“Do you know who I am
Do I know who you are
See we one another clearly
Do we know who we are”
(The Earth Song, aka “Do You Know Who I Am” by Harry Belafonte and Robert Freedman)
These incredibly powerful questions were sung to us by Harry Belafonte in 1977 when he introduced this cultural folklore from deep in Africa to us, in an album, in performance, in The Muppet Show episode that creator Jim Henson said was his best and favorite, and again at the memorial tribute to Jim Henson in 1990. Between the masks and the charades, I feel that Parsha Miketz has been challenging us with the same questions for a very long time.
To know others, you need to do the hard work of knowing yourself. Change, frightening though it may be, most often comes along for the journey with you.
Miketz slowly takes us on these journeys also. We go from the abstract to the particular, from animals to people, along bands spiraling inward. When we reach the innermost core, Joseph grapples with the estrangement from his family.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt of Colorado is considered one of North America’s leading death educators. Dearth is really a form of loss, as is estrangement. I have had the honor of meeting and working with Dr. Wolfelt a few times. His loss theory is simple. Either you let your head lead the way, or you let your heart lead the way, but the you let your head and your heart connect, is when you are really processing your loss.
We see this by illustrations in Parsha Miketz.
We begin with Pharaoh having troubling dreams. We know from Egyptian leadership in the Pesach story how incredibly hard it is to open the mind of a Pharaoh to change. The Pharaoh in Miketz avoids the hard work therapists and counselors would have you do today when troubled by a dream. This is your own working to gain the insight of how your heart is interpreting these dreams at these very moments. Instead, Pharaoh takes the easy escape hatch and calls in an expert at interpreting dreams, Joseph. There is no therapeutic dialogue where you have to help unpeel your own onion. there is no, “What do you think, what does this say to you, Pharaoh?” Joseph hands Pharaoh a meaning and Pharaoh accepts it.
In the first dream, the seven ill-favored and lean cows ate the fat and healthy cows. The lean cows show no change. Why? What does it take to change, especially since dreams are another way of looking at ourselves? It is easy to avoid introspection by telling us that the moment came and Pharaoh woke up.
Then, Joseph’s brothers arrive to purchase food. Joseph recognizes them but they do not see him as Joseph, they see him as an Egyptian in name, dress and speak. Joseph knows that the brother he really seeks, he really longs for, Benjamin, is not with them. Joseph comes so close to revealing himself and asking specifically about Benjamin, but Joseph can only stay in the abstract, “Return with your youngest brother.” The response is loaded. “We cannot come back with Benjamin because it would kill our father, because Benjamin’s brother is already dead.” The implications are so powerful. Jacob is alive and the earlier ruse convinced him that Joseph is dead. Yet, Joseph is still not ready to unmask himself.
When the 10 brothers return to buy more grain, and Joseph inquires about the 11th brother, the one he longs for the most, Benjamin, do the 10 brothers see the anguish in Joseph’s soul? We just keep getting closer.
The brothers negotiate to buy more food through an interpreter, but Joseph understands every word without the translation. The voices, the inflections, surely reinforce that this is family in front of him … but Joseph still cannot break into the estrangement.
Joseph demands that they return with the other brother, knowing it is Benjamin, and they do not even push the issue as to why this is so important, only reflecting it would break their father’s heart. How do we break through the estrangement walls we construct ourselves?
When the brothers return with Benjamin, the inquiry from Joseph is factual at first, closed-end yes-no, third-person questions. “Is your old father well? Is your old father still alive?” However, Joseph is asking about his own father, he just cannot get there yet.
It happens in the very next verse. Joseph sees his brother Benjamin, who he has been seeking as much as he has been seeking his father, not being able to admit to either quest, and what happens? Joseph’s head and Joseph’s heart both connect and Joseph lets his heart have the majority space in this struggle. Joseph runs to his chamber and weeps.
In the next parsha, Joseph will actually take off the mask, and tell the visitors he is their brother and then ask the big question about his father. He will not ask, “Is my father still alive,” the question in this parsha. Rather, he will ask, “Avi Chai? Does my father still have life in him.” Estrangement can take the life out of us while we still have a pulse.
Letting the heart have more space than the head can open the door to softening the estrangement.
(For further reading, I also recommend aeon.co, Dec. 17, 2020, where psychologist Joshua Coleman discusses estrangement,)
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.