Chasing Penguins and Starbucks Lovers (Shabbat Mikkeitz)

Written by Student Rabbi Eleanor Davis — 19 December 2023

The old classic used to be Jimi Hendrix apparently singing, “Excuse me while I kiss this guy,” but many more modern lyrics have also been misheard.  Toto’s song Africa is thought by some to contain the line “There’s nothing a hundred men on Mars could ever do,” and others think that Bruno Mars sang, “Is it the look in your eyes, or is it these dancing Jews?”; while if Adele had really sung “Should I give up, or should I just keep chasing penguins?”  the song might have had quite a different tone.  Perhaps my favourite of recent times, though, is from Taylor Swift’s song Blank Space, where it’s really easy to hear her sing, “All the lonely Starbucks lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane…”

Crazy as these may sound once you know the real lyrics – and bearing in mind that the real lyrics are often even stranger – they’re usually the result of our brains trying to make sense of what we’ve heard, drawing on our knowledge of what is possible to fill in any gaps.  Strangeness can result, though, when our personal parameters don’t quite match the situation.  A recent Instagram post contained a picture of a simple wooden shelter outside an official building, with a caption that reflected the Jewish poster’s confusion over why her Catholic university was putting up a sukkah in December: no, it wasn’t a reflection of Chanukah’s historical origins as a delayed celebration of Sukkot – only moments later she realised that this was the shed that would soon house a Christmas nativity scene.

Our expectations can have an amazingly strong influence over what we see or hear, regardless of what is in front of us.  This is pretty clear in Parashat Mikkeitz, our Torah reading today, where we read about Joseph interacting with his brothers (Jacob’s eleven other sons) without them recognising him.  It isn’t just a passing interaction: this is the second time that the brothers have come as a group to seek food during the famine.  Both times, they have come close enough to have conversations with him, yet nowhere does Torah record one of them saying, “don’t you think this guy looks familiar?” or “do I know you from somewhere?”

Our rabbis have ways of explaining this, with a special focus on beards.  The best-known suggestion is that the first ten brothers already had facial hair, but the seventeen year-old Joseph was still smooth-skinned when he was sold into slavery – so he recognised them, but they didn’t recognise him (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 88a).  When the thirteenth-century rabbi known as Nachmanides quotes this ancient suggestion, he follows it with his own explanation, which he thinks better explains why the brothers didn’t recognise Joseph.  He recognised them, says Nachmanides, because he knew (of the famine in Canaan and so he knew) that they would come to Egypt for food; but for the brothers, it didn’t enter their minds that the slave they had sold to the Ishmaelites so many years ago could now be the ruler of the land.  This can happen for us too, when you meet someone in one place who you know from another: because that person is not in the expected place, it can take a while to connect the dots – and even when we recognise a face, recalling names is another level of challenge.

The ancient Rabbis considered the matter of facial recognition within a discussion of a surprising question: what is the earliest time to recite the morning Shema? (Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 1:2; see also Babylonian Talmud Berachot 9b).  One of the main answers, endorsed by Rav Hisda, defines the time as when it is light enough to recognise a person from 4 amot (around 6 feet) away.  They clarify: not a family member, who you might recognise even from a great distance, and not a stranger who it’s impossible to recognise even very close up; but someone you know reasonably well – when you can recognise them, it’s morning enough to pray.  That is, our Rabbis think the ability to recognise a person matters enough to be a criterion for reciting one of our most important prayers.

Rav Soloveitchik, one of the great 20th Century American rabbis, elevates it still further.  Soloveitchik says: “To recognise a person is not just to identify [them] physically.  It is more than that: it is an act of identifying [them] existentially, as a person who has a job to do, that only [they] can do properly.  To recognise a person is to affirm that [they are] irreplaceable” (The Community, p.16).  To Soloveitchik, simply recognising a person might be enough to show them that they matter, that they are not simply disposable.  Recognising someone takes effort, even for those of us without official face blindness: you need enough light to see by and enough alertness to pay attention to what you see – what you really see, not just what you expect to see – as well as a functional memory.

As I know all too well, remembering the names of everyone you meet is not always possible, especially in a community the size of Alyth; yet the attempt not to sleepwalk or let our preconceptions blind us to who or what is truly in front of us is something we can all attempt.  Mistaking a nativity stable for a sukkah is perhaps indicative of expectations strongly shaped by being Jewish in a Christian-influenced society; mishearing lyrics may reveal something about our state of mind or preoccupations, but mainly it’s just fun.  Failing to recognise people is a little more serious, although I hope that we all have the capacity for patience with those who try, but fail.  The question for each of us might be: what does it take to make us really look and listen?  Perhaps we can learn from Joseph’s brothers that better things happen when we don’t wait for dramatic circumstances to force our recognition: may we all open our eyes and pay attention to who is really in front of us, even if they’re not the person we expected to see.