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Alei Etzion16: Yosef’s Tears

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l

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” (49:26),[1] 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.”[2] 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.


Indeed, the change is not long in coming.  Within a few months, the supply of food taken back to Yaakov is finished.  The brothers then return to Egypt, this time accompanied by Binyamin, and here Yosef cries for the second time.  This instance is similar to the previous one in terms of its roots – the confrontation with the past, the renewed connection with the family – but very different in its intensity.  For Yosef, this is not only a reunion with Binyamin, his beloved brother, but an encounter fraught with the cumulative effect of all that has happened since his first weeping.  The meeting with the other brothers is climactic in its own right; the meeting with Binyamin is a crisis of a different order.


As the child of his father’s old age, who occupies a marginal position in the group, Binyamin is a unique character.  However, there is more to his distinctness than his age, as the Ramban boldly points out.  Noting Yaakov’s words to his sons (as recounted by Yehuda, 44:27): “You know that my wife bore me two,” the Ramban questions: “Were there [only] two? Did his wives not bear him twelve sons?”  He explains:

The reason [for this statement] is that Yaakov willingly married only Rachel.  Therefore he says, “My wife bore me” – meaning: there were born to me, of the woman who was my wife by my own will, only two; and I invested my love in them as though they were my only children, while the rest were, in my eyes, like children of concubines.

Binyamin, then, is special in his own right.  Obviously, in relation to Yosef, his status is unique for two reasons.  First, not only is he Yosef’s full brother, but his very existence is bound up with their mother.  Binyamin embodies the price that Rachel and Yosef pay for him, for Rachel dies in giving birth to him.  Second, Binyamin is the only one of all the brothers who has played no part in the terrible plot.  For this reason, too, the reunion between Yosef and Binyamin is an intensely emotional one.


This is reflected in the verses.  The Seforno, as noted above, asserts that Yosef’s weeping in the first encounter arises from his observation of their anguish, but the verse there gives no indication of this.  Here, on the other hand, it is stated explicitly (43:30): “Yosef hastened, for he felt compassion towards his brother, and he wanted to weep; so he entered his chamber and wept there.” The element of compassion, the inner, emotional bond that contrasts so starkly with the royal role that Yosef plays in Egypt, rises up all at once, and with great power.  This is expressed and emphasized, in relation to the weeping, in the auxiliary verb: “He wanted (va-yevakkesh) to weep.”


The root “b-k-sh” has three fixed meanings in Scripture.  One expresses searching, as Yosef says (37:16): “I seek (mevakkesh) my brothers;” similarly, Shaul seeks his father’s donkeys (I Shemuel 9:3).  This “bakkasha” does not express any special personal feeling; rather, it is a purely technical search.  In its second meaning, this root refers to a request that one addresses to another.  Queen Esther tells Achashverosh “my wish and my request (bakkashati)” (Esther 5:7).  The third meaning of this root is “will,” not just the will that expresses one’s desire, but rather will that involves an effort at actualization; this is the clear meaning earlier in Esther, when the plot of the would-be assassins Bigtan and Teresh is uncovered: “They desired (va-yevakkshu) to lay hands upon King Achashverosh” (2:21).  Sometimes, these various meanings are interwoven, as in the verse (Tehillim 27:4), “I make one wish of God; it is that which I request (avakkesh)” – in the sense of seeking, requesting and willing.


It seems reasonable to assume that here, the term “va-yevakkesh” means an effort, a will and an aspiration.  The tears do not flow of their own accord; Yosef actively seeks to weep.  In his first encounter with his brothers, Yosef wanted to restrain himself, but was unable to; here, he seeks to weep: that is what is psychologically and emotionally appropriate.  Yosef is entirely accepting of his weeping here; he merely seeks the proper opportunity and setting to carry it out, so “he entered his chamber.” 


