Yosef’s brothers, not content with the treachery of throwing him in the pit and then selling him to the Ishmaelites, proceed to engage in a cover-up. Using the very cloak that was the target of their jealousy, they dip it in the blood of a kid goat, and send it to their father: “And they said, ‘This we found. Please, examine it (haker na). Is it your son’s tunic or not?'” (Breishit 37:32). Their physical absence at this stage is critical. If they had been present, the mere reality of seeing them holding the tunic would have led Yaakov to be suspicious about their involvement in Yosef’s fate. In their absence, Yaakov was left contemplating Yosef and the tunic, and imagined a scenario which did not involve the brothers. And the brothers knew that by not feeding Yaakov a story, but rather allowing him to arrive at an explanation on his own, he would own it more, believe it more. It was his story, not their story; thus the deception was complete.
Of course, the key to the whole deception was the cloak, and the finishing touch was Yaakov’s recognition of it as Yosef’s. The word that this turns on in the text is haker, to recognize. “Please, examine it” (haker na), they said. “And he recognized it (vayakira) and he said, ‘It is my son’s tunic. Yosef has been devoured!” Now, this word, haker, plays a central role in a number of related stories in the narratives of Yaakov and his sons, and the Torah seems to be encouraging us to consider how these stories may relate to one another.
The midrash already notes the connection between this haker na and the one in the immediately following story of Yehudah and Tamar. Why was the narrative of Yosef interrupted with the story of Yehudah and Tamar? “Said R. Yochanan: to juxtapose haker na (please identify this cloak) with haker na (please identify whose signet, wrap and staff these are).” (Breishit Rabbah 85). R. Yochanan understands that it was Yehudah who sent the cloak to his father, and thus he was paid back with the events of Tamar. “You said to your father, ‘haker na‘, by your life, Tamar will say to you, haker na.” While Yehudah does not suffer and is not punished in this story, he is compelled – by his conscience at least – to come clean, to own up to the shame. In his owning up, he also chooses to embrace the honesty and integrity that comes with a true haker na. The brothers used haker na to deceive, using a truth – Yosef’s correctly identified cloak – to cover up a bigger lie. Yehudah, in his recognition, not only acknowledged the true owner of these items, but also the bigger truth that they represented, “He said, she is righteous. The child is from me.” (38:26).
While the haker na of Yosef’s cloak is juxtaposed with the story of Yehuda, it also connects us to a much earlier story in Yaakov’s own life. Not only did Yaakov’s children deceive him, but Yaakov himself deceived his father as well. Yaakov was able to pull off that deception by tricking his father to misidentify him. “And he did not recognize him – vi’lo hikiro – because his hands were like Esav, his brother, hairy, and he blessed him” (27:23). And how did he impersonate Esav; how were his hands hairy? Because he wore Esav’s garments, and because he had placed on his hands the skin of a kid goat. Just as he tricked his father with a brother’s garment and with a kid goat, his sons tricked him with their brother’s garment and with the blood of a kid goat. He deceived through a wrong identification, and he was in turn deceived by a correct identification with a wrong conclusion.
In the end, deception is deception. Whether the whole thing is a lie or a surface truth hiding a deeper lie, it is all the same. The first lesson is to those would-be deceivers: that “technically telling the truth” is not a defense for lying and deception. The second lesson is to those deceived. It is a lesson about how we must not be misled by surface appearances, how we must strive to go beyond the surface hakarah of Yaakov to achieve the true hakarah of Yehudah. What led Yaakov to be misled? Not his senses, but himself. His fears, his imagination, and his unwillingness to confront and challenge his children. What allowed Yehudah to not only recognize, but also to acknowledge, to own up? The strength of his own character. Yehudah refused to fool himself. He had the courage to see the situation for what it was – what the signet, cloak, and staff signified, and where his responsibility lay.
To see correctly and to acknowledge, li’hakir, is actually commanded in one place in the Torah. At the beginning of parshat Ki Teize, we read:
If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and they both bear him sons – the loved and the unloved – and the firstborn son is the son of the unloved. It shall be, when he bequeaths his property to his sons, he may not make the son of the loved one the firstborn… Rather, the firstborn, the son of the unloved one, he shall acknowledge, yakir,to give him the double portion, for he is the first of his vigor, to him is the birthright due. (Devarim 21:15-17)
Here, a person is commanded to identify and to acknowledge. Do not pretend that the second born is the firstborn. Do not fool others, and do not fool yourself. Rather, you must see things as they actually are, even if you do not like them. You must see, you must acknowledge, who the firstborn truly is.
Now, who is the man who had two wives, one loved and one unloved, and whose firstborn was born to the unloved wife? Of course, it is none other than Yaakov (a point already mentioned in the midrash, Tanchuma, VaYetze). Did Yaakov follow this commandment? On the one hand, he gave Yosef “two portions”, designating Yosef’s two sons as equal heirs with the other brothers. On the other hand, he did exactly what the Torah commands. He did recognize Reuven as the firstborn, as the first of his strength: “Reuven, you are my first born, my strength, and the first of my vigor…” (49:3).
Yaakov here was not going to fool himself. Although it would have been easy to convince himself that Rachel was his true wife and Yosef his true firstborn, he refused to do so. He had the courage to face the situation, to acknowledge, and then to deal with the consequences. It certainly is easier to say, “The other son is the true firstborn,” than “It is true you are the firstborn, but I am still not going to give you a double portion, and here’s why.” But we are required to do the latter, no matter how difficult.
Acknowledging a difficult situation does not necessarily mean giving up on one’s interests. For even after recognizing Reuven as the first born, he still found a way to give Yosef a double portion. It seems he was even able to do this legally, for – as the Talmud understands this law – one is allowed to redistribute his estate, as long as it is not done through misidentifying the heirs or the firstborn.
We often allow ourselves to be fooled. It is hard to do a true hakarah, to look at things as they actually are. It is easier to live in our own imagined reality. But we must have the strength to be makir, to see the facts for what they are, and then to act accordingly. We must take responsibility and suffer the consequences when that is what is called for. And if we are avoiding confrontation with a particular situation or person, we must go out of our way to confront it, confront that person that we are avoiding, that we are lying to ourselves about – a child, a co-worker, a friend, a parent – and to have that difficult, honest conversation. For when we leave our fantasy world and confront the truth, not only will the situation improve, but we will embrace the ultimate truth, being true to ourselves.