On Recognition: Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27)
When is an apple is an apple is an apple, as CNN in its self advertisements insist it always is? In an era when charges of fake news fly about like bats at each twilight, there is a disorienting quality when you cannot recognize what exists that stands right before you. I was reminded of the humiliation and embarrassment of my mild case of prosopagnosia or face blindness, for yesterday I saw someone approaching. He looked like he knew me. As he neared me, he said, “How are you Howard? Bitterly cold, isn’t it?” It was my neighbour. I know him well. He and his wife have been at our cottage. But until he spoke, I had no idea of who he was. He had to have noticed that initially I had not recognized him. And his name did not even pop into my mind until we had passed one another. Had he noticed my bluffing and cover-up in my clichéd response? I felt so em-barr-assed.
Over the years, I have developed a whole system of subterfuges to disguise and hide my disability. My wife helps enormously in dealing with this disability. When we meet others whom she does not know, but I am supposed to, she introduces herself rather than waiting for me to offer an introduction. When I am alone, I look at the floor or appear distracted in thought, which I am often anyway, but often wonder if my being lost in thought has not been a defence mechanism.
However, my failure to recognize is not just a matter of faces. When I was a kid, I could never tell one model of car from another. Among my friends, recognizing different models of cars at the time was a matter of status. I have always insisted ever since that I have little interest in cars and in driving. Where do cover-ups start and interests end?
Yet my difficulties in face recognition, my limitations in object discrimination have never impaired my ability to engage in intellectual analysis or to make decisions. Perhaps those inabilities should have made me wary. Instead, my arrogance about my own intellectual prowess and decisiveness only increased. But I am sure I should have been more chary, more guarded and attentive. This inadequacy, after all, is not simply about the world out there. It affects one’s ability to engage in self-recognition.
We have been watching the TV series, “The Crown,” a Netflix production. In the third episode of season two, called Lisbon, Queen Elizabeth confronts Phillip on the royal yacht and calls on them both to lay “their cards on the table” and examine themselves and their marriage for what it is and has been and, hence, for what it can become. Phillip has been a playboy chafing at the restrictions and daily humiliations, at his behaviour being dictated by the moustachioed watchers of protocol. Elizabeth has been publicly humiliated by the widespread rumours and now evidence of her husband’s infidelities. In this wonderful interweaving of family and national politics, the royal family is presented as far more human with their errors and limitations than the widespread images of the cold queen, her detached spouse and their doltish son, Charles. Beside the political clods and liars, like Prime Ministers Sir Anthony Eden and Sir Harold Macmillan, the members of the royal family come across as simply flawed humans rather than arrogant, pedantic and malevolent graduates of Eton.
“Know thyself.” That was a major dictum of Socrates. But if you cannot even see what is around you, if you cannot even see how others perceive you, how can you know yourself? This is not just about personal relations and mainstream politics. It affects what we see and how we deal with everyday life and even nature. Just this past week, we saw what we believed was a wolf in the backyard. It was not behaving as a dog. With its arched back, with its wary pauses as it dug into a hole where a small critter had its home, capturing and devouring it, we were sure that this was not an Alsatian dog.
It turned out to be a coyote. Coyotes evidently now live among us in the city, not nearly as plentiful as the squirrels and racoons, but no longer a rare sighting. Further, as one of my former students wrote, coyotes and Algonquin wolves have interbred and perhaps a new species of wolf has emerged. My student wrote: “For some time, it has been a matter of dispute whether Algonquin wolves are a population of eastern wolves or a separate species, which is of practical importance because the extent to which they’re protected legally depends on how they’re categorized – in 2016 the Ontario government reclassified them as a separate species and changed their status from ‘special concern’ to ‘threatened’ (i.e., from two steps away from ‘endangered’ to one step away). But one way or another they are heavily hybridized with coyotes.”
The question of whether an apple is an apple is an apple, whether a rose is a rose is a rose, can be a matter of some significance, especially to the apple or the rose. Was that a peregrine falcon I saw for the first time this fall or a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk? Given my terrible record in object as well as face recognition, I cannot be trusted. However, my wife is extremely discerning. But she too thought that what we observed a few days ago had been a wolf.
So, even the best of us can be fooled. But we are also often foolish as well as fooled. This week the UN General Assembly rejected the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by an overwhelming majority of 128-9. Canada abstained though, as some commentators opined, our country might have voted in support of the Americans had Trump been a bit more diplomatic and less confrontational in his approach. After all, every country is free to locate its embassy where it wishes. Every country is free to recognize the capital of another country. No other country is denied recognition of its capital. And the recognition came with a caveat that this did not predetermine in any way the borders of that Jerusalem. Jerusalem, certainly West Jerusalem, is and has been the capital for seventy years and there is almost no likelihood that it will not continue to be so.
