“And He Fell On His Neck and Wept”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, we read of the dramatic reunion of Joseph and his elderly father, Jacob, who has come from the land of Canaan to see his son who is now the second most powerful person in all of Egypt.

Scripture tells us (Genesis 46:29): “Va’yeh’eh’sor Yosef mer’kav’to, va’ya’al lik’rat Yisrael ah’viv Gosh’nah,” And Joseph harnessed his chariot and went up to meet Israel, his father, in Goshen. Although, Joseph certainly had many servants, the Torah tells us that Joseph personally harnessed his own chariot, demonstrating his love and respect for his father. Joseph then sets out for the land of Goshen, the designated residence of the Jewish people. Genesis 46:29 describes the meeting: “Va’yay’rah ay’lahv, va’yee’pol al tza’vah’rav, va’yayvk al tza’vah’rav od,” and he appeared before him, and he fell on his neck, and he wept on his neck excessively.

What appears to be a simple and straightforward verse, turns out to be an immensely complex one, since it is difficult to discern who is the subject and who the object in this verse. While it’s true that Joseph travels toward his father who is in the land of Goshen, it is not clear whether Joseph appears to Jacob or Jacob appears to Joseph. Nor is it apparent who falls on to whose neck and cries excessively.

Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) argues that it is Jacob who falls on Joseph’s neck, for it would be disrespectful for Joseph to fall on his father’s neck. In fact, in those days it would have been expected that the son bow and kiss his father’s hand. Furthermore, argues the Ramban, the word “od” in the verse does not mean excessively, it means “more.” After all, the scene depicts the aged parent who has found his long-lost son alive after despairing and mourning for him. It is far more likely that it is the elderly father who has been grieving for his missing son for the past 22 years who is crying once again. The young son, who is now a comfortable and powerful ruler, the son who never once contacted his father during all this time, is hardly likely to fall on his father’s neck and cry.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, the foremost commentator on the Bible) argues that the word “od” here means “excessively” and that it was indeed Joseph who fell on his father’s neck. In fact, insists Rashi, citing an enigmatic statement of the rabbis, Jacob did not fall on Joseph’s neck and did not even kiss him, because he was busy reciting the Shema at that moment!

Could it possibly be that the aged father, who mourned for his son so desperately all these years, could not find a better time to recite the Shema than the very moment of his long awaited reunion with his son?

Nechama Leibowitz (famed Bible teacher, 1905-1997) in her brilliant Studies in Bereishith (Genesis), fills in the “blanks” with the words of the Be’er Yitzchak’s (Yitzchak Yaakov Horowitz of Yaroslaw, d. 1864) supercommentary on Rashi:

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 exclusively 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 Shema. By a deliberate effort of mind, he directed his intense love to the Creator.

How is it possible for Jacob, at this dramatic moment, to turn away from his beloved son, Joseph, and turn to G-d? Because Jacob understood that the words of Deuteronomy 6:5: “V’ah’hav’tah ayt Hashem Eh’lo’keh’chah,” and you shall love the Lord, your G-d, were not just a prayer, but a declaration to G-d. By reciting the Shema at that moment, Jacob in effect proclaimed “You, G-d, the source of all love, have miraculously given Joseph back to me, my beloved ben zekunim, the son of my old age, the love of my life, and the son of my beloved wife, Rachel.”

From the actions of Jacob at this critical moment, we learn that only one who acknowledges love of G-d, can truly express full and complete love of human beings. Only one who recognizes that a child is a gift of G-d, can feel the ultimate specialness of that offspring. Without G-d, no one is special. Human beings may be regarded as mere collections of cellular material, albeit with special chromosomes and very particular DNA, but cellular collections nonetheless! Without G-d, a mortal is unable to appreciate that there can be a connection between souls, a connection of human spirits and a connection of love. That is why the moment of reunion with Joseph was a truly propitious time for Jacob to say to G-d, “I love You!” so that he, Jacob, in short order, would be able to say wholeheartedly to Joseph, “I truly love you!”

This lesson is over 3,000 years old, but it is a lesson that is just as cogent and as relevant as if it were delivered yesterday.

May you be blessed.