It seems inevitable this week to write about deception. The country in general and the Jewish world in particular have been rocked by a massive fraud perpetrated by one of our own. The parallels with the story of Joseph and his brothers are plain: we are Joseph, and Bernard Madoff is the brother who has sold us out.
But another aspect of the story of Joseph is worth pondering in relation to our own story. Central to the brothers’ cover-up is this:
Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” (Gen. 37:31-33)
The word translated here as “identify” is the Hebrew word “H-C-R,” hakarah, which is also translated as recognition. The fraud is not complete until Jacob sees the prop created by the brothers and links it with a narrative in his mind. Joseph has not, of course, been torn to pieces, but Jacob, deceived by his sons (in an elegant echo of his own earlier deception of his father, Isaac), believes that the reality is such. As the Torah tells us in the ensuing verses, Jacob’s life is utterly destroyed by his belief in the death of his beloved son.
Part of the Madoff story is the tragic and irresponsible failure of recognition on the part of so many. Deceived by a con man and blinded by greed, otherwise smart individuals–not to mention government officials–failed to recognize what was happening. Some did recognize that Madoff’s prospectus didn’t add up, but many others did not. Those failures reflect one of the enduring questions of the Joseph story: why did Jacob not ask further questions? Why was he blind to the obvious jealousy between Joseph and his other sons? Why, for all those years, did Jacob never inquire further?
The Torah offers a poignant contrast to this failure of recognition in the story of Judah and Tamar:
As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” Then Judah identified them and said, ”She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again. (Gen. 38:25-26)
Once again, we have a challenge of identification or recognition, a challenge of hakarah. But in this case, Judah, who has every reason not to recognize what is going on, does so nevertheless. Judah sees clearly, he recognizes reality, and this leads him to take responsibility for his actions. That assumption of responsibility will be articulated even more clearly later on in the story of Benjamin and Joseph, but its immediate result is stated in the story of Tamar, with the birth of Peretz, ancestor of David, founder of the messianic dynasty.
As President Richard Joel of Yeshiva University put it in an email to his community a few days ago, we must learn all applicable lessons from these events. So what is the lesson for us in all of this? I do not want to be misunderstood as ascribing too much blame to those who invested with Bernie Madoff. Clearly he is the crook here. Yet the heroes in this story are the ones who saw clearly, who were not blind to reality. As individuals, as a community, and as a nation, we must heed the lesson of Judah and not allow ourselves to be fooled, by the schemes of others or the failure of our own powers of perception.