The Joseph story reaches another pivotal point in this week’s portion, “Miketz” (Genesis 41ff).
Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams is rewarded and, before we know it, a famine in Canaan drives Joseph’s brothers to seek food in Egypt. It is in this portion that Joseph sees his brothers. “For Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him” (42:8). How could they? After all, they had counted him gone, maybe dead. The person that stood in front of them was dressed as a royal viceroy and spoke Egyptian. What they “saw”, was someone else!
We are often trained to believe what we see. Our society puts a lot of emphasis on how things are seen, what things and people look like, especially when it comes to dress. That old expression “clothes make the person” carried a lot of truth to it for so many. In truth, many of us have been seduced by what we see, a reality that often, over time, does not become what we had hoped. This idea is expressed beautifully in an essay by Rabbi Jonathan Saks in his “Essays on Ethics”. Saks looks at this idea that we judge people too often by what we see, failing to listen to what they say and how they say it.
He looks at the value and importance of listening to someone, hearing them and not judging them by outward appearances. I think, as get older, we appreciate what Saks trying to tell us. We can easily be fooled by what we “see”. What is more important, in so many ways, is to listen to someone, to “hear” what their soul is saying, to hear with all of our heart. That is why, as Saks mentions, while people often look at only what can be seen, “God looks at the heart”. And, as he reminds us, it is not by accident that in the “Shema” we are advised to “hear” or “listen”, not to see.
This ability to learn to listen to a person, to not judge a person by how they look, is a factor in maturation. It leads to an ability to be nonjudgmental in many ways. This ability to listen and understand can allow us to engage in more meaningful ways other people and ideas–something that is greatly needed in our changing world. It is reminder that we need to hear what is being said and not be seduced by how or who is saying it. As Saks writes: “In order to choose between right and wrong, between good and bad–in order to live a moral life–we must make sure not only to look, but also to listen”. (page 63)
Rabbi Richard F Address