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Miketz | Joseph's Tears (Part 1 of 2)

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With gratitude and in honor of the bar mitzvah,
this year b'ezrat Hashem, of our twin sons,
Michael and Joshua - Steven Weiner and Lisa Wise


Dedicated in memory of both Zissel Bat Yitzchak Gontownik, and Avraham Ben Yosef Halevi Gontownik,
on the occasion of his tenth yahrzeit, by his children, Anne and Jerry Gontownik, and Sidney Gontownik,
and his grandchildren, Ari and Shira, Zev and Daniela, Yonatan, Ranan, Hillel, and Ezra Gontownik.



Adapted by Dr. Aviad Hacohen with Rav Yoseif Bloch and Rav Reuven Ziegler

Translated by Kaeren Fish



At the center of the drama played out over the final third of Sefer Bereishit, we find the tangled web of relationships in Yaakov’s household.  The Torah presents Yosef, “the distinguished of his brothers” (Bereishit 49:26), amid the divisiveness that characterizes the household, with all the suspicion and tension that crackles in the often poisonous atmosphere.  The Midrash (Tanchuma, Vayigash 3), in its picturesque language, portrays the confrontation between the brothers and Yosef as one between a lion and an ox.


Like a thread running through all the acts and scenes of this multi-faceted tragedy, there is one rather surprising motif.  We follow the progress of the mighty battle waged by an innocent young man against a cabal of brothers motivated by their fear and their judgmental attitude, by rejection and suspicion.  Throughout all of this, we find an unexpected element that reflects the development of the drama and leaves its mark on the events themselves: bekhi, weeping.


Its presence is felt throughout the narrative; it is manifest at certain critical junctures, either as a reaction or as an impetus.  Yet its appearances are not symmetrical.  The brothers, in general, do not weep.  They are a group of practical men, men of action, who plan, execute and improvise; they are devoid of romantic visions and stormy emotions.  Other than Binyamin, the son of his father’s old age, all of the brothers are occupied, as shepherds, with settling the world, building (as Chazal emphasized) the infrastructure for the future nation of Israel.  The brothers devote themselves conscientiously and consistently to their tasks, big or small, with no tendency towards drama or sentimentality.


Even at their most difficult, terror-filled moments, they keep their wits about them and try to plan ahead; where necessary, they scheme and plot.  Even after Yaakov’s death, they hatch a scheme (50:15-17) to protect themselves from Yosef’s supposed wrath.  Even at that hour of dread, the brothers do not cross the Rubicon that lies between supplication and tears.  In this critical encounter, as in others, the brothers do not weep. 


It is not only in the heat of the moment that the brothers eschew tears; even in the aftermath of their actions, they do not weep.  Immediately after throwing Yosef into the pit “they sat down to eat bread” (37:25).  The Seforno notes:


They did not regard any of this as a misfortune or an obstacle preventing them from having their meal – as would have been proper for righteous people such as they, after causing a misfortune.  In comparison, concerning the Israelites – after they annihilate the tribe of Binyamin – we read: “They sat until the evening before God, and they lifted their voices, and they wept a great weeping, and they said: ‘Why, Lord God of Israel, has this happened in Israel?’ ” (Shoftim 21:2-3). 


There is no such weeping in the case of Yosef’s brothers.  Their attitude is altogether pragmatic, practical, unsentimental.  Even the suffering of their father does not move them to tears (vv. 34-35):


Yaakov rent his garments and he placed sackcloth upon his loins, and he mourned for his son for many days; and all of his sons and all of his daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted, and he said: “For I shall go down to my son, mourning, to the netherworld.”  And his father wept for him.


Here the Or Ha-chayyim (Rav Chayyim ibn Attar) notes the seeming redundancy and comments:


When Yaakov heard his [own] words, he wept for him all over again.  Here the Torah specifically says “his father [wept for him],” so as to exclude “all of his sons and all of his daughters,” since only his father wept at the mention of him.


On the other hand, on no less than eight occasions, Yosef gives expression to his emotions, and his tears flow freely.  Let us briefly review these instances:


·                    The first instance (42:24) is where the brothers appear before Yosef, he hears them talking, and the Torah narrates: “He turned away from them and wept.”

·                    The second instance is where Binyamin finally appears before Yosef (43:30): “He felt compassion towards his brother, and he wanted to weep; so he entered his chamber, and wept there.”

·                    The third instance is in the most dramatic encounter between Yosef and his brothers (45:2): “He gave his voice to weeping, and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.”

·                    Following this outburst, Yosef reveals his identity and tells his brothers all that has happened to him in Egypt.  Towards the end of this encounter, we read (45:14-15): “He fell upon the neck of Binyamin, his brother, and he wept; and Binyamin wept upon his neck.  And he kissed all of his brothers and he wept upon them.”

