by Ellen Gruber Garvey
We all know that enslaved African Americans and the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century found resonance and hope in the Torah's story of enslavement in Egypt and the exodus. Jews now often feel a kind of pride in this, that this Torah story that is so important in our tradition was helpful and entered into black life. We look to African American and abolitionists' use of this story as another layer of midrash. Along these lines, singing Go Down Moses has become traditional at many seders. I want to take that in another direction.
In this week's parsha, Joseph's brothers have come back to Egypt for more food, with considerable trepidation, this time with their youngest brother Benjamin. Joseph has planted a goblet in Benjamin's saddle bags, and staged a dramatic discovery of it, which appears to be about to lead either to Benjamin's execution or his imprisonment. Judah, terrified of the effect of Benjamin's loss on their father, retells the story of their having needed to come back to Egypt again and begs Joseph to imprison him instead.
Joseph is overcome with emotion. He sends the Egyptians out of the room and reveals himself to his brothers. He already knows that Jacob is alive, but now he speaks as Jacob's son. He asks: "Is my father still well?" First he kisses Benjamin and they both weep, and then, only after he has kissed all his brothers and weeps on them are his brothers able to talk to him.
Joseph tells his brothers not to blame themselves for selling him into slavery: God made it happen, so that they would come to Egypt for the remaining five years of the famine, and survive. He tells them to hurry and bring Jacob and their families.
Pharaoh and his courtiers, who have been out of the room and offstage during all this, hear that Joseph's brothers have come, and are pleased. Pharaoh offers them all the plenty of the land, conserved by Joseph's planning and work.
When Jacob first hears that Joseph is alive, his "heart went numb," (Gen. 45:25) and he does not believe it. Hearing the story that the brothers have seen him, and seeing proof in the wagons that Joseph has sent, revives his spirit. He sets out, and we have the long list of the gantzeh mishpocheh that travels with him.
The reunion between Joseph and Jacob is brief. They embrace. Joseph weeps; Jacob says he can die now that he has seen Joseph again.
The account of Joseph essentially spying on his brothers and testing them is long and involved. Of course he doesn't trust them, since they almost killed him and sold him into slavery instead. But why is the revelation of identities and reunion so brief? Is there something about such almost miraculous reunitings after the pain of believing someone dead that escapes words and description?
I've been reading Heather Andrea Williams's brilliant and moving history of formerly enslaved people who sought out their lost family members, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery. Many enslaved people were sold away from their families -- children of all ages sold from their mothers, husbands and wives from one another, lovers, friends, and brothers and sisters sold in different directions. Some parents went mad at the loss of their children. After emancipation, the newly freed people wrote Information Wanted ads in black newspapers. They laid out the particulars of where they had lived and who had been sold away from them and whatever they knew about that; they made announcements in churches; black newspapers had columns of people seeking one another -- people they had not seen in twenty years. Adults sought mothers they had not touched or heard from since they were small children. How would they identify them? One man perhaps barely recalled a brother last seen when he was five, but sought him to recreate a family. One father walked 600 miles seeking his wife and children. Others continued to search for decades.
The stories of loss and longing are unbearable.
Heather Williams tells the story of Louis Hughes who lost his family when he was 11 and was sold away from them. He and his brother, after the war, learned of each other by a string of chances and coincidences. Hughes worked in a hotel in Milwaukee, where a coworker remarked on his resemblance to another man in Cleveland and asked if he had a brother. Hughes asked if the Cleveland man was missing a finger -- when they were children, Louis had accidently cut off his brother's finger. When he eventually learned that the Cleveland man had lost a forefinger, he set off for Cleveland. Hughes described the reunion:
"When we met neither of us spoke for some moments -- speech is not for such occasions, but silence rather, and the rush of thoughts. When the first flash of feeling had passed I spoke, calling him by name, and he addressed me as brother. There seemed to be no doubt on either side as to our true relationship, though the features of each had long since faded from the memory of the other." After that silence, Louis Hughes felt a completeness in himself, an expansion of his world, a lost piece restored, and feelings of profound joy. Other ex-slaves who found family reported a sense of belonging to a larger world, a connection to a larger history.
The story of the Hughes brothers has many holes. We don't know if they ever found their parents or other relatives. We don't know if they saw each other again. We only have this fragment.
In Louis Hughes's story of course neither brother has sold the other into slavery. Any guilt there might have been over his brother's lost finger is long gone: in fact it is the missing finger that allows them to find one another. For most ex-slaves seeking family there was no such concrete marker. They had their stories, the remembered names of people and places, and they told these over, in many settings, hoping to find the match.
In the Torah story the connection, reknitting the family, comes through telling: The brothers narrate to Jacob the meeting with the mysterious Egyptian, and tell about Jacob's anxiety about Benjamin to the disguised Joseph, and then they narrate Joseph's new position to Jacob. No one seems to tell Jacob about how Joseph disappeared 20 years earlier, or that Joseph's brothers stripped him, threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery. Their role in his misery is laid aside; their role as brothers comes to the fore.
When Jacob goes down to Egypt to be reunited with his son, the story pauses to enumerate the crowd heading down to Egypt -- this is the larger world that Joseph and his family will connect with. We hear God's promise to bring Israel out of Egypt as a great nation -- no mention of the slavery part, but well, okay.
Pieces are missing but the story closes over those pieces for the sake of reknitting. Joseph helps his reknitted family, and they all enter into a larger history.
There's a limit to the parallels between the situations of Joseph's reuniting with his family and African American freedpeople seeking and sometimes, against heavy odds, finding their families. In the Torah story, Joseph's brothers -- except Benjamin -- are both the cause of his enslavement and are the family he reunites with. Pharaoh, his owner, is enormously interested to learn that Joseph and his family are reunited.
After the Civil War, by contrast, the American white world, visible through the white press and white literature barely noticed the continued deep losses of black people who never found their families, or these profound and miraculous reunions. Black people seemed to the whites not to have feelings. Instead, in the postwar decades, the white press -- North and South -- obsessively retold stories of ex-slaves' loyalty to their former masters; they conjured up warm ties between the freedpeople whose lives had been fractured by slavery and the whites who fractured those lives and families.
Every life is precious. And yet that post-Civil War pattern of white turning aside continues today, as the death of one black child, or more, each day lost to gun violence -- horrific for their families -- goes largely unnoted in the larger community.
Our Jewish interpretations reach into the Joseph story to seek out and attend to traces of emotion and family connection. How can we get out of our usual paths to apply that attentiveness, that skill in attending to the worth of human life, and the power of loss, more broadly?