The ultimate family dinner

There's probably no family dinner scene quite so tension-laden as the one described in Genesis 43.

This was quite an unusual Thanksgiving we all just had. Thanksgivvukah. Thanksgannukah. Whatever you called it, it was a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of two supreme foodie holidays, and the Silvert household celebrated it to the max-cranberry sauce on the latkes, "dreidels and drumstick," Chanukah gelt, the whole thing. And of course-the family. 

Food and family. Pretty intensely bound together. Many a family dinner table has served up its unseen but clearly felt portions of tension, too, as so often happens when the clan gathers. There's probably no family dinner scene quite so tension-laden as the one described in Genesis 43, when Jacob's brothers sit down to a meal with their unrecognized, "didn't we get rid of him already?" brother Joseph, now the Number Two man in Egypt.  Joseph had arranged for the meal to be served, but was so overcome with seeing his brother Benjamin again, he excused himself to weep alone. Then he came out, and said, "Serve the food." (Gen. 43:31)  The meal began, and the brothers all sat at the table, according to age; they "looked at each other in amazement." (Gen 43:33)

Imagine that scene. The brothers, so recently suffering through a famine, were presented with a table full of food. That alone would have been a lot to take in. Benjamin got five times the food his brothers got. Why five-fold?  There is a midrash that states the brothers and Joseph weren't the only ones in attendance at that family meal. Joseph's Egyptian-born wife Asenath and their two sons, Menasseh and Ephraim, were at the table, also. Joseph and his family all gave their food to Benjamin, making up the five-fold servings Benjamin received.  

So, they had this grand meal, ate and drank….and drank…and were sent on their way. Only after they left, did they get ambushed with the whole "who stole my silver cup" set-up, found themselves back in front of Joseph, and finally found out who he was. 

Joseph kept his identity secret the entire time the brothers were eating. Throughout the meal, Joseph probably passed up many opportunities to come forward.  How could he keep a straight face? How did Joseph keep his secret? And of course, why did he plant the cup with Benjamin, knowing there would be a delayed reaction to the family's time together?

Sitting together as a family, after such a long time, was bound to be fraught with emotional land-mines. Sometimes there are "bombs" that detonate after the last person departs from the house. There are times when we lay verbal traps for the folks sitting across the table from us, baiting and waiting. We test each other, like Joseph tested his brothers. They didn't really know each other anymore, and the Sages say the reason Joseph put this final test into play was to see if the brothers had transferred their childhood jealousy of him to his little brother. Would they turn on Benjamin the way they'd turned on young Joseph?

It was a fairly dramatic way to find out who his adult brothers had become. That's what happens when families only gather rarely; there's so much riding on that one day together. It's not always possible to gather often, what with far-flung relatives. Often families have different food preferences that make it difficult to eat together. And let's face it-we don't always get along with our relatives(!) We can only imagine the conversations those brothers had after everyone made the move to Egypt. There were a lot of sadness and hurt to work through.  Hopefully, your Thanksgivvukah was calmer than the Jacobs-boys' dinner. And hopefully, it won't take another year to gather again.  

Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems,

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