Miketz: Show Yourself. Becoming Yourself.
What are the impediments to a blessed life? On our journey through our lives, there are many obstacles that we must scale to becoming the person who we are meant to be.
We live in a culture that seems allergic to vulnerability. It’s because we think being vulnerable means being weak, or we think being vulnerable is just not something we’re into. Perhaps we think that being vulnerable means that everyone is just up in our business, and we want to live a private life.
Yet, because of our fear of vulnerability, we put up a protective shield, we hide behind a mask that keeps others out. We put on a good a front and hide our emotions. We cultivate our public selves in order to give the impression that we are successful and happy.
As a rabbi I speak with all sorts of different people and what I have learned is that some of the most outwardly successful people are the unhappiest. As one congregant said to me, “I have created a second-self. She’s not real to me, but she’s real to everyone else. I’m too afraid to tell my friends that I’m not her, that would just devastate me. My friends would leave me, my business would fold, and I’d have nothing. What do I do?”
In this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, we find the same dynamic. Joseph becomes the viceroy of Egypt. (Gen. 42:6). He has gained everything that he dreamt about, just not in the way he thought it would. He married the daughter of the high priest and had two sons both whom he gave Egyptian names, Menashe and Ephraim. (Gen 41:51). In a sense, Joseph is lost to both his family and himself. The boy whose many-colored coat defined his uniqueness has become the man who wraps himself in finery of Egypt. When the brothers come to Egypt because of a famine they stand before Joseph. The text says, “When Joseph saw his bothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. (Gen. 42:7)
Rashi adds to this drama by clarifying that Joseph refused to speak to them in Hebrew. The man before whom the brothers bow down to bears no resemblance to their brother-shepherd. He speaks Egyptian. He is dressed in the robes of the noblest class. He wears Pharaoh’s ring and chain as symbols of authority. These brothers cannot see Joseph at all under the mask of an Egyptian prince.
Joseph, afraid of his own vulnerability, refuses to engage with them. This is what the renowned therapist and author Dr. Brene Brown means when she talks about vulnerability: She believes that vulnerability is taking a risk, living with a little uncertainty and being available emotionally for people with whom you’ve got relationships.
Do these disguises work? For a time they do. They protect us from our shame and help us to feel strong. But something else happens when we put on airs. We drift away from being who we are really meant to be. Every time we put on a mask, like Joseph, we become more isolated, more disconnected from those we care for. To have the greatest and most blessed life, we have to risk our own vulnerability. The brothers are lost to each other.
It’s only at this moment, when we have to decide what is truly important, does the Torah give us the answer. As the story continues a resistance to inauthenticity of Joseph’s life-choices erupts from within. Several times he weeps, in fact he weeps more than any other man in the Torah. Each time he cries, something opens up inside of him. Listening to his brothers, weeping, he begins to be the very person that he was hiding from.
When we do take that risk and share with each other, as Dr. Brown demonstrates through her research, that shared vulnerability leads to greater happiness, sense of worthiness in life and greater innovation and productivity in the workplace. In the story’s climax, Joseph’s tears burst forth, saying “I am Joseph. … I am your brother.” (Gen 45:3-4). In doing so, he made amends with his brothers, and brought blessings to all of them.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Torah is that each of us must at some point be confronted with the question, “Who am I really?” and the answer must be, “I am myself.” Only then, when we are vulnerable to each other and are not seized by fear, do we, like the sons of Israel, find peace with ourselves and bring blessings to our lives.