The first and second encounters differ also with regard to the location where Yosef weeps.  At the first encounter, Yosef does nothing more than turn his face aside, while he remains standing in his place.  Here, he moves from one spot to another, as Rashi explains: “He distanced himself from them so that they would not see him weeping.”  He heads from the vestibule to the hall.  The move expresses more than just a physical, geographical transition from one place to another.  It is a transition from one level of existence to an entirely different one; from the external world to the inner world, the world of home.  There is a strong focus here on the inner workings of man, especially in tragic circumstances.


Elizabethan theater in England featured two stages.  First, there was a vestibule, an outer room, an external stage, where public events would take place – the “rhetoric,” to employ Yeats’ term.  Then there was an inner, more intimate stage, where man’s tragic struggles would be played out, in the form of the drama taking place within the hero himself.  When Shakespeare’s Juliet declares, “My dismal scene I needs must act alone” (Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, Scene iii), she passes from the outer stage to the inner one.  Her declaration accompanies her transition.  “He entered his chamber,” then, is the “dismal scene” that Yosef “needs must act alone.”  Here, in the inner chamber, he gives expression to his tragic conflict, to his explosion of emotion.  This can happen only in the inner chamber, where there is no need to conceal or hide.  Concerning God Himself, the prophet says, “My soul weeps in secret” (Yirmiyahu 13:17).  The Gemara (Chagiga 5b) asks, “Does God then weep?”  The verse is explained by means of a distinction between the “outer chamber” and the “inner chamber.”  In His “inner chamber,” even God cries, as it were.


In Yosef’s inner chamber, the weeping busts forth with such intensity that, when he emerges, he must recompose himself (43:31): “He washed his face and he emerged, and he restrained himself, and he said: Bring bread.”  When he weeps the first time, Yosef has no need to wash his face.  Here, the washing of the face is more than a physical act.  Yosef must compose himself and rearrange his official mask; when he leaves the chamber, his face washed and his demeanor composed, he is once again Tzafenat Pane’ach (41:45), the Revealer of Secrets, viceroy over Egypt.


The difference is expressed in another slight difference: “He restrained himself” (vayit’apak).  This insertion is critical for an understanding of Yosef’s situation in Egypt.  It is a stark contrast to what happens later on, when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers.  There, the text introduces his revelation with the words, “Yosef was unable to restrain himself” (45:1).  Here, “he restrained himself.”  As I understand it, this “restraint” is different from the sort that is mentioned in other contexts.  For example, when, after parading Mordekhai through the streets of Shushan on the king’s horse, “Haman restrained himself, and he came to his house” (Esther 5:10), it denotes refraining from expressing outwardly the anger that one feels inside.  It is neither seemly nor proper for a man of Haman’s standing to appear to be angry, to look as though he has lost his self-control.  He is in control of himself, and all the more so of his surroundings, and therefore he restrains himself.  This restraint has nothing to do with inner, spiritual or existential turmoil.  Yeshayahu also speaks of restraint when it comes to God: “Will You restrain Yourself for these things, God; will You be silent?” (64:12).  This is a variation on the question posed by the prophets in many different contexts, concerning the question of theodicy on the national level.  It does not reflect an internal struggle, so to speak, of God.


In Yosef’s case, I believe, the restraint has a completely different meaning.  The transition here from restraint to its absence is of far greater significance.  When Yosef reveals his identity, we read (45:1-2):

Yosef could not restrain himself before all those who stood before him, and he called out: “Take every person from my presence!”  So no one stood with him when Yosef revealed himself to his brothers.  He gave his voice to weeping, and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.

Until now, Yosef’s weeping has been conducted in secret.  First he “turned away” to weep, then he “entered his chamber” to weep.  Now he no longer cries alone, in solitude.  His weeping is full-voiced and public: “He gave his voice to weeping.”  His tears over his brothers reach all the way to Pharaoh’s house; his weeping is heard throughout the land of Egypt.


