The Revival of Father Ya'akov's Spirit

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion




The Revival of Father Ya'akov's Spirit


By Rav Michael Hattin





            With the reading of Parashat Vayigash, the drawn-out drama of the Yosef saga comes to its climactic and shattering close.  Yehuda, who earlier in the narrative had cravenly convinced the heartless brothers to sell hated Yosef to the Yishma'elites (Bereishit 37:26-27), now steps boldly forward to plead on behalf of beloved Binyamin.  Forcefully offering himself as a slave in his younger half-brother's stead, Yehuda relates that he could not bear to see his aged father's grief should Binyamin not return safely home to Ya'akov's embrace.  Finally, in a cathartic fit of tears, Yosef now reveals himself to his stunned brothers:


Yosef was not able to hold back (his tears) from all those that stood by, so he cried out: "remove all of them from my presence!," so that there were no others in attendance when Yosef revealed himself to his brothers.  He raised his voice and cried, so that the Egyptians and Pharaoh's courtiers all heard.  Yosef said to his brothers: "I am Yosef, is my father still alive?!," but his brothers could not respond to him because they were astounded before him…(Bereishit 45:1-3).


In an instant, the trajectory of the drama is transformed.  The oppressive weight of humiliation, shame and guilt that had hung over the chastened brothers like a black and ominous cloud, is suddenly lifted off by Yosef's revelation.  And Yosef, who had unnervingly played the part of heartless tyrant in order to bring the brothers to sincere remorse for their crime, so that he might ascertain their love for Binyamin as well as their reverence for their broken father, is himself finally freed from the painful pretense.  Immediately, the terrible uncertainty that had plagued the brothers since their first descent to Egypt, and their unexpected row with the all-knowing Viceroy, is dissipated, to be replaced with indescribable and unmitigated exhilaration.




            The rest of the parasha now quickly unfolds without mishap.  After Yosef has secured incredulous Pharaoh's approval, the brothers are sent back with ample provisions so that they might make the journey down to Egypt with aged Ya'akov.  In the fabled Two Lands they will live out the remaining years of famine under the protective sponsorship of the Viceroy himself.  Eagerly, their excitement palpable, they return to their old father with the incredible news but he can scarcely believe it himself:


They ascended from Egypt, and they returned to the land of Canaan to Ya'akov their father. They said to him: "Yosef is yet alive, and he rules over the whole land of Egypt!," but his heart vacillated, for he could not believe them.  They then related to him all of the words of Yosef that that he had spoken to them, and he (Ya'akov) saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to bear him, and Ya'akov's spirit was revived.  Yisrael said: "It is enough! Yosef my son is still alive, I must go and see him before I die!"…(45:25-28).


As the above verses indicate, Ya'akov initially reacts to the brothers' report that Yosef is still alive with utter disbelief.  Only after the brothers continue to relay all of the things that Yosef had spoken to them, AND Ya'akov sees for himself the royal carts that Yosef has sent in order to convey him down to Egypt, does the aged patriarch allow his crushed spirit to be revived.  The matter of Ya'akov's skepticism, described in the text as "his heart vacillated," was the subject of much discussion among the commentaries.  The unusual phrase in the original Hebrew is "vayaFoG libo," and while the second word in the expression is clearly a noun with an appended possessive pronoun that together means "his heart," the first word that is a verb is more difficult to translate. 




            The root of the word "vayafog" is "F-O-G," and Rashi, basing himself upon the few extant Biblical usages of the term as well its application in Rabbinic Hebrew, understands the term to mean something like "his heart left him."  As Rashi explains:


Vayafog libo – his heart was changed so that he could not believe.  That is to say that his heart could not take notice of the things (that Yosef's brothers had spoken).  The usage is similar to that which is stated in the Talmud Tractate Beitza 14a (concerning the permissibility of grinding spices on Yom Tov in the usual fashion) that spices lose their flavor ("mefigin ta'aman") if ground ahead of time.  It is also similar to the verse in Eikha 3:49 that "my eye(s) shall flow (tears) and not cease, without respite ("hafugot").  Also, note the Aramaic translation of the verse in Yirmiyahu 48:11: "Moav is complacent from its youth and settled upon its lees; it has not been poured from one vessel to another nor gone into exile.  Therefore, its fine flavor abides and its bouquet has not dissipated."  Concerning this undissipated bouquet, the Aramaic translation renders "lo fug" (commentary to 45:26).


As can be seen, Rashi marshals quite an impressive array of Biblical and Rabbinic material to explain this otherwise obscure expression.  In every example, the root F-O-G is used in the sense of dissipation or cessation.  Spices lose their flavor, which is to say that if they are prepared too far ahead of time, then their flavor dissipates by the time the food is served.  One who is in a profound state of mourning cries constantly, and the tears do not cease.  As for the Aramaic usage from Sefer Yirmiyahu, it is analogous to the Talmudic usage in Tractate Beitza.  Transposing the meaning to our context therefore yields something like: "Ya'akov's heart ceased to believe their report," and is an emphatic statement about how incredible the news seemed to him.  So many irretrievable years had been spent mourning over the death of his beloved son that when he was suddenly informed that in fact Yosef was still alive, he could not allow himself to believe the news. 


            Only after the brothers had gone on to relate Yosef's complete communication – his admission that he was in fact their brother (45:4), his prophecy concerning the remaining five years of famine (45:6), his recognition that Divine providence had guided the events (45:8), and his impassioned invitation for his father and the entire clan to descend to Egypt posthaste so that he might sustain them with Pharaoh's largesse (45:9-11) – and only after Ya'akov had seen for himself the generous royal provisions and the special imperial wagons that stood hitched and waiting outside of his modest homestead, did he allow his heart to believe the news.




