Delivered at Shabbat morning services at AKSE, January 3, 2004 by Irene G. Plotzker [reconstructed from notes]
In this week’s portion, Joseph reveals his identity, assures his brothers he forgives them, and the whole family is reunited in Egypt, where they live happily ever after…
Not really. This portion is full of unsettling undercurrents. First, we know that “going down to Egypt” will eventually mean enslavement, so that is in the back of our minds throughout.
And how genuine is that family reconciliation, really? The brothers never liked Joseph, even as a boy. They still feel guilty about how they treated him. They almost certainly never told Jacob what really happened and probably never even discussed it among themselves. Maybe, for all these years, it’s been like the elephant in the center of the room everyone tries in vain to ignore. So one would expect their reaction to Joseph’s revelation to be quite mixed.
What about Joseph? Yes, he certainly acts happy and forgiving. But he also seems to have become quite comfortable living as an Egyptian. He seems to have chosen to keep himself cut off from his family. Consider, for example, when he names his firstborn Menasheh, saying, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home” (Gen. 41:51).
And why didn’t Joseph ever send word to his father in Canaan that he was alive and well? He’s been out of prison for nine years. That question has troubled several commentators, who have come up with various ideas (Uriel Simon, “Joseph Heals the Breach in His Father’s House,” at http://www.netivot-shalom.org.il/parshaeng/vayigash2.php), a few of which I will note here. R. Yehuda Hehasid felt that Joseph realized that, if he sent word to his father, Jacob would realize that the brothers played a role in Joseph’s disappearance, and it would destroy the family. Ramban was amazed that Joseph did not send word to Jacob, noting how much pain Jacob felt and Hebron’s nearness to Egypt. He concluded that Joseph believed the future as laid out in his dreams needed to play itself out, and this (specifically, the family bowing down to him) could only happen in Egypt. Similarly, but going a step further, the opinion of R. Isaac Abarbanel was that Joseph saw it was necessary for the events in God’s plan to play themselves out, that the brothers needed time to change and to prove they had changed, and this justified Jacob’s continuing pain.
Then, when they do come down, Joseph treats his brothers like country bumpkins, coaching them on what to say to Pharoah (to not avail – they ignore him). And Jacob didn’t even want to go down to Egypt and went only because he wanted to see Joseph one last time and because God assured him that it was the right thing to do.
To gain more insight into the dynamics of this situation, I’d like to focus on one element: tears. Who cries, when, and why.
To be able to weep indicates you can both feel and express deep emotions. Esau weeps when he’s tricked out of his blessing. Jacob weeps with joy when he meets Rachel.
In our story, Joseph weeps several times. Notice that he does not weep when he is thrown into the pit, when he is sold as a slave, when he is thrown into prison, or when he’s forgotten there. He tends to weep at times of emotion-laden insight.
For example, he first cries when he first sees his brothers in Egypt (Gen. 42:24) and hears them expressing regret for their actions toward him 22 years earlier. He’s overwhelmed, not at seeing them, but at hearing that they might actually have repented.
Next, he cries when he reveals his identity (Gen. 45:1-2) and when he kisses each of them. But only Benjamin, his only full brother, cries as well. The other brothers do not. They are emotionally stuck and cannot fully accept Joseph’s assurances that he has indeed forgiven them and that what they did was part of God’s plan. And so, they cannot weep.
When Joseph meets Jacob, the Hebrew is not clear as to which one of them weeps. (what follows is based on Binyamin Salant, “Yosef’s Libels, Emotions and Passions” at http://www.netivot-shalom.org.il/parshaeng/vayigash5762.php.) To Ramban, it is clear: “It is well known who is crying – the aged father who discovers, after years of despair and mourning, that his son is alive.” He then goes on to buttress his argument by analyzing the literary structure of the text and comparing it to similar examples in the Bible. Rashi, on the other hand, agrees with a midrash that Joseph wept and Jacob did not, because he was reciting the Shema. I agree with the commentary of R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who wrote, “Yosef wept. Yaacov did not weep. Yosef could still weep. Yaakov was finished with weeping, because he had wept enough in his life…Since he had missed Yosef, Yaakov had not ceased from weeping, his whole life of feelings had been spent in grief over Yosef…Yosef…had had no time to give himself up so much to the pain of separation…Now when he fell round his father’s neck again, he felt all the more what the separation had really meant to him, and lived once again through the past twenty years. Yaakov had already become Israel. Yosef still wept.”
When Jacob dies (we’ll read about that next week) and the brothers fear Joseph’s benevolence will end, Joseph weeps again, frustrated and saddened at their lack of faith, even after 17 years of his caring for them. He realizes that, while he has been able to forgive them, they still have not been able to forgive themselves. They still cannot weep.
I’d like to conclude with some excerpts from an advice column on the topic of reconciliations that I found on the web, “Dear Avigal,” written by Mindy Davids and Jeffrey Marx (http://www.uahc.org/torah/issue/971228.shtml).
Five years ago, my partner and I disbanded our business. We had worked side by side for a decade. Our families even vacationed together. Then, in a dispute over bonuses, one word led to another, and we split up. After five years of not seeing him, not speaking to him, I felt bad. Then I remembered the story of Joseph and his brothers. Despite being sold into slavery by his siblings, Joseph forgave them completely…I decided that if Joseph could do it, I could too!
I called my former partner. We had dinner together, we shmoozed about the past, we talked honestly about our falling out. Since then, we talk on the phone at least once a month. But I just learned that his daughter is being married in a month’s time, and he didn’t even invite me!
So much for making peace!
Hurt and Confused.
Dear Hurt and Confused:
The bum! What ingratitude, after you went out of your way to make peace! My advice is to find yourself a better friend.
Did you ever stop to consider that not all reconciliations have fairy-tale endings? It’s true that my brother Joseph hugged and kissed us in the throne room and brought us down to Egypt, but did you ever consider where we ended up living? While we were stuck with the sheep in Goshen, my brother continued living in the palace! (Gen. 47:11) We had to send word to him when our father was on his deathbed, that’s how seldom he came to visit. (Gen. 48:1)
Believe me, after our father died, my brothers and I feared that now Joseph was going to exact his revenge. That’s why we concocted the story that on his deathbed, Jacob had asked Joseph to forgive us. (Gen. 50:15-17) We weren’t close to Joseph when we sold him, why should a few tears and a hug-especially after so many years had passed-suddenly make us one happy family? Tell Hurt and Confused to grow up!
Reuben, son of Jacob
Reconciliation is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Believe me, I know. I did a terrible thing to my brother many years ago involving our father’s inheritance. We didn’t see each other for years. I couldn’t sleep, I kept wrestling with my conscience. Finally, I sent him a note and we arranged to meet. When we saw each other, he fell on my neck and we wept like babies. He invited me to his home to spend time with his wife and kids. I accepted, but at the last minute I decided not to go. (Gen. 33:12-17) What more could I say to him? We were never close growing up; our values were completely different. Tell Hurt and Confused not to get his hopes up too high!
Jacob, son of Isaac
I can’t believe your readers’ responses to Hurt and Confused! Theirs is a most depressing way of looking at the world and our role in making it a better place. How am I ever going to announce the coming of the messianic age with such attitudes?! … We must believe that we can make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others by embracing darchei shalom, the paths of peace.
Reconciliations are inherently difficult because someone has been hurt. But it is incumbent upon us to try anyway, and to travel those paths of peace.