Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 26 December 2020 / 11 Tevet 5781

Parashat Vayigash

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Library Library Library

Tears — Then and Now

The long-awaited reunion between Yaakov and Yosef is most unusual in one regard: Yosef cries, but Yaakov does not. Yaakov had ceased to weep, but Yosef continued to weep while Yaakov was talking with him.

Throughout all of the years of Yosef’s absence, Yaakov was overcome with mourning. The few sentences recorded in the Torah during this time show the grief that occupied his heart and mind. His emotions were spent. Yosef, on the other hand, had led a most eventful life in Egypt. He does not mourn his loss. In fact, in the naming of his first child, Yosef evidences a certain gratitude for his losses.

Yosef names his first child Menasheh — “for G-d has ‘nashani’ all of my troubles and all of my father’s house.” This verse is ordinarily translated as “G-d made me forget all my trouble and all of my father’s house.” But Rav Hirsch shudders at the suggestion that Yosef is grateful for the ability to forget his aged father and his entire father’s family. That rendition would force us to conclude that Yosef was a heartless man who took no interest in his father’s fate. Instead, Rav Hirsch understands the word as its alternate meaning — to be a creditor — rendering the statement as “G-d has turned all of my trouble and all of my father’s household into my creditors.” What had seemed to be misfortune and tragedy, G-d turned into an instrument to shape my happiness, so that I find myself deeply indebted to my trouble and to my family.

This is the attitude that accompanies Yosef throughout his travails in Egypt, and upon the first opportunity he expresses this to his brothers: “Do not be troubled… that you sold me here, for G-d sent me ahead of you, to preserve life… G-d sent me ahead of you to establish for you a remnant in the land, to preserve it for you, for your great deliverance. So it was not you who sent me here but G-d! And He has appointed me as a father to Pharaoh, master of his entire household and ruler of the whole land of Egypt.” (Gen. 45:5-8)

But here we see Yosef’s pent up sadness pouring out — he surrenders completely to the pain of separation for his father. Only now, in his father’s embrace, did he feel all the pain of the separation, reliving the twenty years that had already passed.

  • Sources: Commentary Bereishet 46:29; 41:51

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