“The Reunion of Jacob & Joseph: An Immortal Lesson about Love”
(updated and revised from Vayigash 5760-1999)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

After a long, rather torturous confrontation with his brothers, in which Joseph tests his brothers’ loyalty, Joseph reveals himself.  A full reconciliation must wait for their father’s arrival in Egypt.

According to the Midrash (Avot d’Rebbe Natan 45), Joseph’s brothers were fearful that a sudden announcement that Joseph was alive might profoundly shock Jacob and cause him harm. They decided to send one of Jacob’s granddaughters, Serach, the daughter of Asher to subtly prepare Jacob for the incredible news. Serach begins by playing her harp, singing a song that Joseph was still alive and was the ruler of all of Egypt. Upon hearing the song, Jacob scolds Serach and insists that she cease taunting him. She, nevertheless, continues to sing. Eventually, she succeeds in lifting Jacob’s spirits from the long sadness that had enveloped him during the 22 preceding years.

The Midrash, Genesis Rabbah, 94:3, 95:3, says that despite his emotional improvement, Jacob still refused to accept the information as true. It was only when he saw the wagons that were sent by Joseph from Egypt, laden with all the good of Egypt, that he accepted that Joseph was alive. 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. Only then does Israel say (Genesis 45:28): רַב עוֹד יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי, אֵלְכָה וְאֶרְאֶנּוּ בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת  “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. Reassuring Jacob, G-d tells him not to fear, because this journey is a fulfillment of the Divine prophecy of the “Covenant Between the Pieces” (Genesis 15:13) in which G-d informs Abraham that the Jews will be enslaved for 400 years, and that they will eventually leave Egypt with great wealth. Jewish destiny will not be denied, and Jacob goes down to Egypt with 70 souls!

The dramatic reunion that takes place between father and son is described vividly in Genesis 46:29: וַיֶּאְסֹר יוֹסֵף מֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ, וַיַּעַל לִקְרַאת יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִיו גֹּשְׁנָה , 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 personally harness his chariot, to greet his father in Goshen. This act of honoring his father on the part of Joseph, serves to counterbalance the treacherous and murderous act of Pharaoh that occurred later in the Exodus story. Because of Pharaoh’s unmitigated hatred of the Jewish people, Pharaoh also personally harnesses his chariot (Exodus 14:6) to chase after the children of Israel when they flee 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.

The description of the reunion of Jacob and Joseph as delineated in the biblical text is complicated and ambiguous. Genesis 46:29 records the encounter, וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוָּארָיו וַיֵּבְךְּ עַל צַוָּארָיו עוֹד , and he appeared before him, and he fell on his neck, and he wept even more (or excneckessively) on his neck. Israel [Jacob] then dramatically says, “Now I can die, after my having seen your face, because you are still alive.”

The verse raises many questions. Who fell on whose neck? Why does the Hebrew word צַוָּארָיו , “neck,” appear 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 וַיֵּבְךְּ , “he cried,” also in the singular? Shouldn’t they each have cried on each other’s necks?

Ramban 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 had 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. The text, therefore, informs us that as Joseph came closer to Jacob, Jacob recognized Joseph and fell on his neck and wept more. Moreover, Nachmanides argues, it is not befitting for a son to fall on his father’s neck. A son normally, respectfully bows down to his father, or kisses his hand.

Rashi, however, disagrees. In one of his most cryptic comments, Rashi states, “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 Shema.”

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 Shema prayer? Couldn’t Jacob wait just a few more moments?

The Code of Jewish Law, in its explication of appropriate behavior during times of prayer, speaks of having proper awareness during prayer. The gloss on the Code of Jewish Law (Chapter 98) by the Rama, 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, writes the Rama, 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 Al-mighty.”

Why did Jacob decide to pray at that particularly dramatic moment? Why couldn’t he wait a few more moments to say the Shema?

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 [Jacob] 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.

Perhaps the Midrash, which depicts Jacob saying the Shema at that dramatic moment after 22 years of bereavement, is trying to teach a truly profound lesson about love. Life is a gift, a Divine gift. Should we not therefore express our thanks and 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 constant, profound mourning, to utter joy, “My love for my son,” says Jacob, “can only have meaning within the context of my love for G-d.” That is why Jacob felt it necessary to recite the Shema particularly at that moment.

It was a surprising, seemingly insignificant, nuance in the text, a singular form rather than plural, that teaches this most profound and immortal lesson.

May you be blessed.