Parshat Vayigash

Torah Reading for Week of December 28, 2008-January 3, 2009

“Unshed Tears”

By Rabbi Haim Ovadia, Congregation Magen David (Beverly Hills)
AJRCA Professor of Rabbinics

Where were you, son?

For a father who was separated from his most beloved son for over twenty years, Jacob’s behavior is very strange. We would have expected him to cry uncontrollably, to hug and kiss his son; dance with him! Sing with him!

Instead, the man who mourned his lost son day and night remains passive during the encounter, despite Joseph’s outburst of emotions. Why didn’t Jacob cry? Rabbi S.R. Hirsch suggests that Jacob had cried enough and couldn’t cry anymore. Now it was Joseph’s turn. Rashi, following the sages, says that Jacob was reading the Shema at that moment. I would like to offer a different interpretation. Jacob was angry. Yes, he was happy that he found Joseph again, but at the same time, he felt saddened and upset knowing that his son, who served as the viceroy of Egypt for the last nine years didn’t seek to contact him, to let his old heart know that his son is still alive. No matter what Joseph would say, no matter what his motives and considerations, Jacob felt that Joseph did not fathom the love and concern his father had for him and hence the grief over his loss. While for Joseph it was a matter of setting the stage or pulling strings to get everything done right, for Jacob there were 11,563,200 minutes that moved on with nerve-wracking slowness, each pounding with the heavy burden of grief and loss. That’s why he does not kiss or hug is son. And that is why a minute later he sums up his elation in the words: let me die now, for I have seen your face and you are still alive. What he is actually telling Joseph is that up until that moment he couldn’t even die. He was the living dead, the zombie hanging between life and death. Now, he tells his son, now that I‘ve seen you I can die peacefully. Not live, because life lost all meaning for me.

The tension between Jacob and Joseph over the question of what was more important, his position and his dreams or letting his father know he is alive, raged on until Jacob’s death and it is a message to us that we should be very careful in balancing our commitment to God and our plans to benefit all of mankind with the simple requirements of being good relatives, neighbors and friends to those who surround us. Shabbat shalom.

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