Familiar Strangers

“As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them,

but he pretended to be a stranger..."

Genesis 42:7


Philip Galanes, in his advice column “Social Q’s” in The New York Times, fielded a question about the usual holiday joy: family get-togethers. David claimed that he has officially begun to dread Thanksgiving. Within 30 seconds of being in the same room as his immediate family, they all assume their old roles even when those roles are outdated. His question: “Do you have any ideas for short-circuiting those same old dynamics this year? It is really demoralizing for me.”

Galanes suggested inviting some new guests who might fast-forward the ancient dynamics by expressing interest in what everyone is up to now. Funnily enough, the Torah portions of the past few weeks have dished up variations of this theme, so I thought in the spirit of ancient dynamics, we might ask our old friend Joseph how he might have handled the contemporary Thanksgiving feast with his family.


Dear David,


I know exactly where you are, friend. You cannot imagine what it was like for me every Thanksgiving in Canaan. Dad would always make me carve the turkey in front of everyone in that ridiculous striped jacket; the dolman sleeves always dipped into the gravy and, let me tell you, it was an absolute beast to clean.


Every year Reuben and Judah fought constantly over the drumsticks, and in the early days before Mom passed away, she and her sister Leah would always be competing for who had the better sweet potato casserole recipe. My father basically sat on the couch watching football, while my other brothers practically killed each other. My sister Dina was so bored and upset, she would just wander off. I think she was looking for Black Friday sales in Shechem.


After I was thrown in the pit and taken to Egypt, Thanksgiving was different for me. I was all alone, often in prison with a baker who had no flour and a sommelier without wine. What good are they at making a party?


But I will never forget the year that my brothers came down to Egypt to find some stuffing – and anything else - because there was basically a famine in Canaan. I was already high-ranking in the Egyptian government and was sporting an Egyptian haircut and the latest in Prada tunics when ten of them walked in. I knew them instantly and found that despite my confidence, I was shaken. I hadn’t seen them in 13 years. I wanted so badly to say, “Look at me now and look at you,” but I bit my tongue and spoke in Egyptian. They clearly had no idea who I was. I wanted to see if they had changed. If there was any brotherly feeling, I would reveal myself. But otherwise, I had found safety only among strangers; my own family was too threatened by my success. I would stay in Egypt, thrive and have to give up on the Andrew Lloyd Webber play that would sustain my name for an eternity.


In the end, I am glad that I made myself a stranger to them because it was only as a stranger that they came to see me for who I really was. David, I wept so profoundly on the day that I told them my secret because by the time I told them, I was no longer filled with revenge. I was filled with love.


I learned then that the best way to handle the annual return of the ancient family dynamic is not to invite strangers to your table to distract you but to turn your own family into strangers, to ask them questions about their lives that you might ask strangers, to treat them with the courtesy you treat strangers. Strangers can become friends; friends can become family. Sometimes when families make each other into strangers, they can also become a better family.


I have had an amazing life, David. I have been successful beyond expectation. Some call me a dreamer. Some call me a dream interpreter. Some just call me “sir.” But it took me a lifetime to realize that what was most important to me was to be called a brother.


Happy Thanksgiving (And a joyous Hanuka),