Rabbi Emanuel Cohn
Former Avrech in Montreal (2001-2003)
Founder of “Torah MiCinema” – Teaching Film and Judaism
As the title of this Parasha already indicates, this Torah portion deals with personal encounters: Not only between Yehudah and Yosef, but also between Yosef and Yaacov, Yaacov and Pharaoh, five of Yosef’s brothers and Pharaoh and finally between Yosef and the Egyptian “working class”.
I would like to concentrate on the emotional encounter between Yosef and his father Yaacov. After Yosef learned about his father’s arrival to Egypt, “Yosef prepared his chariot and went up to Goshen to meet his father Israel; as soon as he appeared before him, he fell on his neck and wept on his neck a long time. Then Israel said to Yosef, ‘I may die now, since I have seen your face, that you are still alive’.” (Gen. 46:29-30) If we examine the text closely, we realize that only Yosef cried. Isn’t it a bit peculiar that Yaacov has missed his beloved son all those years, and now, at their redeeming encounter, he does not seem to show any emotions, at least not as much as his son?
I believe that we have to juxtapose our question to another, more familiar one, a question which the Ramban is posing: “How is it that Yosef, after living many years in Egypt, having attained a high and influential position in the house of an important Egyptian official, did not send his father even one message to inform him (that he was alive) and comfort him? Egypt is only six days’ travel from Hebron, and respect for his father would have justified even a year’s journey! (It would) have been a grave sin to torment his father by leaving him in mourning and bereavement for himself and for Shim’on; even if he wanted to hurt his brothers a little, how could he not feel pity for his aged father ?”(Ramban to Gen. 42:9)
Ramban’s own solution to this famous question is that Yosef was trying to make his dreams come true, which included that his family would bow before him, and therefore he did not reveal his true identity. Rav Yoel Bin-Nun rejects this approach –and rightly so!- chiefly because it does not address the moral question. How could Yosef have left his father in torment, only to bring his dreams to fruition? Isn’t the value of honoring one’s parents stronger than the value of fulfilling a vision, or even a prophecy?
Rav Yoel Bin-Nun offers a different reading of the story (see Megadim I).How did the whole chain of events start? Let us go back to the beginning: “Israel said to Yosef, ‘Are not your brothers pasturing the flock in Shechem? Come, and I will send you to them.’ And he said to him, ‘I will go.’ Then he said to him, ‘Go now and see about the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock, and bring word back to me.’ So he sent him from the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem…” (Gen. 37:13-14) And here starts the plot against Yosef. “When they saw him from a distance and before he came close to them, they plotted against him to put him to death…” (ibid., 18) Yosef did not know that his brothers had fooled his father with the coat, the blood, and the lie that Yosef had been devoured by wild animals. He probably concluded that his brothers must have succeeded in convincing Yaacov to disown him. Yosef’s entire world is built on the misconception that his father has renounced him, while Yaacov’s world is destroyed by the misconception that Yosef is dead.
In light of this simple but tremendous chiddush our entire outlook on this story changes. All of a sudden we understand why Yosef never bothered to give his father a sign of life during his years in Egypt! Indeed, after Yosef realizes the terrible misunderstanding, “Yosef could no longer restrain himself before all who were standing before him,…and he cried out loud…and he told his brothers: ‘I am Yosef; is my father still alive?’” (45:1-3) These are Yosef’s first words after having wrongly suspected his beloved father for 22 years for a terrible crime he did not commit.
Now let us go back to the encounter between Yosef and Yaacov. Contrary to the simple meaning of the text, Ramban holds that it was Yaacov who cried while Yosef did not: “Isn’t it obvious who is closer to tears: The old father who finds his son alive after despair and mourning, or the young reigning son?” (Ramban to Gen. 46:29) Is Ramban trying to make a general statement regarding the probability of crying in the different stages of a human life? Is this a universal bio-psychological thesis? Is an old experienced man really more likely to cry than a young fellow at the peak of his career?
Rashi opposes Ramban’s view and stresses the fact that it was Yosef – and only him- who cried while his father did not shed a tear. Indeed, Yosef’s reaction is understandable: “As soon as he appeared before him, he [Yosef] fell on his [Yaacov’s] neck and wept on his neck a long time.” But Yaacov’s behavior seems strange: “Then Israel said to Yosef, ‘I may die now, since I have seen your face, that you are still alive’.” Rashi, commenting on Yaacov’s words “I may die now”, cites a Midrash which interprets his thoughts: “I assumed that I would have to die two deaths, in this world and in the world to come, for the Divine presence had gone from me and I concluded that God would judge me because of your death. But now that you are alive, I will die only once.” (Rashi to Gen. 46:30) Why would Yaacov think that God would judge and punish him? What event in the past made him have such a bad conscience? Obviously Rashi is referring to Yaacov’s sending his son Yosef to his brothers to Shechem! He felt terrible about provoking his other sons’ jealousy towards his favorite son Yosef by sending him there. But now that Yaacov saw that Yosef was alive and that there was a happy-end, he was relieved.
Tears are usually the expression of an outbreak of emotions. But sometimes they are a mix of emotions and bad conscience. Both Yaacov and Yosef had a bad conscience: The former because he had sent Yosef to Shechem, the latter because he had wrongly accused his father. The difference is that Yaacov could “erase” his whole theory in the light of the happy ending. Yaacov did not cry because he had no tears left! He cried for 22 years thinking that his son was eaten up by a wild animal. But now that he saw that his son was alive, he was relieved and happy. Not only because of the fact that Yosef was not dead, but also since he regained –in his eyes- the right to the world to come. He was the happiest man in the world. But this could not be the case with Yosef! When you do not maintain contact with your father for over two decades based on a wrong and cruel estimation of his actions, then you cannot just uproot all of your misconduct in a second. Even a sea of tears can not “wash away” all the false accusations and the negative feelings you had towards your beloved father. Yosef still felt guilty. “He fell on his neck and wept on his neck a long time.”