January 2nd-3rd, 2004!
9 Teves, 5764
I’m imagining for a moment: What would be the first thing I’d do upon
being reunited with one of my sons after more than 20 years without any
I’m sure I would embrace my child and shower him with kisses, shedding
tears of joy and relief all the while. (And I daresay that you
readers—y’all, as we residents of the Deep South like to say—would
probably do much the same.)
Well, what happens—in this week’s Torah portion— when the aged patriarch,
Ya’akov, first lays eyes on his (favorite) son, Yosef, after more than 20
inconsolable years spent believing that he was dead?! (What’s more,
Ya’akov now sees Yosef—removed from his house as a callow youth of
17—dressed in royal garb, viceroy to the most powerful monarch on the face
of the earth!)
The Torah records the scene:
"Yosef harnessed his chariot and went up to meet Yisrael [Ya’akov], his
father, in Goshen. He appeared before him, fell on his neck, and he
wept on his neck excessively. Then Yisrael
said to Yosef, ‘Now I can die, after my
having seen your face, because you are still alive.’" (46, 29-30;
There are different ways to understand the verse in boldface, it’s true,
since the Torah leaves the subject somewhat ambiguous (i.e., who is
appearing before whom?). But we’ll follow the interpretation of Rashi, who
goes with the most sensible grammatical reading. Since Yosef is the
subject of the previous clause, it is he who appeared before Ya’akov, fell
on his [Ya’akov’s] neck, and wept excessively.
If so, however, we are certainly entitled to ask an obvious question. What
was Ya’akov doing while his son was hugging him and weeping copiously? Why
wasn’t he also weeping (as we all agree most fathers would)? Could Ya’akov
have been just standing there impassive at this moment of supreme, and
Anticipating our question, Rashi cites an ancient rabbinic teaching. At
the very moment of his reconciliation with his beloved, long-lost son…Ya’akov
recited the Shema!
This might seem strange to many people. After all, the Shema refers to the
daily commandment to utter those words that comprise the supreme
declaration of our Jewish faith: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your G-d,
the Lord is One…You shall love the Lord, your G-d, with all your heart,
with all your soul and with all your might, etc.." These words are
recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy…which is part of the Torah that, in
Ya’akov’s time, had not yet been revealed unto mankind!
To better understand this (or maybe not!), know that there is a
fascinating (and profound) tradition—cited by many of our Torah
commentators—that the Patriarchs kept the totality of the Torah before it
was given! With their penetrating, and indeed prophetic insight into G-d’s
Creation, they were able to discern—as it were—the existence of all the
commandments of the Torah…which, our Sages tell us, preceded the Creation
of the universe and was G-d’s blueprint for the Creation of the universe.
("G-d looked into the Torah, and created the world…")
But I don’t want to get involved in that aspect of things at the moment.
Let’s just say that the meaning of Ya’akov "reciting the Shema" when he
first saw Yosef is that he gave verbal expression to those ideas that are
the essence of the
Shema, ideas that certainly were known to him, since they formed the basis
of our ancestors’ monotheism—the tradition passed down (with the greatest
seriousness and dedication) from his grandfather, Avraham.
What is the essence of the Shema? Simply put: the declaration of the unity
of G-d, and of our obligation to love and fear Him, and the acceptance of
His service. Our Sages referred to the Shema as "the acceptance of the
Kingship of Heaven." It is not just a philosophical or abstract
declaration of the existence of a single Deity. It is the pledge of
allegiance to serve Him, the One Who knows all of what transpires on this
earth (and in our minds)—accepting His kingship upon ourselves, and
expressing our devotion to Him through study of Torah and acts of
righteousness (the "yoke of the commandments"). And not just any old
"service," but a supreme service of LOVE and self-sacrifice, a service
with all of our hearts (our thoughts and emotions), and all our strength.
Back to Ya’akov. At the moment when his dear son, Yosef, was weeping on
his neck, then, Ya’akov was…expressing his love and devotion to the One
G-d, and wholeheartedly accepting His Kingship upon himself.
I’m not sure that clears everything up. It still might seem rather strange
to us that Ya’akov was, in a sense, "removed" from the immediate—and
"normal"—emotional reality of this moment of longed-for reconciliation!
Perhaps we’re thinking: There’s nothing wrong with thanking and praising
G-d, but for crying out loud, first hug your son!
Here’s where we have to adjust our own thinking a bit in order to better
understand Ya’akov’s behavior, and to grasp what the Torah is teaching us.
