Kindness In Disguise

By judging others favorably and responding to them with kindness, we add holiness to the world.

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Provided by Hillel's Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.

Last week we left Joseph as a slave in prison; in this week's portion, Joseph begins his ascent to power. He interprets Pharaoh's dreams correctly and foretells of a great famine. Pharaoh makes Joseph second only to Pharaoh himself and in this role, Joseph gathers food during the years of plenty. The famine begins and spreads through the region up to Canaan and eventually, Joseph's brothers come down to Egypt to procure food.

Now Joseph was the vizier of the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. And Joseph's brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground. When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. He asked them, "Where do you come from?" They said, "From the land of Canaan, to procure food." For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Recalling the dreams he had dreamt about them, Joseph said to them, "You are spies. You have come to see the land in its nakedness."

Your Torah Navigator

1. How do you think Joseph felt, seeing his brothers who had sold him into slavery and remembering his dream that they would one day bow down to him?

2. The words "recognize" (hikir) and "acted like a stranger" (hitnaker) have the same root in Hebrew (nun, kaf, resh). If Joseph knew his brothers, why did he pretend not to? Why does the Torah use variations of the same word to describe this?

3. Why didn't Joseph reveal himself if only to let his father know that he was alive and well?

A Word

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1810) teaches that it is a sign of Joseph's righteousness that he did not immediately reveal himself. Joseph realized that it would be humiliating to his brothers if they knew that he had prevailed over them and that despite their cruel treatment of him, his dream of power had come true. By making himself a stranger, he made it appear that his brothers were simply bowing to a king, sparing them the pain of humiliation.

Levi Yitzchak says this is also the reason Joseph didn't send word to his father; he wanted to spare his brothers the bitterness of defeat. Thus the pretense of being a stranger was in fact an act of kindness.

Kindness often seems to be a precious and rare thing. It is doubtful that the brothers experienced Joseph as being kind, given his harsh speech and subsequent actions to them; they must have felt very afraid and in darkness. Perhaps what Levi Yitzchak is teaching us is not how we should act ourselves, but rather how we should interpret other's actions towards us.

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Rabbi Lisa Goldstein

Rabbi Lisa Goldstein is Executive Director of Hillel of San Diego, and Campus Director for UCSD. Originally from a small town near Pasadena, she studied history at Brown University and then went on to Rabbinical School, where she also earned a Masters in Jewish Education. She has lived in five cities across the United States and has also spent significant time in Germany and Israel.