourselves and the ones we love—has the potential to accomplish great things.
Tzvi Benoff is a student at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and the Rabbinic Assistant at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He is also a Graduate Fellow at Fordham University studying political economy and finance.