Indecent Exposure

“For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Recalling the dreams that he had dreamed about them, Joseph said to them, ‘You are spies. You have come to see the land in its nakedness.'”
–Genesis 42:8-9

Yesterday I was sitting in the Beit Midrash editing a biography of a jazz musician when I overheard some students in the afternoon Tanach class puzzling over the phrase “ervat ha’aretz.” What does it mean for the land to have nakedness? The term “ervah” is generally used in connection to human beings. The phrase recurs most often in the holiness code in Leviticus 18, where we are given a whole list of those whose nakedness [ervah] we are forbidden to expose. According to BDB, ervah refers to a form of indecent exposure, particularly of women’s bodies.

In thinking about Yosef’s use of the term, I may have come to a deeper understanding of its meaning. Ervah, I would say, is any sort of intrusive knowledge of another’s interiority. Ervah may be uncovered not just by removing a person’s garments, but also by entering into another’s home, catching him/her unawares, or even attempting to read his/her mind. To be m’galeh ervah is to walk off with knowledge about someone that this person did not necessarily want to share. An example: There are times when I do not want to invite someone into my home even for just a few moments — not because I have anything against them, but because I do not want them to be able to walk off with the knowledge of what is in my home. I do not want my space to be part of their imaginative lives. I wish for this knowledge to remain somewhat exclusive; I do not want to bare the inside of my apartment in much the same way as I would not want to wear a bathing suit in public.

With time and with the trust that often builds with time, I am prepared to reveal more of my interiority to another person. I may share a secret dream, or relate an embarrassing story, or confess a silly mistake I once made. The growing trust is not just in the other person, but also in the longevity of the relationship. If I believe that a person will be there for a long time–not to mention forever–I am comfortable revealing more, because I have less of a fear that this person will “walk off” with my ervah. There are things I would not say to someone unless I thought he was going to be there for ever ever ever. There are things that it would destroy me to share with more than one person in a single lifetime. There are things that, once shared, forge a connection so deep that it can only be severed with tremendous pain. And then there is the pain itself.

Yosef uses the term “ervat ha’aretz,” but I think it is really his own ervah that he does not want to reveal to his brothers. After all, at this point, Yosef is so important in Egypt that he is virtually synonymous with the land itself. After saving the nation from famine, Yosef IS Egypt. For the brothers to reveal the nakedness of the land, then, would be for them to see Yosef’s interiority. It would mean that the brothers would be entering Yosef’s new home, the home he made for himself after he was so cruelly cut off from the home he once knew. Yosef does not want to grant them this knowledge. He is not ready to bare himself quite yet. And thus we are told that “when Yosef saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them.” He is not prepared to reveal his ervah to the brothers who dipped his cloak in blood.

Just before Yosef accuses his brothers of coming to see the nakedness of the land, he remembers the dreams that he dreamed about them (see verse 9 above). As a child, Yosef would taunt his brothers by telling them that they appeared in his dreams, always in subservient roles. His brothers, of course, were powerless to defend themselves against his claims. After all, what could they say in protest? “No, we were not in your dreams?” “No, we did not bow down to you like sheaves of wheat?” They could not contradict the world of Yosef’s dreams, which was perhaps why they grew so frustratingly resentful of him.

In thinking about the connection between dreams and ervah, I am reminded of a story that my mother shared with me about ten years ago. Shortly after my maternal grandmother died, a member of my father’s synagogue began claiming that my grandmother was figuring in her dreams. Each Shabbat in shul, she would relate to my mother another dream she had dreamt about my grandmother. I remember that my mother felt incredibly resentful of this woman’s claims to have a special connection to her own dearly-missed mother. This congregant, in claiming to know more about my grandmother than her own daugher, was intruding into a landscape where she was most unwanted. And my mother was as powerless to counter her claims as were Yosef’s older brothers who had to listen to his reports of his vainglorious dreams.

Philosophers of mind use the term “privileged access” to refer to our ability to know only our own thoughts. We always know what we are thinking with absolute certainty, but we can never know with any certainty what is going on in another person’s head. There is a reason that we are designed in this way. It creates the potential for the greatest intimacy — an intimacy that is given freely and voluntarily in the context of a loving and trusting relationship. But it also allows for a very dangerous and hurtful form of “gilui arayot,” which we would all do well to guard ourselves against.

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