·                    The next instance is the encounter between Yosef and Yaakov (46:29): “Yosef made ready his chariot and he went up to Goshen to meet Yisrael his father; and he presented himself to him, and he fell upon his neck; and he wept upon his neck a good while.”

·                    Finally, we have a three-fold weeping following the death of Yaakov, in the final chapter of this dramatic story.  First, there is the immediate reaction to the death: “Yaakov… expired and was gathered to his people.  And Yosef fell upon his father’s face and wept upon him and kissed him” (49:33-50:1).  Later, there is weeping not only by Yosef, but by the entire Egyptian nation (50:3): “The Egyptians wept for him for seventy days.”  This is a public demonstration of mourning, in contrast to Yosef’s personal weeping.  The final instance of weeping is a return to the personal, intimate realm: “Yosef’s brothers saw that their father had died, and they said: ‘Perhaps Yosef will hate us, and will repay us for all the evil we did to him.’  So they sent word urgently to Yosef, saying, ‘Your father did command before he died, saying: Please forgive the sin of your brothers…’ ” – and Yosef’s reaction: “And Yosef wept as they spoke to him” (50:15-17).


Thus, the narrative as a whole is linked by a chain of weeping, in changing circumstances, at different times, in varying contexts.  A more detailed examination of each instance leads us to draw two general conclusions regarding this abundance of tears.


First, the weeping has no uniform, monolithic motivation or manifestation.  It is a profound and diverse expression, in terms of both its inherent nature and its roots.  There can be tears of sorrow, joy, mourning, celebration, collapse, excitement, helplessness, courage, supplication, despair, guilt, self-rebuke or repentance.  In fact, as we examine each instance individually, we discover that – as we might have expected of such a sensitive personality – Yosef’s weeping is not all of a kind.  It changes and transforms itself according to the circumstances.


Second, as fitting for such a drama, every instance of weeping that occurs has its own significance.  At the same time, though, each represents a link in a chain which is continuous and progressive.  We are able to trace the development from one station to the next, each reflecting the playing out of the true and central drama – which is internal.


Before addressing the various instances of weeping and the circumstances surrounding them, we must first consider those instances in which Yosef refrains from crying.  Here it quickly becomes apparent that at the most bitter and difficult times, Yosef ceases to be the dreamy romantic – garbed in a striped coat and curling his hair – whom we encounter at the beginning of the story.  He remains calm, deals with the situation, and rises above it, demonstrating a most impressive survival instinct.


Even at the bitterest moment in his life, when he is cast by his own brothers into a pit infested – as the Sages (Shabbat 22a) describe it – with snakes and scorpions, he demonstrates restraint.  In the original account, we do not find even the mildest word of protest.  Only later on do we discover that Yosef does indeed attempt to avert his fate, with no success (42:21), as the brothers say: “We saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we did not listen.”  Nevertheless, while the Torah refers to pleading, it does not mention tears.


Yosef is sold to a caravan of Ishmaelites, but he does not weep.  Instead of wallowing in self-pity at his bitter fate, he transforms himself from someone who cannot find his way – from someone who just the day before had wandered through the fields while seeking his brothers (37:15-17) – into a capable and accomplished manager in the house of Potifar.


When he is unjustly thrown into prison, Yosef again refrains from weeping.  Once again, he demonstrates an amazing ability to adapt and survive.  By virtue of his impressive practical abilities, Yosef attains a position whereby (39:23) “everything that he did, God would cause to succeed.”  Even when Yosef is left to rot in jail, abandoned and betrayed by Pharaoh’s butler, he still does not weep. 


Admittedly, in many of the episodes that we have just enumerated, Yosef is the passive object of actions taken by others; hence, perhaps, his fortitude is not all that relevant to our discussion.  Nevertheless, even if in these situations we regard him as merely a passive victim, his innermost reaction – reflecting much of the calm acceptance which he has nurtured and which he maintains – represents an achievement that is entirely his own.  It reflects his openness to the ups and downs of reality, and the development of a personal, psychological ability to deal with them.


It is not his own peril that moves Yosef to tears.  His weeping begins where the drama intensifies, where Yosef finds himself in an encounter that is less dangerous, but of far greater significance: the renewed encounter with his brothers. The mutually contradictory inclinations, the mixed (and sometimes conflicting) emotions – it is these that affect Yosef so profoundly.


The period during which Yosef is completely cut off from his brothers lasts longer than two decades. During this time, he emerges as a firm, determined, energetic leader, the embodiment of pragmatism and achievement.  He probably harbors, in the depths of his heart, some longing for his father’s house and its spiritual climate.  He must feel nostalgia for its teachings and values, its sources and its atmosphere; beyond his nostalgic memories, Yosef must feel real concern for his father’s welfare and his state of mind.  Still, none of this manages to topple the wall of equanimity and the screen of distraction.  The sense of distance, the sense of physical and existential severance that he feels, is expressed in the names that Yosef gives to his sons.  First is Menashe, “For God has caused me to forget (nashani) all my toil and all of my father’s house” (41:51).  The name of his second son, Efrayim – “for God has caused me to be fruitful (hifrani) in the land of my affliction” (v. 52) –expresses conspicuous contentment alongside genuine feeling.


