Joseph’s tears
TorahParshat VaYechi

Joseph’s tears

Genesis 47:28 - 50:26

(File photo)
(File photo)

This week we complete the book of Bereshit (Genesis) and the Joseph saga with our parashah. Within the book of Bereshit, we move from a God in control and front-and-center in the narrative of creation, to a silent and seemingly inactive God in the Joseph stories. In the beginning God is all powerful, bringing the world into being through speech. Throughout the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, God is a main character, speaking directly or through angels, performing miracles, propelling the story forward. Then we get to the last four parshiyot, and God retreats. In the final chapters of Genesis, God does not speak. There is a rich narrative, but it is driven by human initiative. God is no longer an explicit actor.

The Torah begins with a world of clear categories. The steps of creation involve dividing things into neat opposites: light and dark, land and sea, earth and sky. Everything is defined by a simple adjective, tov (good). By the end of Genesis, there isn’t such clarity. We’re in a very human story. Motivations for behavior are complex: Was Jacob intending to alienate Joseph from his brothers? Was Joseph’s decision to share his dreams narcissistic, or innocent? Different emotions coexist: Joseph hates his brothers but also misses them dearly; Joseph seems to revel in his powerful role in Pharaoh’s court, but longs for his family of origin. The story raises essential human questions such as “Can people really change?” and “What does it take to forgive?” These questions do not have simple answers. We have moved from the clear black and white world of Creation to a human realm painted gray.

Ambiguity and complexity is evident in one unique aspect of the Joseph stories: the frequency of tears. Nowhere else in the Torah do we have a character who cries so often. I have always found Joseph’s weeping to be moving. The catharsis of the tears is deeply satisfying to the reader.

In these final parshiyot, Joseph cries seven times. Each incident of tears is in response to complex layers of emotion, and sometimes to opposite emotions coexisting in the same moment.

Here are the occurrences of Joseph’s tears: when the brothers appear before Joseph and, overcome by emotion, he turns away to weep; when Benjamin finally appears and out of compassion, the text says, Joseph retreats to his chamber and cries; right before revealing his identity and right after; upon reuniting with his father, Jacob; and twice in our parashah: when Jacob dies, and then after finally forgiving his brothers.

What are we to make of all this crying?

These tears testify to the depth of character that we see in the portrayal of Joseph which we have not seen before in the Torah. A few other figures do cry in Genesis. What’s different here is the kind of tears. The tears of Esau and Leah, for example, are fairly one-dimensional: Esau’s anguish at being denied the birthright; Leah’s sadness at being rejected by Jacob. Strong emotions, yes, but they are straightforward, one-dimensional.

Joseph’s tears, in contrast, are responses to mixed feelings, to the push and pull of contradictory and dueling emotions. Joy at being reunited with his brothers along with anger at their past behavior. Longing for reconnection with his family, while being suspicious and distrustful of them. Not black and white, but gray.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein — in a lengthy exposition on Joseph’s tears — points out that Joseph doesn’t weep earlier in life (pit, sold into slavery, prison, etc). There are no tears when he is at the apex of his own suffering. Rather, he weeps later in life, not in response to his own misfortunes, but each time in response to deep and often conflicting emotion. Rav Lichtenstein argues in favor of Rashbam’s interpretation, that Joseph’s tears represent a break in the fortitude and restraint he had shown for decades in Egypt. The tears’ function was to remove the mask that Joseph wore all the years in Egypt burying his identity, as he rose in stature and tried to forget where he came from. Upon seeing his brothers again, the memories of the past came flooding back and with them a host of mixed emotions.

Part of the catharsis of this narrative arc is that Joseph succeeds in breaking the pattern of family in-fighting that plagued the book of Bereshit. Generation after generation, brothers didn’t fare well. Cain killed Abel. Isaac and Ishmael were forcibly separated. Jacob stole the birthright and blessing from Esau, and while they did eventually embrace each other years later, there was no reunification of the family. Joseph is the one to finally break the toxic trope of brother against brother. After all these generations of broken family ties, Joseph is the one who is able to forgive his brothers
and reunite the family.

We have come a long way from the all-powerful God whose speech and actions determine events. We are now squarely in the human realm. No miracles. No divine commands. Just human beings faced with difficult decisions. Just tears and the complex layers of emotion that elicit them.

In the final chapters of Bereshit, God’s face is hidden. And yet, God’s hand is felt throughout, an undercurrent of the whole plot. Joseph claims many times that his dream-interpretations are not his own, but come from God. And Joseph interprets his whole life trajectory as God’s plan, as he states in the climactic scene of self-disclosure: “I am your brother Joseph whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” In the end Joseph isn’t only an interpreter of dreams. He interprets life, perceiving the workings of God beneath the surface of events.

In our time, too, of course, God’s face is hidden. We are far from the black and white clarity of Creation. We are ensconced in the gray zone, the messy human realm.

So what is in our power to do? The Joseph story seems to suggest two possibilities. We can interpret our experiences, seeking glimpses of God at work in our lives. And we can fully inhabit our human dramas, allowing ourselves to be flooded with feeling, and letting our tears flow. PJC

Rabbi Amy Bardack is the rabbi of Congregation Dor Hadash. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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