“Is My Father Still Alive?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, we read of one of the most dramatic moments in the Torah, when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers.

In Genesis 45, the Torah relates, that after pushing his brothers to the brink, Joseph could no longer restrain himself, and asked that everyone except for his brothers, be removed from the room. Joseph cried out in a loud voice so that all of Egypt and Pharaoh’s household heard, and said to his brothers (Genesis 45:3), “Ah’nee Yosef, Ha’ohd ah’vee chai?” “I am Joseph, is my father still alive?”

What is Joseph asking? After all, Joseph’s brothers had already told him that their father Jacob would die if Benjamin is not released and allowed to return home, so obviously Joseph knows that his father is still alive. (See Vayigash 5763-2002 , where a possible explanation for Joseph’s question was suggested.)

A unique interpretation of this particular scene by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was recently brought to my attention. Before sharing his interpretation, I would like to tell you about Rabbi Soloveitchik, whom I had the privilege of studying with at Yeshiva University in the early 1970s. I think it is important to know who Rabbi Soloveitchik was, in order to better appreciate this particular interpretation.

I take the liberty of paraphrasing some of the things that I wrote about Rabbi Solovetchik in a holiday message for Simchat Torah 5764-2003, entitled “Celebrating Torah.”

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the late Rosh HaYeshiva (head teacher) of Yeshiva University’s Rabbinic School, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), was perhaps, more than any other person in our generation, the one person who most lyrically and poetically described the beauty of Torah study. In the forty years that he served as Rosh HaYeshiva, he taught thousands of students and inspired many tens of thousands with his lectures. The recordings of his lectures and classes, and the many writings about his teachings, continue to inspire multiple generations of admirers and followers. This coming Passover will mark the twentieth anniversary of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s passing.

In his writings and lectures, Rabbi Soloveitchik frequently recalls how the love for Torah study that was powerfully transmitted in his home, and how alive Torah was for the young Yoseph Ber. Rabbi Soloveitchik remembers that, as a young child of seven or eight, he would lie in bed at night and listen to his father (Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, 1874-1941), who was studying with his students in the adjoining room, debate over a portion in the Talmud or a section of the Code of Maimonides. He describes how exciting it was–like a real battle. But in the end, Maimonides would always prevail. Some children play with toy soldiers, Rabbi Soloveitchik played with living images of the ancient rabbis and fantasized about them.

One night, after struggling with a particularly difficult passage, he heard his father, for the first time, express defeat, and announce that the portion of the Code of Maimonides that they had been studying simply did not make sense. Maimonides had been vanquished. He had been defeated!

Terribly upset, the young child, Yoseph Ber, jumped out of bed, ran to his mother, and began crying, “Mommy, mommy, Maimonides has been defeated!” His mother comforted him and said: “Don’t worry. Your father and the students will continue to study. They’ll continue to argue in order to try to understand the portion, and eventually Maimonides will prevail. And if not, when you grow up, you will study hard in order to elucidate this problem, and you will show how Maimonides is truly correct!”

The passion of his childhood feelings for Torah remained with Rabbi Soloveitchik for his entire life. It is the passion that he so powerfully and effectively communicated to his students in his classes and lectures.

In a lecture entitled, “The Future of Jewish Education in America,” which Rabbi Soloveitchik delivered at Lincoln Square Synagogue on May 28, 1975, Rabbi Soloveitchik goes into more detail about his early education. He relates that his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, was a rabbi of a small town, Khislavichi, that was located on the border of White Russia and Russia proper.

When he was seven or eight years old, Rabbi Soloveitchik attended a Cheder school, like many other Jewish boys. The Melamed (teacher) was a Chabad Chassid (a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe). Although the Melamed was not a great scholar, Rabbi Soloveitchik expressed profound gratitude to him throughout his life, because, aside from his own mother, the Melamed was the only one to teach the young child how to, not only practice the rituals of Judaism, but how to live Judaism.

