Parshat Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27
“Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me!’ So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.” —Genesis 45:1
When a rare word appears in the Torah, questions inevitably follow. This week we read (Gen. 45:1) that Joseph could not hit-apeq l’chol ha-nitzavim alav. The last few of these words aren’t difficult; the current Jewish Publication Society translation gives us “before all his attendants,” and that captures the image of Joseph, the vice regent among his court. But what about the uncommon word hit-apeq?
The dictionary suggests “restrain himself” or “control himself.” Hit-apeq indicates something that Joseph is doing to himself. So far so good. But the whole phrase has something to do with his courtiers. Who or what was being controlled, and to what purpose? And what does this have to do with the story of Joseph’s managing, at long last, to heal the tragic rifts in his family?
The story of Joseph in Sefer B’reysheet/The Book of Genesis abounds in dramatic incident and psychological depth. My adult Hebrew students in White Oak could not help but notice that the style of writing in this section (Chapters 37-50) shows complexity and subtlety beyond that of the preceding chapters.
And yet, the Torah — written Torah — never tells us quite enough. We always have questions, for example, about a Torah personality’s motivations, what he/she inferred from another’s words and actions, the tone of voice in which someone spoke.
These questions are simultaneously ancient and new. Classic midrash and commentary come to our aid, and new answers continually arise.
Shall we say, with Sa’adia Ga’on, that Joseph was so hemmed in by his many courtiers that he couldn’t move? Were they literally alav/on him? Possibly, but I don’t think that’s what Torah is saying.
Perhaps the Torah is telling us that Joseph had no control over what his court would think of his brothers when their crime against him was revealed. Rashi says that he could not abide his courtiers seeing his brothers being shamed because of their crime against him. Tzenah uR’ena adds that he would not have been able to restrain his courtiers’ distrust of them and so deny their settlement in Goshen.
Ramban prefers to retain the reflexive nuance of hit-apeq — what Joseph did to himself — and says that he could not strengthen himself against his courtiers, who favored pardoning Benjamin when they heard Judah’s supplications.
Others point to Joseph’s mounting emotion, whose outpouring he could no longer restrain. Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) says that he was about to lose emotional self-restraint and did not want his courtiers to witness that, while David Kimhi says that Joseph lost emotional self-control after hearing repeatedly of his father’s sorrows.
Sforno reminds us that self-restraint is necessary for the business of government, but we can add that caring emotional honesty is necessary for clarifying family relationships.
Yet, another commentator looks at the next verse of our text and notes that Joseph did not mind the Egyptians knowing him as a man of deep feelings. He infers that Joseph’s dismissal of his court allowed him to express his emotions and, at the same time, safeguard his brothers from disgrace, an echo of Rashi.
How hard it is for a public figure to have a private life. After all, “inquiring minds want to know.” Happy are those people who are self-restrained and effective in public but who can “open up” in private and cultivate wholesome and fulfilling relationships.
Rabbi Paul Tuchman is spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.