What is the nature and significance of this weeping, “when Yosef revealed himself to his brothers”?  I believe that on one level, at the beginning, Yosef cries out of sheer emotion, heightened by the drama of the occasion, combining great joy with sadness. In another sense, Yosef’s weeping here expresses a sort of release.  Freed of the yoke of his public position, Yosef transforms the outer chamber to an inner chamber; he is master of an emotional domain that contains both.  The Rashbam explains:

Until now, he has performed all of his actions by virtue of being inwardly restrained, as it says above, “He restrained himself.”

This expression – “He restrained himself” – is mentioned only once, but the Rashbam seeks to draw a broad, all-encompassing conclusion from it.  He views the lone example as a prototype, reflecting Yosef’s state of being and demeanor throughout this narrative.


I am strongly inclined to adopt the Rashbam’s interpretation.  As discussed above, I perceive Yosef’s restraint as fundamentally different from Haman’s restraint or, lehavdil, the restraint that Yeshayahu perceives in God.  Yosef’s “restraint” reflects an existential struggle, a conflict of identity.  It speaks to the chasm between his inner being and his external appearance, all the more so because the external appearance is not merely play-acting and reflects a genuine aspect of Yosef’s existence in Egypt.  Politically, his success is meteoric; economically, too, he prospers.  He serves as both foreign minister and finance minister.  He has an Egyptian wife, and his children grow up like any other aristocratic Egyptians.  Yosef is well-integrated in the top tier of Egyptian society; he most likely also finds himself participating in its culture and absorbing its values.  All of this is one facet of his identity.


At the same time, Yosef constantly carries within himself a mental picture of his father’s house and his Hebrew identity.  This consciousness is given startling depiction in a midrash which, notwithstanding its extreme imagery, expresses the Sages’ view of Yosef.  The text tells us that Yosef imprisons Shimon in the other brothers’ presence; in the midrash (Bereishit Rabba 91:8), Rabbi Yitzchak states: “ ‘In their presence,’ he imprisoned him; but when they left, he gave him food and drink, bathed him and oiled him.”  Outwardly, Yosef presents himself as a harsh ruler, the master of the house and sovereign of the country.  In his heart of hearts, though – whether out of fraternal love or out of compassion – he does not suffice with providing food for his brother, but actually serves him; not only does he bring him food and drink, but he “bathes him and oils him”!  Such is the extent of the contrast between the inscrutable ruler who locks up Shimon and the brother who serves Shimon, tending to him as would a common slave.


Indeed, an enormous chasm separates these two identities.  It is precisely the intensity of the contrast that reflects Yosef’s feelings and the reality of his life.  Here, of course, his “restraint” is that point of contact and equilibrium between his Jewish aspiration, his inner, spiritual and existential purpose, and the external appearance with which he plays out his role in the “outer chamber” – which also seeps inward and smolders within him.  The compassion and the weeping that accompanies it are essentially connected to his inner, Hebrew identity; this part of his being desires to be merciful and needs to weep.  The world of Judaism is full of love and compassion.  Jews are defined as “merciful ones, descendants of merciful ones” (Ketubot 8b), while scholars have noted the death-fixation of Egyptian culture. 


The mercy that is aroused along with the tears has a connection to Yosef’s father’s house.  There, he was neither ruler nor sovereign nor master.  In his father’s house, Yosef was simply a boy.  It reminds me of a letter a good friend sent me upon the death of my mother, z”l:

When Rav Kook’s mother passed away, he cried bitterly.  Someone approached him and asked: “Rabbi – we all understand your pain and sorrow, but [why do you weep] to such an extent?”

Rav Kook answered, “She was the only one who called me ‘mein kind,’ my child.”

Such was the case for Yosef.  His Jewish identity is expressed, inter alia, through weeping, while his “restraint” must hold back, and sometimes even suppress, those mixed feelings that jostle for position in his consciousness.  His is a situation of equilibrium between two worlds, and here Yosef seeks his innermost identity. 


