Selective Attention

Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17 )


There is an interesting study on selective attention. Those who participated in the study were asked to count the amount of times that the people in the video who were wearing white were passing a basketball. At the end of the video viewers were asked if they saw a gorilla walking through the video. The majority said no. They then looked back at the video and saw the gorilla walking right across the screen. They were so focused on counting the ball being passed around that their selective attention missed the gorilla.

This test proved what we know to be true from life. We see what we want to see and often miss other significant elements of the bigger picture.

This is what Jewish wisdom teaches us in this week’s Torah portion when the brothers come down to Egypt to buy food and to search for their brother. “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.”1 The commentaries are bothered by the obvious question: how can they not recognize their brother? Yes, 22 years have passed, but it never dawned on them that this might be Joseph?

Rashi, quoting the Talmud, gives a simple explanation: When Joseph left the brothers, he hadn’t yet grown a beard, while they had. So he was able to recognize them and they weren’t able to recognize him.

This is a difficult explanation, as usually one can still recognize his brother after many years even if he now has a beard. In fact, Zevulun was only a year older than Joseph and was recognizable. This is why Rashi also quotes the Aggadic Middrash in a second answer, “And Joseph recognized his brothers - when they were delivered into his hands, he recognized that they were his brothers, and he had compassion on them. However, they did not recognize him when he fell into their hands, to behave toward him with brotherhood.”

There is an additional lesson to be learned here. Joseph was always looking for his brothers, “It is my brothers I am seeking.”2 He was always trying to get to know them, to understand and learn from them. Conversely, the brothers didn't truly want to understand who Joseph was, they didn't take him seriously since he was young and dreamy. Even when they finally came down to Egypt and decided to go through ten different gates in search of Joseph, they couldn't find him because they were looking in the wrong places. They were probably searching the slave markets, the slums. They could not fathom that Joseph is only second to Pharaoh in the great and mighty Egypt.

Joseph gave them clues; he divided Shimon and Levi, he asked after their father’s well-being, he sent their money back with them, sat them according to their age and finally asked to see Binyamin, and yet they still didn’t recognize him. It was selective attention; it didn’t dawn on them that Joseph's dreams were becoming their reality.

A similar concept is learned from the Hanukkah custom to sit and gaze at the lights of the menorah. As we sing in Hanerot Halalu, “Throughout the eight days of Hanukkah, these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles.” Life can get hard, we can find ourselves in situations of darkness, yet there is always a light to brighten up the difficult moments. If you want to offer thanks, you need to choose to look at the light.

Selective attention can go both ways. We might miss out on the most important relationships and opportunities in life, or we might find the inner strength to get through the toughest of times.

  1. Bereshit 42,8
  2. Bereshit 37, 16


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