The Prospect Heights Shul is a Modern Orthodox Shul in Brownstone Brooklyn


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The Prospect Heights Shul
A Modern Orthodox Shul in Brownstone Brooklyn

“Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.” 

-Genesis 42:8

As human beings, we so desperately seek to be seen by those around us, especially those most familiar. To be clear, I’m referring to a deep act of seeing, one that acknowledges our very being. The characters in the Torah are no different. 

In fact, most of Genesis highlights the painful ramifications when we fail to see those we love. Isaac literally couldn’t see Jacob, “But he [Isaac] did not recognize him [Jacob] because his hands were hairy like the hands of Esau his brother” (Gen 27:23). Jacob couldn’t even distinguish Leah from Rachel, and Yehudah did not recognize Tamar, his daughter-in-law. 

It seems inconceivable that one couldn’t recognize their own son, wife, brother, or daughter yet our patriarchs were guilty of this! If anything it shows the distance that existed in many of their core relationships. Perhaps this explains why so many of the stories end in trauma and tragedy. Bad things happen when we fail to see one another. Rashi powerfully connects recognition to our capacity to display mercy, “he [Joseph] recognized that they were his brothers, and had mercy on them but they did not recognize him when he fell into their hand by testing him in a brotherly manner” (Rashi on Gen 42:8). 

Sure, twenty-two years is a long time and people change (see Bereishit Rabbah 91:7 where it claims Joseph’s new beard played a disguise), but a brother is a brother! Even when Joseph finally reveals himself they seem uncertain to his identity. After saying, “I’m Joseph!” he then still needs to say, “Come close to me, if you please...I’m Joseph your brother” (Gen 45:4). It’s only at this moment of recognition where our narrative shifts, where wounds begin to heal. As Aviva Zornberg explains, “...such a genuine awareness of loss is the only basis for hope of recovery (see The Beginning of Desire). She adds this is also true for Joseph himself, “But if he is to have compassion for them, to “recognize” them as his brothers, he will have to retrieve himself from the pit, to recognize himself, have compassion for himself.”

So where does this leave us? Why do we read this story on or just after Chanukah? The mitzvah of lighting candles is associated with the home. No other mitzvah has such a connection to the home, and the family. It’s the extra light from the candles that allow us to better see the faces of our loved ones. This time of isolation for many makes it even more painful. But at the heart of Chanukah, beyond displaying the miracle is a celebration and rededication to our family and seeing each of them in their own light. 

Happy Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Leener