"And Yosef Wept as They Spoke With Him"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




"And Yosef Wept as They Spoke with Him"

Adapated by Dov Karoll with Avi Shmidman

This week we conclude Sefer Bereshit. Bereishit contains much of the narrative portion of the Torah, and it is appropriate at this point to reflect on the nature of narrative and the way we view it. There is much to be learned from the way the Torah presents narratives. Often, there is also much that the Torah does not spell out for us explicitly.

We know nothing of Avraham's early years from the Torah itself. For instance, Rambam and Ra'avad (Hil. Avodat Kokhavim 1:3) dispute whether Avraham was forty or three years old when he came to recognize God. The difference between these approaches is major: was Avraham a thinking, reflective adult coming to a contemplative realization, or was he an intuitive child?

We know very little about the "human" aspect of the lives of the patriarchs and the matriarchs, especially the latter, gleaning our information from limited explanations. Chazal and later commentators fill in much of this information for us, but the Torah often omits these details. There is much to be gleaned based on what the Torah tells us. There is also much to be gleaned from that which the Torah does not tell us.

A primary example of a gap within the narrative is at the end of Vayechi, when the brothers approach Yosef upon Yaakov's death (Bereishit 50:15-17). They present a request from Yaakov that Yosef forgive their sin. The request seems to be a total fabrication. They believe the lie is morally justified (in opposition to a Kantian approach). But what is Yosef's response? All the Torah tells us is, "Yosef cried when they spoke with him." What was Yosef thinking, what was he feeling? What was his answer to the brothers? In order to understand what is happening here, we will review a number of episodes of weeping from Yosef's past.

In the stories of Yosef at the end of the sefer, there is an interesting phenomenon that can be observed by examining the description of crying at different points in the story. We will start with first encounter between Yosef and his brothers in Egypt. When the brothers express their guilt regarding Yosef, he turns away and cries (42:21-24). Rashi explains that he cried because they were expressing guilt over his sale.

This cry is predicated on the break between Yosef and his brothers and the great distance between them. The intensity of this cry is apparently not too great. He just needs to turn away, he cries, and then he returns immediately to give orders. Yosef decides to play the role of the tough ruler. He is concerned with his display of royal pride, and thus he cannot let them see him cry. However, given the mildness of this sob, that does not seem to be much of a problem in this case.

The next time Yosef weeps is when he sees Binyamin, as he is overcome by compassion for his brother (43:30-31). This seems to be a more intense weeping, as he needs to leave the room, and then to wash his face. The Torah tells us that after this episode he held back his strong emotions before returning to the public area.

What has changed? At this point, Yosef is overcome by the detachment that has developed between himself and his brother Binyamin (see Rashi 49:30 s.v. ki). Their separation for all this time has led to a cavernous divide between them. This time he needs to leave the room, wash his face, and then hold back further response. The Torah tells us that he left the room so no one would hear; apparently, Yosef's cry was such that it could not be heard from the adjacent room. Yosef the ruler puts on his royal face and asserts his position of power.

The next time Yosef wails is when this emotional facade wears out. After Yehuda's emotional plea, the Torah relates that Yosef could no longer hold back (45:1), and he called on all his servants to leave. Before he reveals his identity to his brothers, he starts to cry, this time by raising his voice, such that "Pharaoh's house heard, as did Egypt." Presumably this cry was not actually heard throughout all of Egypt, but the implication of this terminology is clear. At this point, Yosef wails with tremendous intensity.

What is the message of this weeping? This is not a cry of estrangement. It is a cry of bridging, of an attempt to reconnect and reconcile. Yosef recognizes the gap that has developed between himself and his brothers, and he strives to close this gap. He is not merely expressing a desire to move beyond the past, but is issuing a request to his brothers. His cry strives to enable his brothers to relate to him, to make him approachable. He yearns for reconnection with them, and his breakdown in tears is a powerful means for expressing this yearning.

In the next case, the reunification of Yosef and Yaakov (46:29), the verb reference is ambiguous and commentators dispute whether Yosef is indeed the one crying. According to Rashi, Yosef cries while Yaakov reads the Shema. According to Ramban, Yaakov is the one who cries at this meeting. Ramban's asks rhetorically who will be more likely to cry: the elderly father finding his son alive after despair and mourning, or the ruling youth? According to the Ramban, Yosef stands firm in his grandeur, while he allows his elderly father to cry on his shoulder. Yosef the ruler maintains his composure, while opposite him is Yaakov, the elderly, broken father finally reunited with his son. Yosef still has not totally removed his mask.

The next time the Torah tells us of Yosef crying is at Yaakov's death (50:1). We will return later to the significance of this instance of weeping.

The final time Yosef cries is when the brothers ask him, in Yaakov's name, to forgive them (50:17). Rashi, based on Chazal, points out that Yaakov issued no such command, and that seems implicit in the Torah itself, especially in 50:15. It is entirely possible that Yosef also recognized this, as Yaakov had plenty of opportunity to pass along messages to him directly, without relaying them through the brothers.

In response to this claim, Yosef, who has until now been so eloquent, has nothing to say in response. We don't know whether he accepted their request. All he does is weep. What is the nature of this crying?

Yaakov and his sons have lived with Yosef in Egypt for seventeen years. All this time, Yosef has tried to care for his father and his brothers, rebuilding and reinstating a positive relationship with the family. He has brought them to Goshen and given them "from the best of the land." He has exhibited his willingness to move on, his desire for reconciliation, over such a long time.

By making this statement, the brothers show that Yosef has failed in his efforts. They apparently interpreted his kindness along the lines of Esav's approach, as described immediately after the incident of the blessings. After all, even Esav planned to wait until after Yitzchak's death to take revenge against Yaakov (27:41). Yosef realizes that his brothers suspect that he somehow belongs in the same category as Esav, and will act against them now that Yaakov has passed away. His whole reconciliation effort has collapsed.

Beyond that, Yosef realizes the price he has paid for his position. Yosef was inspired and impelled by his dreams, in which he was the leader and the focal point. But now he realizes that he is really dependent on the rest of the family. His achievements as leader can in no way compensate for his broken relationship with his brothers. He recognizes the futility of leadership. Real power lies in being connected to the rest of the family. Real accomplishment comes "neither through power nor through might" (based on Zekharya 4:6), but rather through basic human sensitivity.

Let us return to Yosef's crying at Yaakov's death (Bereishit 50:1). At this point, Yosef reflects upon his life ithe house of Yaakov. He thinks about the way he received special treatment, about his coat of many colors, about the life of separation. In the end, this was not the way to live life, as this only created the estrangement which he so regrets now.

This recognition of dependence is reflected in the closing verses of the sefer. Yosef turns to the brothers, recognizing that they, collectively, will be the ones leaving Egypt, and asks them to takes his bones back with them. Can one imagine the "youthful ruler," to borrow the term of the Ramban cited above, asking his brothers to take his bones back to the land of Canaan with them? Yosef has come to the realization that, ultimately, he is dependent on his family and not the reverse.

[Originally delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Vayechi 5762 (2001).]


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