It was a murky winter day in January, cloudy and overcast, during the Chanukah festival. The Torah portion of the week was Vayigash. Although the Chanukah holiday interrupted the dreariness of the winter, the boys knew that a long, desolate, cold winter lay ahead, in which they would have to get up while it was still dark, and return home with a lantern, because nightfall was so early.

Rabbi Soloveitchik described the mood of the boys as depressed that particular Chanukah day, listless, lazy and sad. Everything in the Cheder was recited mechanically, in a dull monotone, droning the words in both Hebrew and in Yiddish.

The tired and bored students read about Judah approaching Joseph. Droning in Yiddish and in Hebrew a child read the verses (Genesis 44:19-20), “My lord has asked his servants: ‘Have you a father or a brother?’ And we said to the lord, “We have an old father and a young child of his old age.”

Suddenly the Rebbe, who himself was half asleep, rose and jumped to his feet with a strange gleam in his eyes, and motioned to the reader to stop. Rabbi Soloveitchik relates that the Rebbe then turned to him and called out, “Podrabin,” a sarcastic way, of referring to him as “assistant to the rabbi,” and asked, “What kind of question did Joseph ask his brothers, ‘Hayaish la’chem av? Do you have a father?’ Of course they have a father, everybody has a father! The only person who had no father was the first man of creation, Adam, but anyone who was born into this world has a father. What kind of question was it?” The young Joseph Ber Soloveitchik tried to answer, but the Rebbe cut him off. Finally he was able to blurt out that what Joseph was really asking was, Is his father still alive?

“If he really meant that,” the Rebbe thundered back, “then he should have said, ‘Ha’od ah’vee’chem chai?’ Is your father still alive, not do you still have a father?” Rabbi Soloveitchik states that it was useless to argue with the Melamed.

Then, when the Rebbe began to speak, he seemed to be speaking to some mysterious visitor. The Melamed then explained that the formulation of Joseph’s question indicates that Joseph had no intention to ask his brothers about “visible parenthood,” he was in fact asking about “mysterious parenthood” (apparently, a Chabad expression). Rabbi Soloveitchik continues his description of the interchange:

In modern idiom, Joseph was inquiring about “existential parenthood,” not “biological parenthood.” The Melamed explained that Joseph was asking whether his brothers felt themselves committed to their roots, to their origins. “Are you,” Joseph asked his brothers, “rooted to your father? Do you look upon him like a tree, the way branches or blossoms look upon the roots of a tree. Do you consider your father a feeder, a foundation of your existence? Do you look upon him as a provider and sustainer of your existence, or are you a band of rootless shepherds, who forget their makor, their origin, and travel and wander from place to place, from pasture to pasture?”

The teacher then stopped addressing the invisible visitor, turned to his students and said, “Do you children admit that your old father represents an old tradition? Do you believe that a father is capable of telling you something new, something exciting, something challenging, something you did not know before? Or, are you insolent, arrogant, vain and deny your dependence upon your father, upon your makor?”

Rabbi Soloveitchik concludes the story:

“Ha’yaish la’chem av? Do you have a father?” explained the Melamed, pointing at my study-mate. I had a study-mate who was considered a child prodigy in the town. He was the prodigy, and I had a reputation of being slow. His name was Isaac, and the Rebbe turned to him and said, “Who knows more? Do you know more because you are well-versed in the Talmud, or does your father, Jacob the blacksmith, know more, even though he can barely read Hebrew? Are you proud of your father? If a Jew admits to the supremacy of his father, then ipso facto, he admits to the supremacy of the Universal Father, the Ancient Creator of the world, who is called Atik Yomim.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik says that that particular experience made a profound and indelible impression upon him that he has never forgotten.

It is indeed a most valuable lesson, that all of us must incorporate into the very essence of our beings.

May you be blessed.

NJOP expresses its sympathies to the families of the victims of the horrendous mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.  May all the families be comforted and may the leaders of our country succeed in finding a way to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.