Rabbi Weinreb’s Parsha Column, Vayigash


It was Carol who initiated the most fascinating interchange that evening. It was the 11th session of our class, dedicated to studying the topic of leadership by examining the text of the book of Genesis. It was also the next to last class session, so that it was only natural that there was already an atmosphere of sadness in the room.

“On my way to class tonight,” she began, “I suddenly became aware that next week will be our final session. I know that you will think that I am just a sentimental woman. After all, you’ve been calling me ‘big sister’ since day one. But I doubt that I am the only one who is feeling sad tonight, knowing that we will soon be saying goodbye to one another.”

Everyone in the class nodded, silently. It was Myron, the usually expressionless Myron, who not only gave voice to his emotions, but connected them to the text we were studying that evening, the Torah portion of Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27).

“I noticed something in last week’s parsha. Joseph, whom we’ve been looking at as a model leader, and a very strong one at that, weeps. In his first encounter with his brothers as Viceroy, and just before he seizes Simeon as a prisoner, he turns away from his brothers, secludes himself, and weeps. Later, when the brothers return to Egypt with Benjamin, he is so moved by the sight of his younger brother that he is overwhelmed by his compassion and feels the need to cry. So he withdraws to his private chamber and weeps there. I was profoundly moved by those tears.”

Somehow, the rest of the class sensed that Myron was not finished and that he was about to open up and express himself in a very personal way. “I have gained the reputation in this group of being expressionless, perhaps even stoic. If I am that way, it’s because I was raised to suppress my emotions. I always hear my father saying to me, ‘Big boys don’t cry!’ It is no wonder, then, that Joseph, who certainly was a ‘big boy’ at this point in the story, moved me to tears with his tears.”

Carol remained true to her “big sister” role. “I have two things to say to you, Myron. First of all, I think we were all quite surprised to see how emotionally vulnerable Joseph was. His position of great power did not diminish his humanity. He was able to cry, and from that fact we can perhaps learn that great leaders can also shed tears.

“But secondly, Myron,” she continued, “those tears persist in this week’s Torah portion. I counted at least five times that the verb “to weep” appears in Parshat Vayigash. There are lessons of leadership in all that weeping.”

Othniel, ever serious and consistently task-oriented, drew our attention to the text. “Carol is right on,” he confirmed. “I think we should closely examine the passages to which she refers.”

He proceeded to read them both:

“With that he fell upon his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.” (Genesis 45:14)

“Joseph…went to Goshen to meet his father Israel; he presented himself to him, and embracing him around the neck, he wept on his neck a good while.” (Genesis 46:29)

“How would you have us examine these passages, Othniel,” I asked, finally asserting my role as the teacher of the class.

Othniel was not fazed by my question. “Why, there is only one way to begin to examine a biblical text. It is by consulting Rashi’s commentary!”

Before I could ask him what Rashi had to say, Zalman eagerly intercepted: “Rashi says a strange thing. He says on the first verse that Joseph wept because he saw the tragedy that lay ahead in Benjamin’s future; namely, the destruction of the two holy Temples which were situated in Benjamin’s territory. And Benjamin wept because of Joseph’s future fate, the destruction of the Tabernacle at Shiloh, the land of Joseph’s descendants. Neither one of them wept for himself. They wept for each other. To put aside one’s own needs and to feel the other’s pain—now there’s a lesson in leadership for you!”

I knew that Othniel would not let Zalman’s insight go by without trying to match it. “I found another leadership lesson in that Rashi,” he retorted. “A leader cannot just look at present circumstances, at the here and now. He must be able to anticipate the future. And he cannot just survey his own reality, but must be able to see the broader picture, the welfare not just of his tribe, but of the society as a whole.”

Sam summarized: “We have learned at least three lessons about leadership today. First of all, we have learned that there is an emotional dimension to leadership, so that the leader must be able to weep and shed tears. Permit me to add that he must also be able to laugh.

“Secondly, we learned that a leader must be able to feel the pain of others. I would like to suggest that this fits very well with the passage in the Talmud which I studied in another class that reads, ‘He who prays for his fellow will have his own prayers answered first.’

“Finally, we learned that a leader cannot just be satisfied with knowing present conditions. Joseph was able to look into Benjamin’s distant future. That’s the secret of leadership. Incidentally, Benjamin also revealed that he can be a great leader. He too weeps, shows empathy for his brother, and somehow senses the tragic destiny that lies ahead for Joseph.”

The class knew that I had training in psychology, not just in rabbinics. They probably did not know, however, that I had a postgraduate certificate in group psychotherapy and a lifelong interest in the study of group dynamics.

It was the psychologist in me that felt compelled to point out that the themes we were discussing were not just the themes of the biblical story we were studying. Rather, they were the themes which we were living out in the class session that evening: sadness for the experience of fellowship and camaraderie that was soon to end; empathy for one another; and of course, transcending the confines of the present and beginning to imagine what the future might hold in store for the group as a whole, and for each of its members individually.

It was the rabbi in me that felt compelled to end this class session by quoting this Midrash:

” ‘He gave voice to his sobs, which were so loud that the Egyptians could hear…’ (Genesis 45:2)

” ‘Just as Joseph could only win over his brothers with tears, so too, the Holy One Blessed Be He will only redeem Israel in the midst of tears,’

” ‘As it is written, ‘They shall come with weeping, and with compassion will I guide them.’ (Jeremiah 31:8)”