Under these circumstances – severance from homeland and family; occupation with steering an empire through its challenges; building his household and family; a day-to-day reality of impressive achievement; a sense of strength and power that provide enormous satisfaction – there is no one and nothing that causes Yosef to weep.  For the same reason, he is not required to restrain himself from weeping.


It is only when he comes face to face with his brothers again that he wants and needs to weep.  On some occasions, when Yosef is unable to hold himself back, his tears burst forth.  In these encounters, all of the feelings that have been suppressed and submerged rise up again.  All that has been forgotten floods back into his consciousness.  In place of the comforting thought that “God has caused me to forget,” he is hit with the impact of memory: “Yosef remembered the dreams which he had dreamt about them” (42:9).  Yosef remembers not only the dreams, but also everything that came with them, the atmosphere within which they had appeared, and the chain of events they brought in their wake.


This encounter opens a Pandora’s box.  Yosef is waging a battle not only with his brothers, but also with himself, with his past, present and future.  As he wrestles with his own demons, there open before him those gates which the Sages (Berakhot 32b) teach are never locked: the gates of tears.  The great Irish writer W. B. Yeats said that “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”[1] The world of poetry, he maintains, is the pure, refined world of emotion – a world in which weeping, whether external or internal, is granted a place of honor.  This world is something Yosef cannot escape.  When Yosef hears his brothers admit their guilt, “He turned away from them and wept” (42:21-24).


This is the first instance of weeping in the entire narrative.  What is its meaning?  Rashi explains: “Because he heard that they were contrite.”  In his view, it is the brothers’ remorse as human beings, and their acknowledgment that God is exacting punishment of them, measure for measure, that brings Yosef back to his existential and religious roots.  Suddenly, the embers which had burned so low – the connection to his brothers, his home, his past – are reignited.  A spark of empathy and fraternity, perhaps even of love, is kindled inside him, reconnecting him with his past.  This represents a seismic tremor, shaking up and undermining the Egyptian reality within which Yosef is now firmly rooted.


The Seforno adopts a different interpretation: “He wept upon perceiving their anguish.”  Yosef’s weeping is not related to his personal, human, existential or religious aspirations; rather, it is simply a matter of compassion towards his brothers.  Indeed, the burden is an onerous one.  The brothers’ past deeds have left a deep scar in Yosef’s heart, affecting him in the present and destined to influence him in the future.  Is that old hatred – “They hated him even more, for his dreams and for his words” (37:8) – no longer in his brothers’ hearts?  Or perhaps that old cruelty and abusiveness – captured in Yaakov’s words (49:23), “The archers attacked him and shot at him and loathed him” – still lurk in their character?  Yosef, too, for his part, has yet to bring closure to his struggle.  In the very same verse, he shows himself to be an astute and quick-witted adversary, detaining Shimon and complicating the brothers’ mission in every possible way.  Still, what the Seforno means is that, as the saying goes, blood is thicker than water; when he sees his brothers suffering, he is moved to tears.


His weeping here expresses compassion.  It bespeaks Yosef’s desire to be reunited with his brothers immediately, and it is quite understandable.  Yet, while inside him an emotional storm is brewing, Yosef is not prepared – perhaps even unable – to vent it.  “He turned away from them and wept.”  At this stage, he is not prepared to lower even slightly the screen of deception – not only before his brothers, but even in his own mind.  This is not a simple matter.  With regard to others, Yosef can, with the slightest of movements, continue to conceal the evidence.  However, he cannot hide the truth from himself.   He might have said to his conscience, echoing King David’s words to God )Tehillim 139:7): “Where can I hide from Your spirit?  From Your presence, where can I flee?”  Facing his brothers, he comes back to himself (42:24): “He returned to them and spoke to them, and he took Shimon from among them and imprisoned him in their presence;” but for himself, once the genie has escaped from the bottle, there is no hope of stuffing it back inside.  “He turned away from them” – I imagine that this is meant not only outwardly, so that they will not notice, but also as an indication that at this stage Yosef lacks the courage, at the moment of his weeping, to look at them directly, openly and honestly.  Such is the situation for now, but it will change.


To be continued next week…


(This sicha was delivered at the Yemei Iyun be-Tanakh sponsored by Yaacov Herzog College and Yeshivat Har Etzion in the summer of 2006.)


[1]       Anima Hominis,” section V, in Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1917).

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