Free to be - a d'var Torah for parashat Vayigash
January 07, 2017
וְלֹֽא־יָכֹ֨ל יוֹסֵ֜ף לְהִתְאַפֵּ֗ק לְכֹ֤ל הַנִּצָּבִים֙ עָלָ֔יו וַיִּקְרָ֕א הוֹצִ֥יאוּ כָל־אִ֖ישׁ מֵעָלָ֑י וְלֹא־עָ֤מַד אִישׁ֙ אִתּ֔וֹ בְּהִתְוַדַּ֥ע יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶל־אֶחָֽיו׃
Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, "Have everyone withdraw from me!" So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.
That's the verse that leaps out at me this year. And within that verse, one word: בְּהִתְוַדַּ֥ע, "he made himself known."
The root of this word is the simple verb meaning to know. To know, to perceive, to distinguish one thing from another. This verb can mean to know someone "in the Biblical sense," to make love with someone and thereby know them deeply. It appears here in the causative form: to cause oneself to be known.
To cause oneself to be known.
How often do we dedicate our energies to ensuring precisely the opposite? We work hard at hiding ourselves. We hide our tender hearts. We hide our fears. We hide our insecurities. Men in particular are taught to do this in our culture: to hide their vulnerability, because it makes them "weak" or "feminine."
Or perhaps we show our insecurities, and hide our confidence and our strength. Women in particular are taught to do this in our culture: to soften, to backpedal, to hide our strength lest we be perceived as uppity or mannish or threatening.
I have been accused of being unfit for leadership because I act "too much like a man," because I speak my mind and draw clear boundaries.
And I have been accused of being unfit for leadership because I am not enough like a man, because I cry easily and I allow myself to be vulnerable.
If we allow these binaristic gender stereotypes to persist, we can't win. And we can't do what Joseph so bravely does in this week's parsha: we can't allow ourselves to truly be known.
The stereotypes are reductive, and they're also flat wrong.
The Jewish mystical tradition depicts God as being ultimately unitary and beyond all human knowledge, and also at the same time available to us through multiple faces or aspects. God has no gender, and yet we understand God as having both masculine and feminine qualities. God is the ultimate source of lovingkindness and compassion, and also the ultimate source of strength and boundaries.
We who are made in the divine image and likeness manifest these qualities too -- all of them, no matter what our gender expression may be. We do ourselves and each other a great disservice when we insist that men are "supposed" to be strong and women are "supposed" to be gentle, that dad is "supposed" to be the disciplinarian and mom is "supposed" to be the source of comfort... and I mean this not only in our family systems but also in our organizations, in our communities, on boards and committees, in social circles.
What we are "supposed" to be is who we most deeply are. All of who we are, in our fullness, with our contradictions and our yearnings, our hopes and our fears.
In order for Joseph to feel safe making himself known to his brothers, he needs to see that they have changed. He needs to see that they have truly made teshuvah, repented from their earlier mistreatment of him so profoundly that when faced with a similar choice they would choose differently than they did when they sold him into slavery. When he sees that they have made teshuvah and have changed, then he sends the courtiers out of the room and reveals who he truly is.
Each of us needs to do our own inner work, our teshuvah work, our work of repentance and repair. We do this work not only for the sake of our own souls, but also because when we do this work, we give the people around us permission to do it, too. When we do this work, we give the people around us permission to make themselves known to us, to reveal the sweetness and the strength, the vulnerability and the courage, of who they most truly are. When we do our own inner work, we make it safe for those around us to be like Joseph: to be real and whole and free to be who we are at last.
Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.