And that’s a good thing. One of my wonderful teachers (Rabbi Beryl
Gershenfeld) used to remark to us that the Torah is most valuable not when
it tells us what we already knew (i.e., confirms our own assumptions or
presuppositions), but when it opens our eyes to something we did not think
of beforehand! Or—in this case—when it shows us behaviors that might not
match what we would do in a certain situation…but which are meant to
inspire us to levels of spiritual greatness above our own. (Of course,
it’s already an accomplishment to even admit that someone somewhere—like,
for example, Avraham, Yitzhak, Ya’akov, Sara, Rivka Rachel, Leah—might be,
or might have been, more spiritually advanced than we are.)
It goes without saying that Ya’akov loved his son with the same normal
parental (and human) love that we all have for our children. The Torah
tells us how much Ya’akov grieved when he first learned of Yosef’s
"disappearance," and concluded that he had been killed by a wild animal.
"All his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused
to be comforted, and he said, ‘For I will go down to the grave mourning
over my son.’" (37, 35) And I think it also goes without saying that
Ya’akov wept tears of joy and relief (and gratitude) when he was
reconciled with Yosef…probably immediately after reciting the Shema (and
for the remainder of his life). But first he made sure to turn his
attention to Hashem.
I think that the Torah here wants to emphasize that Ya’akov had a greater
love than that which he felt for his son. In his life, love of G-d was the
primary and fundamental motif and motivation. In this moment of great joy,
Ya’akov wanted first to channel the love and gratitude that filled his
heart towards the Almighty, and so he recited the Shema (i.e., declared
his acceptance of the Kingship of G-d). He also thereby expressed his
realization that G-d had Himself brought about all the circumstances of
Yosef’s sale for the beneficent purpose of bringing down the nascent
Jewish people to Egypt. For implicit in declaring that "G-d is One" is
acknowledging that "His watchful concern and His ability extend over all
and everything" (Sefer HaChinuch)—that His Providence governs what happens
in this world. (Of course, we human beings simultaneously maintain our
freedom of choice, our ability to choose good or evil, in the
circumstances that G-d presents to us.) Before showering his Yosef with
his fatherly love (as he surely did), Ya’akov first directed His thoughts
and his overwhelming emotion to his own Father in Heaven.
Was Ya’akov somehow unusual in elevating the love of G-d over all other
loves, and making it primary in his life? Hardly. Recall that Avraham was
prepared to sacrifice his son, Yitzhak (whom he loved dearly), when G-d
commanded him to do so—showing clearly that his love and awe of G-d took
precedence over his normal parental love and concern. (We read the Akeidah,
or binding of Isaac, on Rosh Hashanah because Avraham’s reverence towards
G-d is meant to be a model for us as we enter the New Year, and a merit
for his us as we earnestly pray before G-d Who sits on the Throne of
Is this not expected of us as well, we who declare (in the Shema), "you
shall love the Lord, your G-d, with all your heart"?
G-d forbid that we should ever be put to the nisyonos (tests) that were
given by G-d to Avraham or Ya’akov, but still we learn from their example
that the highest love of the righteous (whom we all are supposed to
emulate) is reserved for G-d alone.
I know that I can’t begin to express how much I love my own children, and
I thank G-d every day for each one of them (despite the fact that I can’t
wait for them to return to school next week at the end of this too, too
long vacation). But nonetheless, I recite the Shema each day, in which I
declare that the love which is to fill all my heart and transcend my love
for any other human being…is the love of G-d.
Maimonidies, who is often misleadingly termed a "rationalist" in his
approach to the Torah and its commandments, was filled with the most
passionate love of G-d imaginable. He writes in his Laws of Repentance
(from the Mishneh Torah): "It is known and certain that the love of G-d
does not become closely knit in a man’s heart till he is continuously and
thoroughly possessed by it, and gives up everything else in the world for
it; as G-d commanded us, ‘[You shall love the Lord, your G-d] with all
your heart and with all your soul.’" (my emphasis) There are many similar
passages in his work. We must be prepared to give up everything for our
love of G-d.
What can we take away from this glimpse we’ve had of Ya’akov reciting the
Shema when he sees his son? Perhaps the basic lesson that we are called on
to "connect" all the joys we experience in life back to the One Who gave
(and gives) them to us. (In fact, this is the very essence of making a
blessing before the food we eat: to connect the joy and pleasure we are
about to experience back to the One Who has given it. MAKING BLESSINGS
BEFORE EATING IS A GREAT WAY TO DEVELOP LOVE AND AWE OF G-D.) At a moment
of supreme and almost unimaginably great joy in Ya’akov’s life, he makes
sure to connect it back to the One Who gave it, to acknowledge that
everything has come, and comes, from Him Alone. May we all try to do the
same, to strive to reach the level of Ya’akov, who in all moments of life
"clung unto" G-d, and connected all of his joys…including the joy of
seeing Yosef…back to their Source.
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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