            The Ramban, a physician by profession and as keen a student of the text as Rashi himself, disagrees with his illustrious predecessor's derivation and instead understands the expression in decidedly physiological terms: 


…Rashi's derivation is incorrect, for the matter of "fuga" is cessation and cancellation…Here too, the expression means that his heart stopped beating and his breathing ceased.  The action of his heart stopped and it was as if he was dead.  This phenomenon is well documented in situations where sudden and unexpected joy occurs.  The medical literature relates that the old and the weak cannot bear unexpected joyous news, for many of them faint away under such circumstances.  Their hearts are suddenly expanded and opened and the body's natural heat is transferred to the extremities, leaving the heart with insufficient warmth.  The old man (Ya'akov) fell down as if dead. 


            The text goes on to relate that "he did not believe them" to suggest that much of that day he remained prostrate and motionless, for he could not accept the news.  It is known concerning this kind of fainting away that the joyous tidings must be forcefully but incrementally communicated to the recipient until they are able to accept it in a relaxed fashion, and this is what is implied by the verse that "they then related to him all of the words of Yosef that that he had spoken to them, and he (Ya'akov) saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to bear him" for they cried out Yosef's words in his ears and brought the wagons before him, and only then did his spirit return to him and his breathing resume its normal pattern, so that he was revived.  Thus the account concludes with the statement that "Ya'akov's spirit was revived" (commentary to 45:26).




            For the Ramban, Ya'akov's disbelief is not to be understood as some sort of psychological inability or emotional unwillingness to relate to the reports of Yosef's survival, as if his mind wanted to believe but could not, because it had been conditioned by the endless years of pain to deny the possibility that Yosef might still be alive.  Rather, Ya'akov's heart was literally broken by the news, for the ineffable hope that the aged father had suppressed during all of these anguished years was suddenly and astonishingly confirmed.  Ya'akov's physical heart literally skipped a beat and he crumbled to the floor, for his broken body could not bear the words of the brothers!  For Rashi, of course, the "cessation of the heart" of which the text speaks is only metaphorical, but for the Ramban it is quite literal.


            According to Rashi's interpretation, the passage describes the effect of the brothers' words primarily as they impact upon Ya'akov.  He hears, he does not believe, but he is eventually convinced by the evidence.  Admittedly, the brothers must contend with their father's disbelief but this is soon overcome, and without much mishap.  But for the Ramban, the effect on the brothers must have been much more profound.  All of these years, they had hidden the truth from their father, and had never told him what had actually transpired when the beloved boy met up with them at Dotan.  There had never been any wild beasts (except perhaps themselves) and Yosef's coat had never been "found" as they had so vividly described it.  When they breathlessly related to their father how Yosef had never arrived at Dotan, they must have added an extra lie or two, perhaps describing how they anxiously searched for him after the discovery of his torn and bloodied coat. Certainly, the brothers never so much as alluded to their own role in the tragedy of his sale into Egyptian bondage.  Afterwards, of course, they had detachedly watched their old and broken father descend into the abyss of grief, all the while knowing that they alone held the key to his restoration (see the commentary of the Ramban to 45:27).  And for twenty two (!) interminable years, Ya'akov mourned the death of his favorite son while the brothers kept the terrible truth concealed from him. 


            Finally, the brothers returned home from Egypt still basking in the afterglow of their reconciliation with the Viceroy their long-lost brother and of their heartfelt contrition for their despicable conduct decades earlier.  Expectantly, they bore the news that they had wanted to communicate to their father Ya'akov for an insufferably long time but could not, because of their unbearable guilt.  But now, the report of Yosef's survival and rise to prominence in Egypt, the very words that they buoyantly brought back with them so that they might finally lift Ya'akov's trampled spirit, had quite the opposite effect!  The old man suddenly fainted away and seemed to stop breathing entirely, so that the brothers' shame over their sordid role in Yosef's fate now stood to be compounded by the bringing about – and with their own words! – the death and demise of their beloved father, right before their shocked eyes! 


            It was as if, according to the reading of the Ramban, the brothers had to make amends not only for their conduct towards Yosef their brother but towards Ya'akov their father as well.  Just as they had to bear the disgrace and humiliation that the Viceroy heaped upon them, and the terrible panic that each one of his new and capricious decrees struck into their adamant hearts, so that they might come to sincere teshuva for their heartless conduct towards him, so too they had to experience the fearful "death" of their father, in order to atone for their twenty two years of self-serving silence.  Thus, the circle of their perfidy was finally closed, and in the most unexpected fashion.




            Often, the commentaries will discuss a particular passage, and sometimes even at unusual length, without elaborating upon all of the ramifications that are implied by their words.  This is because it is the nature of our Biblical texts, indeed the nature of all of our traditional texts, to invite the student's active participation.  Rarely if ever is the entire meaning spelled out, not in order to be cryptic and secretive, but because the Torah invites us to seriously take part in the profound process of the revelation of its words.  We may read the text, but reading is insufficient.  Instead, the text must be STUDIED.  It is not the acquisition of neutral information that we seek but rather the transformation of the self, and that is only possible once we have humbly entered into the discussion (and sometimes heated debate) that has been ongoing for thousands of years. 


            For us, the statements of Rashi or of the Ramban cannot be regarded as some ancient literary artifact, but rather must be living and breathing words that fascinate and guide us.  We approach the Biblical text seeking relevancy and personal meaning, but we dare not approach it in a vacuum.  Those that have come before us have much to say and we cannot ignore their ideas.  Though we may in the end disagree with their conclusions (as they often disagreed with each other), there is much insight to be gained from the very process of engaging in the study of their words.


Shabbat Shalom