Ultimately, his personal history comes out.  From this point onwards, while he continues to rule over all of Egypt, his Hebrew identity is overt and publicly known: Pharaoh’s house knows, and the Egyptians know.  Even Yosef’s two Egyptian sons, whose very names recall the severance from home, will be brought to Yaakov, their grandfather.  This represents their transition from the Egyptian culture of their birth and education to the house of their father’s father, where they are brought under the wings of the Divine Presence.


Yosef’s encounter with Binyamin serves as a catalyst; it spreads, deepens and overtakes the entire scene.  Nevertheless, at the moment of Yosef’s revelation, the essence of his weeping is not altogether clear.  According to the literal text, only Binyamin and Yosef weep, while the other brothers do not (45:14): “He fell upon the neck of Binyamin, his brother, and wept; and Binyamin wept upon his neck.”  From Yosef’s perspective, the weeping that begins with Binyamin continues when he faces the rest of his brothers (45:15): “He kissed all of his brothers and he wept upon them.”  We hear nothing of their weeping.  For Yosef, however, this is an event of immense significance.  The excitement and emotion, the need to restrain himself up until this point, the inner conflict – all of this has been transformed into a sigh of relief, accompanied with great joy.


Still, there is another, darker element that is interwoven.  This should have been Yosef’s greatest hour; it is the realization of his dream.  He has dreamt of having everyone dependent upon him – and now this dream has become reality!  Yosef believes that at this encounter his brothers will be filled with joy.  He removes the mask from his face – but he is suddenly taken aback.  Instead of having his brothers plead before him, he pleads before them: “Please (na) come near me” (45:4).  The word “na” always indicates pleading.  What is he begging for?  Is this moment not meant to be the high point of Yosef’s life, the instant when all his hopes and dreams are literally realized?


Let us look at Yosef’s message for Yaakov (45:9-11):

Hurry and go up to my father, and tell him: “So says your son, Yosef, ‘God has made me lord over all of Egypt.  Come down to me; do not delay.  You shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near to me – you and your children and your children’s children, and your flocks and your herds, and all that is yours, and I will support you there.’ ”

His message is clear: I will bring; I will support; I will nourish; I will lead.  I will treat you as though I am one of you – but you will all be dependent upon me. 


At this moment it becomes clear to Yosef the terrible price he has paid for his success, for his integration into Egyptian culture, for all of his restraint.  Yosef stands alone.  Even once he has decided to emerge from his isolation, to put an end to his alienation, those around him remain alienated from him.  It is only now that Yosef discovers what he has sacrificed in exchange for the power that he has accumulated, for being the ruler over all of Egypt, for presuming to be the one to feed, nourish, command and sustain.


This tone, so tragic for Yosef, finds further expression later on.  After Yaakov’s death, Yosef cries once more (50:1): “Yosef fell upon his father’s face and wept upon him and kissed him.”  Understandably, he is filled with sorrow over the death of his father, but why is he the only one weeping?  Where are all of his brothers?


It seems that what separates Yosef at this point is not the grief over Yaakov’s passing, but the guilt over his separation.  It is not only the two decades of silence; even the seventeen years during which Yaakov lives in Goshen are years in which Yosef is preoccupied with matters of state.  Apparently, his weeping with Binyamin does not put an end to his restraint.  Admittedly, the center of gravity has shifted.  The man who now cries is no longer Tzafenat Pane’ach, viceroy of Egypt, with a tenuous tie to Jewish culture.  Rather, it is Yosef, who stands firmly and squarely within Jewish culture.  Still, the connection with Egypt prevails in his home; he is the master of Pharaoh’s house.  Yosef is still involved in Egyptian life and culture.  It is this connection that finds expression later on, in Egypt’s seventy days of weeping.  Is the nation really so touched by the death of Yaakov?  This is not an inner, genuine weeping, but rather an external show, part of an official ritual.  In the first chapter of The Waning of the Middle Ages, the historian Johan Huizinga describes medieval society as characterized by the need to weep the loudest, to spill the most tears.  Egypt is no different.


