Telling Our Stories: Parsha Vayigash

What do our hidden stories reveal, when we reveal ourselves to others? When we tell the truth, to whom do we tell it, and what do we learn from the telling? In this week’s Torah portion, Yosef revealed his identity to his brothers, who came before him in Egypt to ask for help in the midst of famine. For context, we recall that in previous chapters, Yosef’s jealous brothers cast him into a pit and sold him into slavery. Yosef’s brothers then lied to their father, Yaakov, saying that a wild beast killed Yosef, and they had not seen their brother since then. After a series of additional twists and turns, which included dreams, false accusations, imprisonment, and more (this is quite a dramatic story), Yosef eventually rose to a position of significant power in Egypt. When his brothers approached him in this Torah portion, Yosef was the governor of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself, and Pharaoh had given him a new name: Tzofnat Paneach. According to some translations, Yosef’s new name meant “revealer of mysteries.”

This Yosef, this Tzofnat Paneach, whom the brothers entreated on his throne, was quite different from the Yosef who was their father’s favorite son, the Yosef they threw into the pit, and sold into slavery. This Yosef was even different from the Yosef who lived in the Egyptian prison. It’s no surprise that, although Yosef recognized them, his brother’s did not see Yosef on the face of Tzofnat Paneach, the Egyptian governor.

Yosef tricked and tested his brothers, accusing the youngest, Benyamin, of stealing a silver cup that Yosef planted in Benyamin’s sack. Upon “discovering” this silver cup, Yosef threatened to enslave Benyamin. Fortunately, the brothers passed the test: Older brother, Yehuda, offered himself in Benyamin’s place, so that their aging father, Yaakov, would not have to grieve the loss of yet another favored child.

When he learned that his father was alive, the Torah says, v’lo yachol Yosef l’hitapek” – Yosef could not afak – contain – the secret of his identity. He asked everyone to leave besides the brothers, and he began to cry. “Ani Yosef,” “I am Yosef,” he told them. “Ha’od avi chai?”: “Does my father still live?” When he heard about his father, Yosef remembered where he came from  – he was not only Tzofnat Paneach, governor of Egypt. He was also Yosef, the Jewish son of Yaakov and Rachel, the boy from the pit and the prison, the interpreter of dreams. When he asked “Does my father still live,” “Ha’od avi chai,” the word “od” means still, continuing, again, iteration. If his father continued, then so did Yosef. He was still, after all, himself.

His brothers were frightened and could not answer him, worried that their brother would exact revenge. But Yosef was not angry – they passed the test and showed that they had changed. Come near me, I pray you, Ani Yosef,” he said again. “I am Yosef, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” He explained that they should not worry, saying that God sent him to Egypt to ensure their safety during these years of famine. He told his brothers everything that had happened since they sold him into slavery, and Yosef sent them back home with food and other provisions, so that the brothers could return with their father and the rest of the family.

“Ani Yosef,” “I am Yosef,” appeared twice within a few lines of this story. Why did he say his name more than once? Maybe the brothers were disbelieving, and Yosef wanted to prove his identity, explaining that he was, in fact, their brother, whom they sold into Egypt. Or maybe it was because Yosef was reclaiming his own identity. It’s significant that Yosef could not afak, he could not contain Yosef, once he learned that his father was alive, even though he rose to power under a new name, Tzofnat Paneach.

It’s also significant that Yosef told his story as one of triumph, in which God had sent him to Egypt to save his family, instead of a story of victimhood, in which his abusive brothers sold him into slavery. Both of these things were parts of Yosef’s truth. Sometimes, trauma doesn’t have a purpose – it just sucks. And part of me wants Yosef to be really angry about what happened to him. And maybe he was. But in telling his story, Yosef had a triple revelation. First, he revealed his identity to his brothers, then he revealed that everything that happened was part of God’s plan, and the resulting third revelation was the most powerful of all: Yosef revealed his own truth to himself. After everything that happened, his father was still alive, and he was still Yosef.

What do our hidden stories reveal, when we reveal ourselves to others? When we tell the truth, to whom do we tell it, and what do we learn from the telling? What does Yosef’s story teach us about our own stories, about our own hidden traumas, our own pits and prisons?

Yosef tried to keep his identity a secret, but eventually, he remembered who he was, and he could not contain it any longer. By revealing himself, the story Yosef told became something that happened through him, instead of something that happened to him; the trauma of the pit and the prison became part of a larger narrative that led to Yosef’s ultimate success. When he remembered where he came from, Yosef and Tzofnat Paneach, the boy from the pit and the governor of Egypt, became one, so that Yosef could reunite with his father once again.

There are many lessons we can pull from this Torah portion, but in the week to come, I challenge you to reveal one part of yourself that’s hidden, to reclaim just one part of your story by sharing it. Shape your narrative. Define your own meaning. You might be surprised to find what’s been inside of you all along.

Becoming Ourselves: Parsha Vayishlach

Gustave Doré: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1855)

In this week’s Torah portion, an angel comes to Jacob at night, and they wrestle until daybreak, dislocating Jacob’s hip in the fight. When the angel says “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” Jacob says “I will not let you go until you have blessed me.” The angel asks “What is your name?” “Jacob.” The angel says “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have power with God, and with men, and you have prevailed.” This is where Jews get one of our names – Israel, in Hebrew, Yis-ra-el – which means “wrestlers with God.”

I’ve always loved this idea that Jews are wrestlers-with-God – that we are encouraged to question, to wonder, disrupt, and struggle with all things human and Divine. But I also can’t help noticing that Jacob – and the Jews – aren’t renamed “prevails over God.” The angel says Jacob will have a new name because he has prevailed, and then renames Jacob – and all future Jews – for the wrestling. We are, from that moment forward, called strugglers-with-God.

The word that is most often translated as “you have prevailed” is “tuchal,” from the root “yachal,” which means “to prevail over, overcome, endure,” to “have power,” “be able to gain or accomplish, to have strength.” The story of overcoming struggle is wrapped in the story of the struggle itself, and in the wrestling, we become the ones who can endure.

When has one of your own struggles come to define you? Have you ever wanted to release this part of your story and redefine yourself based on something else? What about a struggle where you ultimately prevailed, as Jacob did? After you prevailed, was the struggle still part of your identity?
As we enter Shabbat, I invite us to question the personal narratives behind each identity we hold dear. Have we been shaped by our struggles, our triumphs, or both? How does your perception of the struggle change when you see it as a sacred part of who you are?
Shabbat Shalom, Everyone. May the struggles we face reveal the strength in each of us as we learn to become ourselves.