In a Mussar class, a few weeks ago, we were discussing the often occurring situation of seeing someone you know but not saying hello or making eye contact. It can be someone you’re passing on the street or someone at a gathering. Sometimes for obvious, or sometimes for inexplicable reasons, we choose to pretend not to recognize someone we know.
And sometimes the opposite is true. I am on vacation with my family and the other day we were parking the car in a paid garage. You had to buy a ticket from a machine to display on your dash and the family in front of us, from somewhere in South America, were unfamiliar with the machine. We walked them through how to get the paid ticket but it was somewhat trickier than we thought. To a passer-by, it may very well have looked like an impromptu game of charades with at least 2 teams (my family alone is more than 12 people). At last, the ticket was bought and we all warmly said our goodbyes.
Coincidentally, the entire rest of the afternoon we kept crossing paths with this other family. The first few times, someone just pointed out to everyone else: ‘look, there’s that family’. Then we noticed them pointing at us as well. They were saying the same thing. After a few more times we would wave to each other and smile. It was funny and we were enjoying the extended bond of…well…not even acquaintances.
But, somehow, with family or friends we do know, we will choose not to acknowledge them. In this week’s parshah, ‘Miketz’, Joseph is ruling Egypt during a famine and his brothers have shown up to try and get food. He recognizes them. The same brothers who sold him into what should have been a life of horrific slavery and certain death. They are standing before him and his dream has turned into a nightmare – he just wants them to go away. They do not recognize him and he tries repeatedly not to let them know who he is.
In fact, Joseph will try several ways to make them go away, but each time they keep coming back. He finally enacts a plan to get his blood brother, Benjamin, into his care by framing him as a thief. The deal he struck was that the thief remains in Egypt while everyone else goes home. But they won’t go away. Judah insists on offering himself instead of Benjamin and all the other brothers have come along to plead the case. From Joseph’s point of view, all the powers of Egypt can’t make these people leave him alone.
Finally, Joseph can no longer control himself and breaks down revealing who he is. His actions to that moment most definitely read like the actions of someone trying to avoid a particular someone they meet in a movie or pass on the street. In his case, we can well understand why he would behave the way he does and we cheer for him throughout, but, in the end, he must greet them.
The Sages teach us to receive everyone with a welcome expression on our face. They do not make exceptions for people who bullied us in the past. It does not mean we have to stop and have lengthy conversations with everyone we’ve ever met. A smile is a welcome expression and a moment of contact. The gesture itself reframes the moment, which can reframe everything that comes after.
Joseph’s brothers are in need of food and he always provides the food…and then he keeps sending them away. They are never welcomed until he has no choice, but somehow they always end up right in front of him time and again.
Coincidentally, it reflects his misunderstood dreams come true. Coincidentally, he now determines whether they will be slaves or whether they will die a certain death of starvation. Joseph has desperately tried to forget his original family. He married the daughter of an Egyptian priest and named his first child ‘Menasheh’ – God has made me forget the pain of my father’s house. He is no longer called ‘Joseph’ but uses the Egyptian name Pharaoh gave him. He wears Egyptian clothes and, I dare say, walks like an Egyptian. Yet, despite EVERYTHING the brothers who sinned against him keep filling coincidence after coincidence.
As Albert Einstein said: coincidence is just God’s way of staying anonymous.
How might this text help you navigate these uncomfortable moments in the future?
Share your thoughts in the comments.