"And He Fell Upon His Neck and Wept"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Summarized by Ramon Widmonte with Reuven Ziegler



Yosef harnessed his chariot and he went up towards his father, Yisrael, to Goshen. And he appeared before him and he fell upon his neck, and he wept more on his neck. Yisrael said, "Let me die now, after I have seen your face - that you are still alive." (Bereishit 46:29-30)


            There is a certain linguistic tension within these verses - we are not quite sure who cried at this reunion. One could connect the word vayevk, "and he cried," to the preceding verses, in which case Yosef is the subject throughout this section - it is he who is active. "And Yosef harnessed his chariot, and he went up towards his father ... and he appeared before him, and he fell upon his neck, and he wept."


            Alternatively, we could say that there is a break in the middle of verse 29 where the subject changes, and the section therefore is to be understood, "And he [Ya'akov] fell upon his [Yosef's] neck and he wept ... Yisrael said ..." Here, the meaning is that Ya'akov, in the midst of his tears and sorrow, falls on his son's neck and says that now he can die, since he has seen his son's face again.


            There is a famous dispute about this verse between Rashi and the Ramban. Rashi espouses the former view, the Ramban the latter. Let us examine the details of the dispute.


            The Ramban's difficulty with the verse centers on the word od - literally, "more." What is the meaning of the phrase, "And he wept more"? The Ramban refers us to Bereishit 37:35, "And his father cried over him." He explains that since Yosef had disappeared 22 years earlier (he was 17 when he went to search for his brothers, he was 30 when he stood before Pharaoh, and it was now the second year of the famine following seven years of plenty - in total: 13 + 7 + 2 = 22), Ya'akov had cried for his son every single day. The verse, according to the Ramban, means that Ya'akov added more tears to those he had already shed.


            Moreover, in that style so unique to the Ramban, he utilizes his insight into human psychology to explain why it had to be Ya'akov who cried. He writes,


It is a well known phenomenon - by whom are more tears shed? By the aging father who finds his son alive after the despair and mourning, or by the young and regal son?


            The Ramban relates to the situation on two levels. On a general level, he observes that the love a parent bears a child is qualitatively different from that which a child bears a parent. Furthermore, in this case, we are not dealing with an ordinary child-parent reunion. Here the father is old and broken, while the child is secure and strong. Ya'akov tears are amplified by his particular situation.


            On a more specific level, the Ramban indicates something unique to Yosef's particular position. Yosef has already expressed a desire to be rid of his past and his familial ties, "God has let me forget all my trouble and all my father's house" (Bereishit 41:51; cf. Seforno). Now, all of a sudden, out of this dim, forgotten, unwanted past, an old, broken man comes forth to re-forge a link in which Yosef is no longer interested. Moreover, Yosef can afford to relinquish his ties to his "father's house;" he has established new connections, and is firmly ensconced as "the royal son." In the prime of his strength, Yosef comes in his chariot, symbol of his status in Egyptian society (Bereishit 41:43) and of his power. It is clear that for him the meeting provokes mixed feelings.


            Thus, the Ramban concludes that on the general and particular levels, it would seem that Yosef would be more removed from the emotion of the reunion, while his father would be swept away.


            Rashi explains the verse in the opposite direction, and in light of the Ramban's explanation, Rashi's explanation gains profundity.


            Rashi, too, has trouble understanding the word od, "more." Eventually, Rashi explains that it serves as an adverb, describing the intensity of the weeping:


[Yosef] wept excessively, i.e., more than is usual. However, Ya'akov did not fall on Yosef's neck, nor did Ya'akov weep. Our Rabbis have explained that Ya'akov was reciting the Shema.


            Rashi's comment is astounding. A father has mourned for twenty-two years, and has wept every single day for a son he will never see again.  Then this father suddenly receives a gift he never dreamed of - the son returns from the dead and stands before him in the flesh.  At this moment the father recites the Shema? How are we to understand this?


            We could say, "What an incredible level he attained - he has ERASED all human feeling; he has become superhuman!"  There are two problems with such an explanation and its underlying assumptions. Firstly, it presents a problematic understanding of the patriarchs; secondly, its portrayal of the importance and place of emotion is skewed.


            Let us deal with the first problem. There has been a recognisable trend among many of the later commentators on the Torah to sever the patriarchs not only from the world of emotion, but from the world itself, portraying them not as human beings but as angels. It is vital that we understand that the patriarchs and the matriarchs were indeed spiritual giants, and the sources reflect this. For example, the Midrash Rabba on our parasha (95:2) speaks of the patriarchs, specifically Avraham Avinu, in the following fashion, "His two kidneys became like two jugs of water flowing with Torah." This midrash portrays Avraham Avinu as being in such harmony with God and Torah that his body itself, as it were, automatically observed mitzvot and furthered God's aims.


            However, it is specifically because they were human beings, people who experienced the regular emotions of every father and mother toward their children, that they were so extraordinary. In commenting on Ya'akov's pithy phrase describing Rachel's death, "For my wife bore me two children" (Bereishit 44:27), the Ramban explains that Ya'akov meant that he loved Rachel so much that it was as if he had only two sons, and the other children were like children of concubines. The Ramban's explanation portrays Ya'akov as a very human man, a man who experienced a deep and intense level of raw human emotion.


            The second problem - the misunderstanding of the role of emotion - is due to a mistaken perception of feelings as something weak and unwanted. This belief is based upon the assumption that our relationship towards the world at large, and especially towards God, should be based on cold intellect alone. In his Guide, the Rambam does indeed frown upon certain types of emotional behavior, but those are extremes which we are not discussing.  Emotion is not something inferior. It is a necessary, accepted and important part of our relationships with other people and with God. When Chazal said that "Whoever is greater than his fellow has a greater yetzer than his fellow" (Sukka 52a), they meant not the yetzer ha-ra (evil impulse), but rather the intensity of emotion in general.  Great people are outstanding not only in terms of their intellect, but also in terms of the refinement, sensitivity and intensity of their emotion.  Judaism does not demand that one quash all emotion. For example, the Ramban, in his introduction to Torat Ha-adam, is vehemently opposed to the idea of a purely intellectual and emotionless personality.


            If we truly wish to understand Rashi in all his depth and greatness, and to appreciate the Herculean proportions of human development which Ya'akov Avinu is portrayed as having reached, we must understand him in the light of the fact that Ya'akov Avinu felt every single one of the emotions experienced by every human being. We must see that despite the very human longings for his son, despite years of grief and mourning felt with a depth that any human being would feel, Ya'akov nevertheless was able to overcome his very human feelings and concentrate and say the Shema.  Just as the Torah emphasizes Ya'akov's great love for Yosef and his intense mourning for him, it also teaches that Avraham was willing to follow God's word and sacrifice Yitzchak not because he did not care for Yitzchak, but rather despite his great love for and tenderness towards him.


            This, I believe, is a truer understanding of Rashi - portraying emotion as a critical part of the human make-up, and painting the patriarchs and matriarchs as people who were at once very human in their struggles with humanity's innate frailties, and also very great in their religious and moral development. 


            In light of this, one could easily ask why on earth Ya'akov Avinu would choose specifically that moment for saying the Shema; this something we will leave for another time.  What is important at this point is to stress that he was not above emotion.  He felt deeply, but was still able to control his emotions when it came time to serve God.


(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Vayigash 5757 [1996].)