All of this is what makes the Joseph story at the end of Genesis so fascinating to me. Deception and self-deception are such prominent themes in the story that they must serve to teach us something about the ways that we lie, mislead and deceive our way through life. Mostly, we lie to ourselves.
In last week's Torah reading, we saw how Jacob's sons deceived their father by holding up Joseph's blood-stained cloak and saying, haker-na, "Pray, do you recognize?" Without a direct lie, they deceived their father into believing that his favorite son has been killed by wild animals.
The practice of deception turned against Judah when he pronounced a death sentence against his widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar, for being pregnant outside of marriage. Tamar produced the staff and seal that proved that Judah was, in fact, the father of her child. She spoke to Judah the same words he and his brothers had spoke to his father: haker-na, "Pray, do you recognize?" Judah was humbled to recognize his own lies and shortcomings. He released Tamar, saying that she was more in the right than he.
Deceit reaches its peak in this week's Torah portion (Miketz) as Joseph hides behind the mask of his Egyptian identity to deceive his brothers. It will be in next week's portion, when Judah will crack open Joseph's heart—as Tamar had opened Judah's heart—by stirring his compassion and love for his brothers and father. Only then will the mask be lifted and all of the deceits will be ended.
Each deceit in the Joseph saga is a sign of a larger self-deceit. The brothers were driven to deceive Jacob, their father, by their unacknowledged shame for feeling unloved. Selling Joseph into slavery and dipping his coat into blood did nothing to improve their situation—it made matters worse—but it did rid them of the immediate symbols of their shame and of Jacob's foolish favoritism.
Judah recognized this about himself when Tamar held up his staff and seal. He was able to forgive Tamar when he realized how he had deceived himself into believing that she was the cause of his pain. He finally saw that he had cruelly victimized her, just as he had victimized Joseph, by seeing her only as a symbol of the loss of his sons and wife, not as a person with her own rightful claim upon him and his family.
Finally, Joseph used the disguise of his role as vizier of Egypt to deceive his brothers. In doing so, he was covering up the emotions he had denied himself for so many years—the pain of betrayal and loss at the hands of his brothers. Joseph's self-deceit can only end when he will admit to himself that all of his achievements mean nothing to him compared to the loss of the love of his family. Judah's appeal to Joseph will work because it will awaken Joseph from the spell of self-deceit.
The root of self-deception is the denial of God. The brother's denied their love for—and their obligations toward—their little brother, Joseph. Each brother selfishly convinced himself that he had the right to be rid of Joseph because he denied his God-given obligation to save Joseph from the pit and to repair the broken family. Judah denied his obligation to fulfill the law of Levirate marriage for Tamar. He selfishly convinced himself that he had to doom his daughter-in-law to poverty and isolation because he feared for the fate of his sons. And Joseph, of course, denied the God who had given him the divine gift of interpretation by seeking vengeance against his brothers when his obligation was to make teshuvah, repentance, before them.
Hiding from ourselves and hiding from God is what we humans do when we are too angry, too ashamed or too prideful to admit our mistakes and admit our fallibility. The long arc of the Joseph story shows, powerfully and beautifully, how difficult it is to tear off the masks of our self-deceit to reveal our pain and our own true selves. When we do, though, like Joseph and his brothers, we discover that in letting go of the ways we deceive ourselves, we draw closer to God. Then, we can rediscover our deepest identity and our deepest joy.
Do you recognize…yourself?
Other posts on this theme:
"Not One of Them was Left"