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01.01.2015 14:02    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  parashah  miketz  bar ilan  yael tzohar  

In the stories of Joseph and his brothers, hard feelings and extreme sentiments are described on the part of Joseph's brothers, who arrive in Egypt and find themselves meeting with a high-ranking Egyptian official who accosts them with accusations so grave as to pose a threat to their lives.  They are filled with a feeling of guilt, anxiety and tension that does not let up until the end of the book of Genesis.

Facing them is their brother Joseph, who also undergoes a deep experience of encounter with himself and with his family.  One of the motifs found throughout all these encounters is weeping.  Joseph weeps time and again and, interestingly, most of the times are not out of sadness.  In this brief article we shall trace Joseph's weeping and try to identify what it contributes to our understanding of the story.

His first tears (Gen. 42:24).  Because of Joseph's disguise, his brothers did not think for a moment that the man receiving them understood their language; after all, there was an interpreter standing between them.  Therefore they took the liberty of talking among themselves.  Realizing that they are up against a person who was not the least bit willing to listen to what they had to say, they recalled a similar situation in which they had not listened to their miserable brother:  "Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us.  That is why this distress has come upon us."  In response, Reuben blamed them for not listening to him, as well, when he had sought to protect his brother:  "Now comes the reckoning for his blood."  At this moment Joseph came close to losing his ability to contain himself:  "He turned away from them and wept.  But he came back to them and spoke to them."  He ran out of the room and cried on the side.

His second tears (Gen. 43:30).  Joseph's brothers arrived at Joseph's home with Benjamin, and waited for him there.  When he arrives, he treated them pleasantly and gazed at his brother Benjamin, his mother's son, with whom his relationship was free of any residue:

"Is this your youngest brother of whom you spoke to me?"  And he went on, "May G‑d be gracious to you, my boy."  With that, Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there.  Then he washed his face, reappeared, now in control of himself…

The detail here is astounding:  Joseph almost collapses completely, but at the last minute he takes refuge in another room and cries there.  The act of washing his face makes his tear-flooded face almost tangible.

The third tears (Gen. 45:1-2).  This was the biggest outburst of all, Scripture telling us explicitly, "Joseph could no more control himself before all those around him…and he gave his voice over to crying so that the Egyptians could hear and so the news reached Pharaoh's palace."  Joseph let his feeling burst forth without limit, giving the impression that his crying became a scream heard throughout the city.  The expression, "gave his voice over to crying," is stronger than his previous weeping, which he contained, as if all the crying now joined together, letting it be heard aloud.[1]

His fourth tears (Gen. 45:14-15).  After expressing all that he had kept stored in his heart for so many years, Joseph went up to his brother Benjamin:  "With that he embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck."  Afterwards, he approached all his brothers:  "He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them."  This weeping was accompanied by kisses of love and closeness shown by Joseph towards his brothers.[2]

His fifth tears (Gen. 46:29):  "Joseph ordered his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel; he presented himself to him and, embracing him around the neck, he wept on his neck more."  In this reference to weeping, commentators differ as to the identity of the one weeping.  Was it Joseph, or was it the elderly father Jacob?  According to our analysis, the great weeper is Joseph who, upon seeing his father whom he had missed so much, broke out in tears.  The word "more" ties this weeping to all the weeping that preceded it.[3]

His sixth tears (Gen. 50:1):  This is the only weeping in our story that expresses mourning and sorrow over the death of a beloved relative.  After we are told that Jacob breathed his last and was gathered to his people, "Joseph flung himself upon his father's face and wept over him and kissed him."

The seventh and last weeping (Gen. 50:17):  After Jacob's burial, the brothers came up to Joseph and asked for his forgiveness in the name of their father.  They referred to their actions with such words as "offense" and "guilt," and even prostrated themselves at his feet, saying, "We are prepared to be your slaves."  It was at that moment that "Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him."  Joseph calmed his brothers, reassuring them:  "'Besides, although you intended me harm, G‑d intended it for good,'…Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them."  The scene is surrealistic:  they committed a crime against him, and he takes responsibility for their emotional state, attempting to assure and comfort them.

What mean all these tears?  Why so much detail, contrary to the Bible's more usual terse style?

As we said, aside from his weeping over the dead body of his father Jacob, the weeping here is not one of sorrow, rather an expression of excitement and emotional closeness.  Let me propose two keys to understanding the matter.  First is the message the Torah emphasizes:  Joseph does not abuse his brothers or torment them in revenge for what they did to him twenty-two years earlier.  Quite the contrary; he is full of love and devotion.  His objective, as Nehamah Leibowitz explains,[4] is to test them by putting them in a similar situation.  Joseph's attempts to retain composure in the face of his brothers, and the contexts in which the moments of weeping occur prove that his actions stemmed from a pure and sensitive heart, not from sentiments of wrath and revenge.

Lastly, it must be said that weeping is the song of the soul.  It expresses that which is beyond words.  That which cannot be expressed by words, which limit, finds expression in the meritorious tears of Joseph, the righteous man who wept.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

[1] Rashbam's commentary:  "Joseph could no more control himself any longer.  For until now he had been doing everything by restraining himself in his heart, as it says above, 'in control of himself, he gave the order, "Serve the meal"' (Gen. 43:31).  Before all those around him, before all those who were present; and he could no longer retain his composure, so he called to his servants to remove all those around him from the house.  Thus is the main thrust of the plain sense.

[2] Rashi comments on the brothers' reaction:  Afterwards—having seen him crying and his heart at one with them, his brothers now spoke with him, for at first they had felt abashed before him."  Rashi interprets this crying of Josephs as expressing his feeling at one in his heart towards his beloved brothers.  Radak:  "Since he kissed them and wept over them, they knew that he felt kindly towards them, and asked him about what had happened to him from the day he parted from them, and how he had risen to greatness."  Radak, who follows Rashi in his understanding of Joseph's feelings, goes on to interpret the next words:  "Afterwards, his brothers talked with him."  Radak supposes that the brothers asked Joseph to share with them all that had happened to him over the years.

[3] Cf. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on this verse.

[4] See Prof. Nehamah Leibowitz on the brothers' process of repentance:  Studies in Genesis [Hebrew], p. 329-333.


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