You Sold Your Brother For a Pair of Shoes

Genesis 44:18-47:27

By Raymond P. Scheindlin

Published December 17, 2004, issue of December 17, 2004.
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The author of the following poem was Pinhas ha-Kohen, a prolific liturgical poet who seems to have lived in eighth-century Tiberias. His recounting of the story of the encounter between Joseph and Judah as a dramatic dialogue is somewhat different from that of the narrator in our portion. In Genesis, Judah approaches Joseph in order to beg him to release Benjamin, and Joseph listens to his plea in silence; Joseph does not show any knowledge of the brothers’ story until, by revealing his identity, it becomes obvious that he knew all along; the Bible’s focus is on what the ancient Greek rhetoricians called the anagnoresis, on Joseph revealing himself.

“You sold your brother for a pair of shoes,

were ready to kill him out of sheer hate,

falsely killed a kid as your cover,

grieved your father with your plot.

Beware the Revealer’s doom!”

said Joseph to them.

“O do not do this awful thing!

It terrifies us to hear you speak.

Lift your eyes to heaven,

and keep our secret safe!

Our sin it is that brought us to this.

O sir, you make our blood run cold!”

said Judah to him.

“You threw him into the hands of schemers,

conspired to put his feet in chains,

you cruelly sold him to violent men,

to Ishmaelites, for a pair of shoes.

Beware the Revealer’s doom!”

said Joseph to them.

“We’re begging you like mendicants,

shocked that the goblet was found in his bag.

Don’t tell our secret, don’t let it come out.

Don’t have us killed, for murder is avenged.

O sir, you make our blood run cold!”

said Judah to him.

“He told you about his dream and its meaning.

You lay in wait to seize him,

then set out to spill his blood,

deceived his father with “This we have found,”

then set out to comfort him.

Beware the Revealer’s doom!”

said Joseph to them.

“You speak so harshly to make us grieve.

Your words are so frightening we cannot answer.

Look to your Creator, do not speak ill of us.

Please, sir, argue with us in reason.

O sir, you make our blood run cold!”

said Judah to him.

“You deserve a terrible death.

You blinded an old man who once could see God.

But God will forgive you from His high heaven.

All of you, come to me in Goshen

The Revealer has sent me to give you life!

I am Joseph,” he said.

They shivered when they heard what he said,

shook in shock, and had no word to reply.

He wept aloud, and they wept with him:

“And then his brothers spoke with him.”

The poem dwells not on the anagnoresis but on Joseph’s knowledge of the brothers’ secret past. Stanza by stanza, Joseph parcels out bits of information about their wicked treatment of the boy Joseph and their betrayal of their father, while they stand terrified, listening as this knowledge is revealed. Not knowing who this vizier is, they must think him a god or the right hand of God to know what they have managed to keep hidden for so long. “There are no secrets before God or me,” he seems to say — calling God not by any of His numerous traditional names but by the ominous epithet, “the Revealer.”

That Joseph knows their secret is bad enough, but what will he do with the information? Whom will he reveal it to? What if the world finds out? What if Jacob finds out? What if someone finds out who is a position to punish them? Each time he speaks, Judah begs Joseph to keep their secret, and over and over Joseph tells him that it is too late: The bothers are transparent before God — not merely the God who knows all, but the God who reveals all — the God who, on the day of judgment, reveals to every soul the deeds of his lifetime and exacts condign punishment.

The poem includes a few details that, though not in the biblical account, are familiar to readers of midrash. That the brothers sold Joseph for a pair of shoes, as mentioned twice in the poem, is a rabbinic tradition echoed also in the famous poem on the 10 martyrs, recited on Yom Kippur. Another tradition maintains that in his grief for Joseph, Jacob lost the power of prophecy (as mentioned in the next-to-last stanza) and that it was restored to him only when he learned that Joseph was still alive.

With all this talk of revelation, it may seem that the moment of Joseph’s revelation of himself arrives somewhat abruptly and that this moment, so powerful in the biblical account, is rendered rather weakly in the poem. But it is logical that the thought of Jacob’s being in the dark should be the moment that forces Joseph to reveal himself and forgive the brothers. For Jacob too was a prophet, and he mourned not only the loss of Joseph but also the loss of being the recipient of revelation. In order to restore this power to Jacob, Joseph has no choice, had no choice all along, but to end the deception. Accordingly, he forgives. But will the Revealer forgive? The last (truncated) stanza does not give the reader the impression that the brothers are deeply relieved by the denouement; for though at the poem’s end the judgment of Joseph is merciful, the judgment of the Revealer has yet to be faced.

Raymond P. Scheindlin is professor of medieval Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He is working on a book about Judah Halevi.

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