In the UN vote that Obama (generally an admirable president in my eyes) failed to veto last December, perhaps in an understandable fit of pique against Netanyahu (who competes with Trump and Erdogan for being a diplomatic fool even as he fails miserably to come close to their stratospheric absurdities), the UN de facto declared Jerusalem to be the Palestinian capital and did more to pre-empt the results of peace negotiations, and thereby undermine them, than anything Trump did or say. The vote further carried far more weight – because it was a Security Council vote which carried with it obligations rather than a General Assembly vote which could never be more than a recommendation and a sense of general support. Ostensibly, the motion was a condemnation of continuing Israeli settlement activity. But the vote called allthe territory on which Israel had built Palestinian and not just disputed territory, which was certainly the case of Jerusalem, which had not been allocated to either side. The resolution, in effect, re-wrote the 1947 partition resolution.
Against all my own caution when it comes to initiating steps in international diplomacy that can have incalculable repercussions, counter to my huge antipathy to a lying and narcissistic president such as Trump, in the aftermath of what has happened since, I am even tempted to cheer Trump for his boldness and for his willingness to call a spade a spade, much as my heart warmed when Queen Elizabeth told Eden to his face that he was a liar and told Macmillan that he was even worse, for Macmillan was a duplicitous liar, denying that he had even supported Eden in the Suez fiasco in 1956 when he clearly did. South Africa may downgrade its embassy in Israel to a “liaison office” as a symbol of support for the Palestinians, but that merely sends a message that the whole international process is not about objective evidence or fair negotiations, but about whose side one is on.
It is through such layers on my lenses that I read the story in this week’s portion of Torah when Joseph, now the vizier of Egypt, meets his brothers once again after a long hiatus after they had thrown him into a pit many years ago and they do not recognize him. At the “re-union,” Joseph plays with them, insisting that they bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, back as surety for the food he is giving them, and, when they return, planting a gold goblet among their things when they depart so that, when his men search their packs on the way out of Egypt, they find the royal goblet and the brothers are accused of theft. Then the central confrontation takes place. Judah, who had assured his father Isaac that he would return with Benjamin, comes literally face to face with Joseph and asks that he, Judah, be held as a slave and Benjamin be permitted to return to his father.
Joseph cries, perhaps in response to seeing this brother’s devotion to Benjamin, and, even more, to their father, a devotion absent when he himself had been thrown into a pit, for Judah had urged that he be sold into slavery so the brothers would not have Joseph’s blood on their hands. Perhaps Joseph’s emotional response is because he sees that the brothers have changed and are no longer the young, irresponsible and cruel youth of yesteryear. Perhaps Joseph is simply tired of the ruse, of hiding both his identity and his guile from them. Whatever the reason, Joseph owns up to who he is and rejoices in his reunion with his brothers as Jacob never did with his brother, Esau.
What is the significance of this self-revelation and subsequent recognition? Why had Joseph been able to recognize his brothers after all those years, but they had not been able to recognize Joseph in all his royal finery and in a totally incredulous political position? The description answers itself – recognition is a matter of both context and expectations. Certainly, Joseph had taken advantage of his brothers’ non-recognition, arrogantly grilling them as if they were potential spies and now confronting their presumed lack of honesty when it was now Joseph who was not being honest with them.
Did this take place, as many moralist interpreters opine, so that Joseph would make his brothers recognize their past mistakes? Were the brothers carrying around with them, not only the sacks of grain that they had purchased in Egypt, not only the goblet Joseph had planted in Benjamin’s sack, but the guilt of their actions, not only against their brother, but, and perhaps more importantly, for their treatment of their father for whom Joseph was the favourite? Had that hidden guilt percolated to the surface now that their father might lose his youngest son, Benjamin, believed by him to be the only surviving offspring of his late beloved wife, Rachel? After all, Judah pleaded with Joseph begging the vizier to take him as his slave rather than Benjamin. Was this out of guilt for his past treatment of Joseph or guilt about the consequences to their father or, perhaps, both? Or was it because he felt honour-bound by the guarantee that he had given his father?
“So now, please let your servant remain as my lord’s slave in place of the lad, and let the lad go home with his brothers: for how can I go home to my father without the lad, and thus see the harm my father will suffer”? (44:33-34)
Joseph could not contain himself any longer. He bawled like a baby – right in front of his brothers, right there and then. “I am Joseph – is my father [really] alive?” (45:3) But he had known his father was still alive. His brothers had told him. Had he thought that they were lying? In his arrogance, did he think that his father had really died grieving over the loss of his favourite son?
