“And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph, does my father still live?” And his brothers could not answer him because they were afraid of him” (From this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, Genesis 45:3).
Why didn’t the brothers recognize Joseph earlier? True, he had grown a beard. He was also in a completely unexpected place, boasting a completely unexpected status and wearing unexpected attire. But still – the eyes are the same eyes, it is the same forehead, the same tone of speech. Wouldn’t you identify your brother in his old kindergarten picture? Or your father in an old black and white photo from when he was a young boy of 17?
Still, Joseph’s brothers – who are certainly not stupid – come face to face with their brother, speak with him, focus on him – and not one of them catches on? Not one of them thinks, “What is going on here? This guy reminds me of somebody. Where do I know him from?” Nothing? Nothing. Because in their minds and hearts, Joseph was no longer their brother. When they threw Joseph into the pit, the brothers buried the brotherhood that was in their hearts. Even when the brothers were face to face with Joseph, they did not recognize him, because they had erased him from their consciousness.
How can such a complete rift ever be mended? Two conditions must be met:
First, Joseph must become a leader. Instead of his fate being in the hands of his brothers, their fate must be in his hands. But that is not enough. It does not bring the brothers to the point at which they remember that they actually have another brother. For that, the second condition must be fulfilled.
The second condition is that Joseph will remember their common roots – in this case, their father. “Does my father still live?” Joseph asks immediately upon revealing himself to his brothers. It is a strange question. Throughout Joseph’s dialogue with the brothers, their father is mentioned time and again. It is obvious that he is alive. But Joseph does not ask if our father still lives. He does not address his question to his brothers, at all. He addresses it to himself. Does my father still live within me? After all these years of distance and pain am I capable of becoming once again a son of the same father as these other men? Do I have the fortitude to once again become part of the family – a brother to the people who hurt me so badly?
Leadership and brotherhood are the secret of mending the gaping hole. And specifically in that order.