In this week’s Torah reading, we are told the story of Pharoah’s dreams, Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt, and the reunion with his brothers who descend to Egypt during a famine. The parsha is full of drama and irony. Joseph, who has assimilated into Egyptian society, is unrecognizable to his brothers. Clearly knowing who they are, Joseph accuses his brothers of spying. Before revealing his identity, he devises a plan to bring his father Jacob and his whole family to Egypt.
In his essay “Behind the Mask”, from the book Covenant and Conversation, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, explains a complex idea about the theme of hidden identities and disguises. Rabbi Sacks points out that we have four examples of deception in the most recent chapters of the book of Genesis. First we have the story of Jacob deceiving his father and stealing the blessing from his brother Esav. Next we have the story of Jacob being fooled by his father in law Lavan, where he is tricked into marrying Leah before Rachel. Third we have the story of Judah and Tamar, where Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute in order to correct the error made by Judah in terms of his responsibility to ensure his daughter in law remarries (levirate marriage). Finally, we have the story of Joseph, who is renamed “Tzofnat Pa-aneach” by Pharoah, which is translated by some to mean “hidden face”. The theme of masks, disguises and hidden identities is clearly evident, but what is the message that the Torah is trying to teach here?
There are actually two ideas which we can examine to make sense of this challenging theme. Rabbi Sacks first suggests that in all of the above stories, we have four failures of the Biblical characters mentioned in terms of their ability to “see behind the mask”. In Joseph’s case, he doesn’t realize his own immaturity, and doesn’t appreciate the deep connection he has with his brothers. He has hidden behind glorious garments and royal trappings from his true essence. The disguises work in the short term but do not work in the long term.
“A disguise is an act of hiding – from others and perhaps from oneself. From God, however, we cannot hide and nor do we need to hide.”(Covenant and Conversation, page 298)
The message of the Torah is that we have to think about the masks that we hide behind. We claim to have true values, but at times don’t behave in a manner consistent with those values. On Channukah, we have to shed our masks and understand that we cannot just stand by and accept the status quo. While we appreciate as Jews the ease with which we can be Jewish in North America today, we also have to realize that if we forget who we are we put ourselves at risk of losing our unique identity. We must remember that despite the level of comfort we take for granted in being Jewish in Montreal, we all really need to be Maccabees. We have to put our Chanukah candles in the window to reflect our sense of pride and connection to the Jewish people.
The second type of mask has to do with relationships. As Rabbi Sacks states, “inauthentic human relationships involve mistaking someone’s appearance for what they truly are, mistaking the mask for the self.” In our parsha, Joseph disguises himself from his brothers, perhaps because he doesn’t feel comfortable around them. In the end, it is only after he opens up and reveals his true identity that he can rebuild his relationship with his family. And this is a lesson about ourselves and others; we need to open our hearts and get past the masks when dealing with others, and appreciate that what we see of others may not be their true selves. In life, we often judge others from the outside without really getting to know the true nature of a person. The clothes don’t make the man; it’s the inner person we really want to get to know.
In Quebec, we are living at a time when our society has decided that the outside dressings of a person are the only thing that matters. The new law is based on the proposal that what a person wears is what make him/her perform their job for better or worse. This Channukah, we need to stand up as proud Maccabees, and tell our friends that authentic relationships and work skills have nothing to do with dress codes, but everything to do with valuing integrity and respect for individual differences.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach