Parshat VaYigash

In a parsha of dramatic reunions, one that often falls beneath the radar, that of father and son, tantalizes with its ambiguity:

Yosef harnessed his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen; and he appeared before him, he fell on his neck, and he wept on his neck עוד od . [Bereishis, 46:29]

A flourish of unreferenced pronouns – classic Biblical form for deliberate ambiguity leaves the reader to consider who cried and who was cried upon. We also must ponder who did not cry and why not. Finally, the Hebrew word od seems misplaced – for its standard usage implies either still as in od Yosef chai [Yosef is still alive] or additional as in vatahar od [30:7 - she conceived again]. If the word is too mean a lot, should the Torah have not used the word meod or harbeh.

A simple textual analysis goes as follows: Yosef is the known active subject [Yosef harnessed .. went up ..] Since the Torah did not [explicitly] change from the direct subject, it should follow that it was Yosef who appeared before Yaakov and Yosef who fell crying on Yaakov’s shoulders. Indeed, this is classic Rashi /midrashic approach:

And he appeared before him – Yosef appeared to his father. – And he wept on his neck

And what of the word od ? Rashi is forced to opt for a non-standard usage and proceeds to prove its legitimacy:

And od [in this context] means profuse weeping Similarly, od in the sentence “For He does not put too much (od) upon man” (Job, 34:23), is an expression of excessiveness; the verse means “He does not put false charges upon him, in excess of his actual sins. .. Here, too, Yosef wept a great deal – more than is usual.

Of course, one may rightfully wonder what is the usual amount of crying after being sold, enslaved and separated for 22 years from one’s family? That is precisely the point here. Yosef’s crying, due to the circumstances was far greater than a normal bout of tears – leading one to wonder: and what of Yaakov and his lack of tears? Thus Rashi concludes:

But Yaakov did not fall on Yosef’s neck, nor did he kiss him. Our Rabbis said .. because he was reciting Shema.

The Chassid cringes. The Litvak smiles. Both ask – couldn’t Yaakov have waited to say Shema – was the time running out here? (and, if so why did he not say it earlier?) To Rashi we shall yet return

Ramban dissects Rashi’s approach: First, he raises a textual redundancy:

I don’t understand why should the text inform us that Yosef appeared to his father. Is it not obvious that they saw each other when one fell on the other’s shoulder?

Second, an etiquette issue:

It is not appropriate protocol for Yosef to fall on his father’s shoulders. Since Yosef has not seen his father for so long, it would have been more appropriate for Yosef to bow or kiss him before he falls on Yaakov .. when Yosef greeted his brothers, they bowed to him

Third he raises the “od” issue

Whenever it says the word od, it means “in addition to something else”. It does not mean “a lot” or “excessive”.

Thus Ramban inverts the scene:

.. the eyes of Yisroel were already dim from old age[1] .. and Yosef was not recognized by his father. [Remember that] The brothers also did not initially recognize him. The text is relating … as soon as he was recognized by his father, [when they came close], Yaakov fell on Yosef’s neck, and Yaakov cried some more, in continuance of the constant weeping for him in addition to this day, during all the time he had not seen him [i.e. the 22 years Yaakov cried for Yosef during the time he was gone from him].

Ramban’s approach is bolstered by the Torah’s description that throughout Yosef’s absence Yaakov could not be comforted. [37:35]

All his sons and daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted]

To Rashi, this verse bespeaks a rational state engendered by a lack of closure; to Ramban, the pasuk is referring to an ongoing emotional response – a daily cry.

Then Ramban delivers what appears to be a psychological knockout punch to Rashi’s approach:

And I will bring you a proof that it was Yaakov who cried and not Yosef. It is a well-known phenomenon. Who is more likely to cry? The aged father who finds his son alive after despairing and mourning for him, or the young son who rules?

[2]
Consider, who is more likely to cry: Yosef, vibrant leader of Egypt, who enmeshed in the throes of power, or a despairing lonely father who has been aching to find and finally now is able to see his son?

It’s a Rashi – Ramban classic. Rashi opts for text and Ramban for psychology. Ramban seems more compelling. Let us try to restore Rashi. First a deep insight by Rav Hirsch, who along with Rashi’s approach wonders why it is that Yaakov did not cry. He too offers a keen psychological analysis

Yosef, not Yaakov, wept. Why? Yosef wept liberally – while Yaakov’s tears had long since dried up. Yosef continued to weep even after Yaakov had begun conversing with him. Yaakov’s lonely and isolated life had been centered on mourning for Yosef. In contrast, Yosef had experienced many changes of fortune – which did not let him dwell on his homesickness; this encounter with his father [as he fell on his neck] aroused in him nostalgic memories of home, and all these pent-up feelings surged out in his tears.

Caught up in surviving and then subsequent viceroy-ing, Yosef the paradigm exile Jew had nary a moment for reflection. Yaakov who need not concentrate on survival was all about reflection. He cried when he needed to. He was all cried out – perhaps he had already reached despair. When Yosef see his father, twenty years of lost time dawns upon him – evoking wellsprings of tears.

Rav Hirsch’s approach defends Rashi partially. Two pieces remain. What of the “od” and what’s with the shema? To Chizkuni [who opts for Rashi’s essential approach] we turn. First however, consider a remarkable fact about Yosef and sefer Bereishis. We’ve seen Yosef cry before. Counting this occurrence, he cries no less than eight times! Consider that he cries when:

1. his brothers express emotions [He went out of the room and he cried] [42:24]
2. he sees Binyomin [He went out of the room and he cried] [43:30]
3. he reveals his identity to his brothers [45:2]
4. he hugs binyomin – and Binyomin cries as well [45:14]
5. he hugs his brothers [45:15]
6. he sees his father [46:29]
7. his father dies [50:1]
8. his brothers, worried about vengeance make up a story to protect themselves [50:17]

Further consider that other than Eisav and Yaakov, the only people that cry in Sefer Bereishis are Rachel, Yosef and Binyomin! Thus Yosef, a very sensitive man, son of a very sensitive woman, was a great ba’al hairgeish (man of great emotions) who understood the power of bechiya (crying). The same Yosef, who was brought to tears upon seeing his brothers express proper remorse and when he reuniting with his one innocent and full brother, did not burn out on his father. No, Yosef , also cried for his father. Each relationship was special and vital!

And what of Yaakov and the Shema? Here’s the short story: In a world that appears hopelessly fractured between good and bad, where polar opposites seem to irreconcilably reign, glimpses of unity emerge for the sensitive soul. Those moments when for finite man, Hashem and Elokim merge to Hashem echad dare not be wasted. Yaakov who must certainly wondered why all this has happened and is happening – envisages Yosef perched in a position to shepherd his people through the rough exiles waters ahead – sees that unity and can not for but a moment squander the opportunity. Thus he exclaims [to himself] in the deepest place of consciousness,

Shema Yisrael! Let me remember this moment and sear it upon my consciousness and etch it within the collective nishamas Yisrael: yes – there will be rough times ahead – and for those moments, let this snapshot of clarity offer ultimate hope and meaning.

As Bereishis draws close to the end and the nation plods into exile, it rides upon the heart of Yosef, the beacon of raw and powerful Jewish passion and the head of Yaakov, the expositor of brilliant and deep Jewish thought – knowing and feeling that redemption and clarity most certainly lies ahead.

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[1] Ramban adds a 2nd possibility: or that Yosef came in his chariot with his face covered by the turban, as is the custom of Egyptian kings.

[2] An additional rationale to explain why Yosef did not cry: Yosef knew that his father was alive. For Yaakov, the moment’s poignancy is enhanced due to its unexpected and rapid nature, while Yosef has time to become comfortable with the reality.