Maimonides thought that the story was all about repentance – the brothers’ repentance for what they had done to Joseph many years ago, as well as Joseph’s repentance concerning his cruel and possibly vengeful treatment of his brothers, not only currently, but in the past when he told his father malicious tales about his brothers. Maimonides wrote:
“What constitutes complete repentance? He who confronts an identical occurrence in which he previously transgressed, when (at another time) it is within his power to repeat the same wrongdoing, nevertheless restrains himself and does not succumb to temptation because of a wish to repent and not out of fear of authority … this is true penitence.” (Mishneh Torah, T‘shuvah 2.1)
I don’t buy it. I do not accept Maimonides’ theory of repentance when an event recurs that reminds one of the original one over which a continuing guilt has remained. Such an effort at interpretation tries to reconcile Hebraic concepts with Aristotelian theory, which was always more concerned with a heroic life in which the virtues are cultivated rather than celebrating a life in which humans follow the covenant and the rule of law. In Hebraic thought, t‘shuva, return, or revisiting an old error, and hence repentance, is a result of recognizing a failure to observe obligations, not a failure to be an exemplar of virtue. For Aristotle, only bad men without virtue feel repentance.
Maimonides tried, and, I believe, failed, to reconcile Aristotelian and Hebraic ethics. Instead on making a mishmash of the two by inverting Aristotle and marrying the inversion to Jewish precepts, why not recognize that the Joseph story is not about repentance at all, but about recognition, recognition about who another really is and recognizing and owning up to one’s own responsibility for what has occurred in the past.
Dena Weiss has written that the issue in this story is not about the repetition in memory of a previous occurrence and, hence, exposing one’s guilt, but about presence and absence, about proximity versus distance. Joseph was viscerally moved because Judah confronted him face-to-face and spoke directly to him. The days of deceit, of misdirection, of distraction, of deception, of distortion, were over. Reconciliation was not a matter of making oneself over into an exemplar of virtue, but of recognizing another and, through that recognition, recognizing oneself and one’s obligations both to oneself and to that other.
The writer of “The Crown” recognized that essential character when Queen Elizabeth confronted her husband about reality and asked where they go from there. The answer comes in Phillip’s speech at their tenth anniversary party when he publicly and openly recognizes Elizabeth for the woman she is, a woman of loyalty, a woman of honesty and directness, a perceptive woman, a woman to whom he is now happy that he married despite all the trammels and troubles of living as a royal couple.
Recognition of who the other is and self-recognition go hand-in-hand. As Weiss wrote, bodily proximity in recognition is far more important than ethical remorse in a crisis of the superego. The issue is not to beat oneself up and lash oneself on the backside, but to own up, to take responsibility, to be accountable and, thereby, change who we are and our relations with another. T’shuva is the meaning of the good life, not becoming a new person with heroic virtues, but becoming an older and more mature person who recognizes and admits to his or her own shortcomings and recognizes but does not hold over the other a Sword of Damocles for how the other behaved in the past.
“Yehudah came close to him and said, “If it pleases my master, may your servant speak in the ears of my master and do not be furious at your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.” (48:18)
After all, one of the major themes of the Torah is moving from a culture of shame to a culture of guilt, not guilt from failure to be the best and most virtuous, but failing to be oneself. Israelites move not only physically but from a culture of revenge to a culture of forgiveness. Only then can we overcome stereotypes of the other and blindness about oneself. In the end, this is why sex in a marriage is so important.
“Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?’ And they were unable to respond to him because they were overwhelmed by his presence. Yosef said to them, ‘Please, come close to me.’ And they came close. He said, ‘I am your brother Yosef whom you sold down to Egypt. Now, don’t be distraught or angry that you sold me here, for God sent me before you for sustenance’.” (45:3-5)
Don’t feel guilt. Don’t feel shame. Just come close. Just be close. Do not promise that you will become who you are not, but be who you are, near and close to others, to your family and friends. Do not betray Eden as Macmillan did so treacherously, do not lie as Eden did to his Queen and to the Americans, do not be mendacious as Trump is, for if Trump had a record of integrity, then recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital might be viewed by others as an act of honesty rather than one of domestic political self-serving. Be close and do not be a manipulator from afar. To be dishonest is to be crooked. The categorical imperative of recognition is: Be straight. Let others know of your handicap. They will forgive you. They will compensate for you. You can depend on others.
With the help of Alex Zisman