What do we see when we look at another person? What do we see when it is a loved one? What do we see when we see it is someone whom we’ve not seen for a long period of time? What do we see when it is someone with whom we have a challenging relationship? These questions flood my mind as I read this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, which opens with the revelation by Joseph of his true identity to his brothers who have come to Egypt to procure food for their family as a famine has gripped the land of Canaan. I always find the opening scene of our portion to be one of the most emotional and gut-wrenching of stories we read in Torah. Our portion opens:
“Then Judah went up to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh . . . Our father said, ‘Go back and procure some food for us.’ We answered, ‘We cannot go down; only if our youngest brother is with us can we go down, for we may not show our faces to the man unless our youngest brother is with us.’ . . . “Now, if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us—since his own life is so bound up with his—when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die . . . Please let [me] remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers . . .
“Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me!’ So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still well?’ His brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him. Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’ And when they came forward, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.’” (Genesis 44: 18- 45-5, excerpts)
We get a sense of Joseph’s pain as he confronts his brothers from his position of power and his veiled identity. The brothers face a man they believe holds their lives and the life of their father in his very hands. At the moment when Joseph can no longer sustain the charade he empties the room of all his servants. His cries are so loud that they are heard far and wide. He opens his eyes, he sees his brothers, and asks, “Is my father alive?” I find myself wondering why he did not ask, “Is our father alive?” It’s hard to know what is truly in Joseph’s heart. Yet, he hastens to assure the brothers that there was a purpose in what has transpired. It was God’s plan that they send him away. He draws them close and beyond the hugs and tears, assures them that they are going to be taken care. Joseph is able to see something in the faces of his brothers which triggers forgiveness and leads to reconciliation.
We know that our tradition urges us to see tzelem Elohim, the “image of God” in each and every human being. Teachings abound which seek to inspire us to make that a tangible reality in our everyday interactions with others. Earlier this week I came across a passage, not from the rich treasury of our Jewish heritage, but rather from a passage from the teachings of the Sufi Master known to the world as Rumi that struck me as in sync with both Joseph’s capacity to see God in what has happened, and our challenge in seeing each person we encounter as a reflect of “the Image.” Rumi teaches:
Who could ever describe
The ways of the One who is like no other?
Anything I could say is only an attempt
At what might be needed now.
Sometimes God’s movement appears one way –
and sometimes as its opposite.
The work of real religion is bewilderment;
But not a bewilderment that drives you away
From Him, no, but bewildered like this –
Drowned and drunk with the Beloved.
One person’s face is turned
Toward the Beloved in awe,
Another only faces himself.
Gaze upon each person’s face.
Pay attention. Perhaps through service
You might come to know
The Face of the Beloved. (The Rumi Daybook, page 7)
As we read this Shabbat of reconciliation and the power of relationships renewed, may we hold in our mind’s eye, if not in our actual sight, the faces of those, in whose visage, we might glimpse a spark of holiness, of divinity, of healing and of blessing.