“The Reunion of Jacob & Joseph: An Immortal Lesson About Love”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, Parashat Vayigash, we read of the dramatic reunion of Joseph and his father, Jacob, after 22 years of being apart.

Joseph has revealed himself to his brothers, and awaits his father’s arrival in Egypt. According to the Midrash, the brothers of Jacob were afraid that a sudden announcement that Joseph was alive might shock and harm their father, so they sent one of Jacob’s granddaughters, Serach, the daughter of Asher, to prepare Jacob for the news. She began to play her harp and sing a song about Joseph still being alive, and that he was the ruler of Egypt. Jacob scolded Serach, and told her to stop taunting him, but she continued to sing. Eventually she succeeded in lifting Jacob’s spirits from the long sadness that had enveloped him in the preceding years.

The Midrash says that despite his emotional improvement, Jacob still refused to accept the information as true until he saw the wagons that were sent by Joseph from Egypt, laden with all the good of Egypt. The commentators even say that the wagons were an allusion to the last Torah lesson that Jacob and Joseph had studied together, which was something that only Joseph could have known. In chapter 45, verse 28, Israel says: “Rav ode Yosef b’nee chai, elcha v’erenu b’terem a’moot!” How great that my son Joseph still lives. I shall go and see him before I die!

Jacob, however, is afraid to go down to Egypt. G-d tells him not to fear, because this journey is a fulfillment of the prophecy of the “Covenant Between the Pieces” in which G-d tells Abraham that the Jews will be enslaved for 400 years, and that they will eventually go out with great wealth. Jewish destiny will not be denied, and Jacob goes down to Egypt with 70 souls.

And then the dramatic reunion. Chapter 46, verse 29, descibes the scene: “Va’ye’eh’sor Yosef mer’kav’to, va’ya’al likrat Yisrael aviv Gosh’na,” and Joseph harnessed his chariot, and went up to meet Israel, his father, in Goshen. Despite the fact that Joseph had numerous aides and servants, he himself hastens to harness his chariot, to greet his father in Goshen. This act of honoring father and mother on the part of Joseph, balances a murderous and treacherous act of Pharaoh later in the Exodus story. Because of Pharaoh’s unmitigated hatred of the Jewish people, he also harnesses his chariot (Exodus 14:6) to chase after the children of Israel after they leave Egypt. The act of love and respect on Joseph’s part, ultimately nullifies Pharaoh’s action, and results in the salvation of the Jewish people.

But the description of the reunion as delineated in the biblical text is very complicated and ambiguous. Chapter 46, verse 29 continues, “Va’yay’rah elav,” and he appeared before him, “Va’yi’pol al tza’varav,” and he fell on his neck, “Va’yefk al tza’varav ode,” and he wept even more on his neck, or he wept excessively. Then Israel says dramatically, “Now I can die, after my having seen your face, because you are still alive.”

Verse 29 begs many questions. Who fell on who’s neck? Why is the word “tza’varav,” “neck,” in the singular? Didn’t they fall on each other’s necks. And who wept on the other’s neck excessively? And why is the word “Va’yefk,” “cry,” also in the singular? Shouldn’t they each have cried on each other’s necks?

Ramban, Nachmanidies, argues that it was father Jacob who fell on the neck of his son Joseph, and cried more, alluding to the fact, that for the past 22 years Jacob has been in a constant state of mourning and weeping for Joseph. Ramban also argues that since Jacob’s eyes were dim with age, and Joseph appeared to him in a chariot with his face covered by an Egyptian turban, he was not recognized by his father. So the text tells us that as Joseph came closer to Jacob, Jacob recognized Joseph and fell on his neck and wept more. Moreover, he argues, that it is not befitting for a son to fall on his father’s neck. A son should rather bow down to a father, or kiss his hand.

The commentator Rashi, however, disagrees. In one of his most cryptic comments, Rashi says “It was Joseph who appeared to his father, and wept on his neck….but Jacob did not fall on Joseph’s neck and did not kiss him. Our rabbis state that he was reciting the Sh’ma.” Is it possible that after 22 years of mourning for his son, Jacob would not even cry? Could Jacob be so indifferent that at this very moment he chooses to pray the Sh’ma prayer? Couldn’t it wait just a few moments longer.

The Code of Jewish Law, in its explication of proper behavior during the times of prayer, speaks of having proper awareness during prayer. The gloss on the Code of Jewish Law (Chapter 98) by the Rama, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, says that while praying, a person should think of the greatness of G-d and of the meekness of the human being, and should remove all thoughts of mortal pleasure from his heart. Consequently, the Rama writes, it is prohibited for a person to kiss his young children in the synagogue, “in order to establish in his heart that there is no love as great as the love for the Almighty.”

Why did Jacob decide to pray just at that dramatic moment? Why couldn’t he wait a few more moments to say the Sh’ma? One of the recent supercommentaries on Rashi, Beer Yitzchak, cited by Nehama Leibowitz, in Studies in Bereshit (Genesis), provides us with the following insight. “Love, however intense, must never make one forget the supreme object of all love–-the Creator, Blessed be He. Absolute love must be reserved for G-d alone. The ecstatic love and joy experienced by Jacob at his reunion with his long lost favorite son Joseph, almost enveloped him, to the exclusion of all else. From this, Jacob recoiled, realizing that such overriding love must be reserved for the Creator and Cause of all.

“He therefore diverted the wellsprings of love to their true source. This is what our sages meant when they observed that at the moment of their reunion, Jacob recited the Sh’ma. By a deliberate effort of mind he directed his intense love to the Creator.”

Perhaps the Midrash which depicts Jacob saying the Sh’ma at that dramatic moment after 22 years of bereavement is trying to tell us something even more profound about love. Life is a gift, a Divine gift. Should we not therefore express our thanks and our love to the giver of life at the moment of our highest joy? This is the profound lesson from Father Jacob. Even as his life was transformed from one of mourning to utter joy, “My love for my son,” says Jacob, “can only have meaningfulness within the context of my love for G-d.” And, therefore, Jacob felt it necessary to recite the Sh’ma particularly at that moment.

A surprising nuance in the text, a singular form rather than plural, teaches us a most profound and immortal lesson.

May you be blessed.