Living With Longing
The story of Yosef and his brothers is one of a shattered, absent family. The Torah doesn’t describe Yosef’s emotional state in this tumultuous situation, and we are left to wonder about whether he longed to return to his family, and whether his brothers wanted to reunite and make amends. Through the lens of midrash, we see what it is like to live with absence and longing for extended periods of times. Yosef’s longing changes his experience of the world, allowing him in the end to recognize his brothers, even while they didn’t recognize him. It is this posture of longing that we can learn the most from, whether in our relationships with others, or with God.
When Yosef’s brothers come to buy grain, the Torah records an asymmetry: “Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:8). Why this discrepancy? A number of interpretations draw a connection between the act of physical recognition and the mental state of anticipation. We see what we are ready to see. Ramban states this most generally: Yosef recognized his brothers because he was hoping they would come to Egypt; they did not recognize him because they could never have anticipated that he would be the second in command in Egypt.1 Bekhor Shor offers a more robust frame for this anticipation. Yosef knew that his ancestors turned towards Egypt in times of famine. Avraham had traveled to Egypt in famine (Genesis 12:10), and Yitzhak had intended to (26:2). Yosef was hoping his family would also be drawn to Egypt because of the famine.2 Introducing this angle of Yosef’s anticipation that famine would bring reunification with his family, we might even trace this hope back to the moment when Yosef first interprets Pharaoh’s dreams (21:25). A dream that was a nightmare of devastation ahead for Pharaoh simultaneously indicated the possibility of hope for Yosef. Perhaps Yosef recognized his brothers, not only because he had been waiting for them from the time famine struck, but because he had been anticipating their arrival from when he first interpreted Pharoahs’ dreams. His intricate plan of building storehouses may be a pretext driven by his desire to lure his brothers into Egypt.3
Midrash speaks to Yosef’s anticipation of his brothers’ arrival due to famine, and the extent to which this hope bore out, almost obsessively, in the structures he created for anyone who came to Egypt to get food.4 He put guards at every entrance to the city and made them record the name of everyone who came to get food, and their father’s name, and he took the time to read all of these notes every day. When he saw his brothers’ names, he closed down all storehouses except for one so they would be forced to go there, and asked for them to be sent to him when they came. When they didn’t come for three days, he sent seventy strong men to look for them. It’s not clear whether these obsessive actions are driven by Yosef’s strong desire to see his brothers, or perhaps a fear that they still want to kill him. Either way, we land on a picture where Yosef’s brothers have been at the forefront of his mind in such an intense way—of course he recognizes them the moment he sees them.
Midrash tells us that Yosef’s brothers were also longing for him, and waiting for an opportune moment to go to Egypt and bring him back home. Yet, they did not recognize him because they were blinded by a narrow sense of who they thought he was. They last saw him when they sold him as a slave, and they could only imagine finding him as a lowly slave. According to midrash, when they got to Egypt, their first order of priorities was to find Yosef, not to immediately get food. They searched for him in the prostitutes’ market, because they thought Yosef would have ended up there as a slave since he was so beautiful. That is where Yosef’s seventy messengers finally found them, and took them to Yosef.5
When the brothers were brought before Yosef, they did not recognize him because of the limits of their imagination. Yosef, on the other hand, was a person of dreams. As someone attuned to imagining a future different than the present, he was able to anticipate that his brothers might come down to Egypt, and was ready to recognize them when they stood before him.
Yosef and his brothers teach us what we are able to see and do when we long for someone or something that is dear to us. When we walk through the world with that palpable kind of longing, it changes the way we see what is around us. While most would confront the prospect of famine with dread, Yosef sees it as a way to reconnect with his family. He puts structures into place to make it more possible for what he longs for to come true, even as he is not at all assured of results.
This longing and anticipation in the interpersonal realm can translate into longing to be in relationship with God, even as that may feel quite distant or even impossible.6 In much of our tradition and liturgy, we are fundamentally in a posture of “waiting” vis a vis God, like Yosef waiting for his family. In the Kedushah prayer on Shabbat each week, we name this posture of waiting, saying to God “כי מחכים אנחנו לך / for we are waiting for you.” It is a long wait, and can be quite frustrating if we think the goal is to get past the waiting stage. Waiting can be like it was for Yosef’s brothers. We might feel stuck waiting for God, and may never find God if we have too narrow a sense of what God is “supposed to look like.” From Yosef, we learn of the power of waiting that is grounded in clarity of purpose and expansive vision.
We may experience distance and longing in many parts of our lives. From the asymmetry of a/recognition in the story of Yosef and his brothers, we learn that we can miss seeing others (or God) when we have too narrow a sense of what they are supposed to look like. How might we take an expansive approach to what we long for, to lean into our longing and anticipation in a way that opens our eyes to new pathways? In the spirit of Hanukkah, we might land on “small” hard-earned miracles that come in the form of stretching the possibilities of our reality, not waiting for a dramatic shift to suddenly appear. Minimally, we, like Yosef, can do the work to create structures to make our dreams more likely to come true. Yosef designs an intricate system to feed a large population in times of famine so that he can encounter his brothers. Similarly, what we build in our longing—for others, or for God—must inevitably do good, nourishing work. Perhaps this labor of love that feels like only a pretext for trying to encounter something as unattainable as God’s presence is actually the true work that makes that reality come true.
3 It is interesting that Yosef mentions his father’s house when his son, Menashe, is born, before famine strikes (Genesis 41:52). At face value, his naming of Menashe is about forgetting his father’s house, but the act of mentioning his father’s house suggests that his family is actually quite centrally on his mind.
4 Bereishit Rabbah 91:6: “אמר רבי יהודה בר סימון אף יוסף יודע היה שאחיו יורדין למצרים לשבר אכל, מה עשה הושיב שומרים על כל הפתחים ואמר להם ראו כל מי שנכנס לשבר אכל כתבו שמו ושם אביו, לערב הביאו פתקים, ועשו כך. כיון שבאו בני יעקב כל אחד ואחד נכנס בשער שלו וכתבו את שמותם, לערב הביאו לו הפתקים, זה קורא ראובן בן יעקב, ואחד קורא שמעון בן יעקב, ואחד לוי, וכן השוערים כל אחד שלו. מיד אמר להם יוסף סתמו את האוצרות ופתחו אוצר אחד, ונתן שמותם לבעל האוצר, ואמר לו ראה כשיבואו האנשים אלו לידך תפש אותם ושגר אותם לפני, עברו שלשת ימים ולא באו, מיד נטל יוסף שבעים גבורים מבית המלך ושגר בשבילם לבקש אותם בשוק.”
5 The continuation of the same midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 91:6), narrating the actions of Yosef’s seventy gibborim: “הלכו ומצאו אותם בשוק של זונות, ומה טיבן בשוק של זונות, אלא אמרו אחינו יוסף יפה תאר ויפה מראה, שמא בקבה הוא. ותפשו אותן והביאום לפני יוסף.”
6 The theology of absence might carry its own substantive texture. See Hadar Advanced Kollel member Akiva Mattenson’s prize-winning essay, “Out Beyond the Sea: A Theology of Divine Absence,” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/out-beyond-sea.