Jewish Journal


December 31, 2009

Joseph's Tears

Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)


Joseph had a hard life. His own brothers sold him as a slave. He was libeled by his master, thrown in a horrible prison and forced to live far away from his beloved father and family. Yet he was not broken by his experience and he never shed a tear.

When did Joseph cry? He cried only when interacting with his family: when he heard his brothers speaking about the terrible mistake they had made so many years before, of when they had sold their little brother as a slave; when he met Benjamin for the first time after years of separation; when unmasking himself to his brothers, revealing that he was not merely an Egyptian viceroy but rather their brother; when reconciling with his father, Jacob; and when Jacob died.

The last time Joseph cried was right after the family returned from burying Jacob. The Torah records that Joseph’s brothers became worried. They said to each other that perhaps Joseph’s affection to us these past years after our reconciliation was only feigned. Perhaps he’s only been nice to us because he didn’t want to upset Father. Perhaps now that our father Jacob is dead, Joseph will mistreat us.

So they lied to Joseph. They said “Before he died, our father told us to tell you that you should forgive us once and for all.” Joseph’s response? “Joseph cried when they told him this” (Genesis 50:17).

Why did Joseph cry so much? It wasn’t out of physical suffering, and it wasn’t the pain of having a hard life. He cried only when it came to family. His bitterest tears were reserved for those occasions when he perceived that his familial bonds were irreparably severed. He cried when revealing himself to his brothers because he realized that no matter what he did to reconcile with them, things could never be the same as they had been when they were innocent young lads, herding sheep in Canaan.

He cried when seeing Benjamin and his father, realizing that while it was great to see them again after all these years, there was no way to regain all that lost time, of being Benjamin’s older brother, helping him with his homework and shepherding.

There is no greater grief than realizing what might and should have been is now lost forever.

This is why Joseph cried one final time when his brothers fibbed about their father’s last wish. Joseph also knew it wasn’t true, and that the brothers had fabricated the story because they were scared of him.

This only reopened the gaping wound in Joseph’s heart; it was the stark reminder that no matter what he did for his brothers, no matter how much he showed them his love and that he bore them no malice, they would still never fully accept him. Too much damage had been done and there was too much water under the bridge for the distance between them to be fully bridged.

I think we can all relate to Joseph’s tears. We can relate when we think of a loved one who’s not so loved anymore, and we can’t remember why. All we know is that we fondly recall the great times we had, but then something happened and we became distant.

I can relate when I think of the grandparents I never knew because they were killed by the Nazis and all I have are my mother’s stories about them. And surely my mother can relate to Joseph’s tears when thinking about all those years without her parents, which were stolen from her, never to be recovered.

“Josef cried when they told him this.” What anguish Joseph must have had knowing, at this late stage in his life, that he could never go back to being a real brother.

What’s unfortunate on the communal level is the amount of mistrust and xenophobia that exists within the larger Jewish community, where Orthodox Jews don’t have contact with Reform Jews, Persians and Sephardim don’t interact with Ashkenazim, and vice versa. Imagine when the Messiah comes and unifies us as one people; what a joyous day that will undoubtedly be. And yet, we will still be forced to shed Joseph’s tears, because despite all of the reunification, too many years of disparateness and separation will have irrevocably created the lingering rifts between us.

Perhaps one of our efforts in the area of tikkun olam (repairing the world) should be to repair the breaches among brothers and sisters in our own community and to engender a greater spirit of acceptance, tolerance and mutual respect. Before we fix the rest of the world, let’s get our own relations in order and become a closer family.

A unified Jewish people can accomplish far more than a divided one. We have so many years to catch up on. Hopefully, it’s not too late.

N. Daniel Korobkin is rabbi of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, director of synagogue services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region and a community mohel.

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