The Reality of Perception

December 20, 2020

4 min read


Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

Siblings often claim to have an intrinsic connection. Although they had been apart from each other for many years, ‘Joseph recognised his brothers, but they did not recognise him’ (Gen. 42:8). This seems plausible since their last memory of Joseph was of a beardless youth and at this stage he has matured and grown a beard (Ketubot 27b; Yevamot 88a; Gen. Rabba 91:7). Furthermore, he uses a translator to speak to them (42:23), hiding his knowledge of Hebrew, he dresses in different materials and jewellery and Pharaoh has changed his name from Joseph to Tzafnat Paneach (41:42-45). However, surely his beard, language, clothing and name are all superficial indicators? Could it really be that these wise heads of tribes were unable to perceive their brother behind these mere externalities?

There are numerous hints that the viceroy of Egypt treats his brothers differently to others whom he would ordinarily encounter in the same setting. He accuses them of being spies, simply because they enter the city from different gates (42:9). He sends them home out of concern for their families, he ‘gives them provisions for the journey’ (42:25), and he hosts them in his house for a private meal. Surely, if they were suspected of espionage, one would not expect for them to be wined and dined in the home of the viceroy of Egypt. There are a number of other incidents that are strange to say the least. One stark example is Joseph’s hinting of his intimate knowledge of their upbringing that no outsider could have known (Gen. Rabba 91:10). And yet with all these clues, the brothers do not, even for a moment, entertain the notion that perhaps the viceroy is not who he seems to be. When Joseph finally reveals his identity, the brothers still do not seem to understand until he proves it to them (Gen. Rabba 93:8). What is so difficult for them to understand? Why is it so difficult for the brothers to recognise Joseph?

Perhaps the answer relates to simple psychology. The brothers cannot recognise Joseph as the viceroy of Egypt because the brothers do not want to recognise Joseph as the viceroy of Egypt.

Long before Joseph made a name for himself, ‘his brothers were jealous of him’ (37:11). They ridicule his dreams and desire his demise (37:20). Rashi explains that they lose their sense of brotherhood with respect to him. From the moment they throw him into a pit as an insignificant slave, that is what he becomes in their minds. For years after their separation from Joseph, he remains a worthless dreamer in their minds. It is through this lens that they continue to perceive him. Thus, upon their eventual reunion, the Joseph before their eyes does not match their preconceived notions of him. This cognitive dissonance prevents the brothers from understanding who Joseph is despite the many hints, his physical presence, the proof and his explicit declaration.

When one believes something strongly enough and desires it to be fact, one can constantly reiterate that belief to the point that it indeed becomes fact in one’s mind. There have been criminals who were proven guilty but who desire their innocence so much so that they come to truly believe in it. The mind is so strong that it can even fool itself. There are countless examples throughout history whereby a supposition can be so powerful that it defies and replaces logic. Personal perception can become personal reality and no matter how much this seems to contradict fact; it can be rationalised to almost become actuality. This finds expression in subtler everyday scenarios as well, particularly with regard to how we view and treat ourselves and people around us.

The Talmud explains the term ‘foolishness’ in the proverb, ‘the foolishness of man corrupts his ways’ (Prov. 19:3) as referring to Joseph’s brothers (Taanit 9a). Perhaps this is teaching a lesson for life. There is a danger in basing ones actions purely on one’s own subjective worldview. Rather, one should continuously review one’s beliefs, analyse, check and recheck them, to ensure they are truthful. In contrast to Joseph’s brothers, it is incumbent upon us to search for truth, to be ready to admit a mistake and to accept sincerity rather than being blinded by bias and conviction alone. Through this approach, rather than being trapped by a perception of falsehood and prejudice, we may succeed in opening ourselves to a reality of truth.

Next Steps