It is after the burial that Yosef stands at the most difficult climax of the story.  All of the fear that has accompanied him, the abyss that has opened between him and his brothers – all of this now confronts him in his final scene of weeping, when confronted with the imaginary story that his brothers concoct:

When Yosef’s brothers saw that their father had died, they said: “Perhaps Yosef will hate us and repay us for all the evil we did to him!”

So they sent word urgently to Yosef, saying: “Your father commanded before he died, saying: ‘So shall you say to Yosef, “I pray you, please forgive the sin of your brothers and their iniquity, for they caused evil to you.” ’  And now, please forgive the sin of the servants of your father’s God.”

And Yosef wept as they spoke to him.

It is clear why Yosef cries: what more could he have done for them in order to gain their faith, their affection, and their trust?  Yosef has removed his mask; he has returned to his roots.  He has revealed himself, wept aloud, brought together the torn shreds of their fraternity.  What else can he do?  Despite all of this, Yosef’s brothers continue to regard him with suspicion, and fear that he will take revenge.  Is this the level of brotherly love they award him? Admittedly, they have moved away from their starting point of “They hated him even more,” but the same primal distrust remains.


At this moment, Yosef discovers the limits of raw power.  He discovers the extent to which the human connection, the personal connection, the family connection, hold far more value and importance than does power – both for the person himself and for all those around him.  Ultimately, power finds expression in dependence.  When all is said and done, who is dependent upon whom?  Are Yosef’s brothers dependent upon him – the master, the lord, the ruler, the viceroy – or is he perhaps dependent upon them, yearning for their acceptance, desiring their closeness?


Many years later, Yosef again faces the limits of power: “Yosef said to his brothers: I am dying” (50:24).  In death, all power disappears as though it has never existed; everything is lost.  He continues, “But God will surely remember you”: you belong to the Land of Israel; you belong to the Jewish faith; you belong to our father’s household.  You belong to him, you represent him, while I remain on the outside.  Bring me in, Yosef asks (v. 25): “God will surely remember you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.”


Who will bring up the bones of the brothers to the Land of Israel?  The text, it seems, has no need to address this question; someone will take care of it.  However, there is no one who will willingly, of his own initiative, bring up the bones of Yosef; he must bind his brothers by an oath.  Yosef remains attached to his mask, the mask of his life.


Here the secret is revealed.  It is this that causes Yosef to weep in the beginning, and it is for the same reason that he cries in the end.  He weeps over the weakness inherent in power, over the terrible price that he has paid for it.  His dreams have indeed been realized, on some level, but the tragedy remains just as real.  The torn shreds of the family have not been made completely whole.


When will the shreds be made whole? Only a few hundred years later, with someone who appears on the stage of Jewish history as an infant crying in a basket among the bulrushes.  It is he who seeks the bones of Yosef and, in the midst of the exodus, takes the trouble to bring them up for burial in Israel.  It is only when they leave Egypt, only when they leave the territory where Yosef had been lord and ruler, and only through renewed weeping, that Yosef succeeds – that history succeeds – in sewing the pieces back together.


The story of Yosef’s weeping is a stirring tragedy, full of lessons, brimming with spiritual, psychological, and social significance.  His weeping conveys the inner reality of a person who allows himself to lower all the barriers with which a person tends to surround himself.  By weeping, Yosef allows his inner self to break through and to rise up.


We, too, surround ourselves with barriers, preserving and protecting our individuality and independence, our inner reality; we, too, live in a state of perpetual restraint.  We must learn from Yosef how to overcome our restraint and allow the spiritual essence within us to have its say.




This lecture was adapted by Aviad Hacohen with Yoseif Bloch and Reuven Ziegler, and translated by Kaeren Fish.  It was delivered at the Yemei Iyun be-Tanakh sponsored by Yaacov Herzog College and Yeshivat Har Etzion in the summer of 2006.

[1]       Unless otherwise noted, all citations are from Sefer Bereishit.

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