MEET THE PARENTS
Rabbi Shlomo Freundlich
The reunion between the elderly patriarch Jacob and his long lost son Joseph unfolds for us in dramatic fashion in this week’s Torah portion. Surely, there is much to learn from this emotionally charged episode.
The reunion between the elderly patriarch Jacob and his long lost son Joseph unfolds for us in dramatic fashion in this week’s Torah portion. Surely, there is much to learn from this emotionally charged episode. The true student of Torah knows that the Biblical narratives are not to be viewed simply as the stuff from which motion pictures are made. Neither are they G-d’s attempt at penning a best-seller. The Torah communicates the eternal turths that sustain us throughout the full range of life’s experiences. Let us examine these incredible Torah verses through the lenses of our Torah sages whose perspectives serve as a reliable compass to guide us in our pursuit of gleaning healthy Torah lessons from the lives of our great ancestors.
Joseph hears that his father is soon to arrive with his family in Egypt. The Torah (Genesis 46:29) tells us that Joseph personally prepared his chariot to travel to meet his father. Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator, explains that the prominent Joseph, viceroy to the Egyptian Pharaoh who had many servants at his disposal, nonetheless prepared his own chariot in his zeal to join his father. The Torah verse continues "and he [Joseph] appeared to him, fell upon his neck and wept greatly." Rashi cryptically explains the phrase "and he appeared to him" to mean that Joseph appeared to his father.
The Ramban, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, has great difficulty in understanding Rashi’s intent because it seems obvious that if Joseph embraced his father, then he certainly appeared to him.
Furthermore, Rashi records from our sages that although Joseph fell upon Jacob and wept, Jacob refrains from any show of emotion because he was reciting the Shema prayer, the Jewish declaration of G-d’s sovreignty over all creation. One wonders, if the time for reciting the Shema had arrived why did Joseph not recite the Shema also. Something is brewing here.
In his magnificent compilation of Torah essays entitled Shaarei Orah, Rabbi Meir Tzvi Bergman, a leading Torah scholar in Israel, offers an original interpretation in unraveling this perplexing episode. Rabbi Bergman cites a poignant insight from Rabbi Leib Chasman, a great Torah thinker of the early 20th century, relating to Rashi’s comment that Joseph appeared to his father.
Rabbi Chasman observes that Joseph must have been overflowing with emotion as he anticipated his reunion with his father. After all, besides the powerful natural feelings of love Joseph, the apple of Jacob’s eye, had for his father, Joseph also drew his Torah wisdom and world view from Jacob. The thought of once again renewing this important spiritual relationship with both his father and mentor must have thrilled Joseph deliriously as he prepared to meet Jacob.
But, on the other hand, this moment was surely one of unimaginable bliss for Jacob. Who can imagine the emotions churning within the aged father as he approaches his beloved son of his favorite wife whom he presumed was long dead? At this moment, Joseph somehow harnessed all of his personal feelings and put them on the back burner. When he would join Jacob he would, as Rashi says, appear to his father. He came not as a son seeking to recoup all he had lost over the years, but rather as a son who appears to his elderly father solely to bring him pleasure and show him honor. Joseph’s mindset at this dramatic moment was not how much emotional satisfaction and fulfillment is in it for me, but rather how much pleasure can I bring to my father. Indeed, Joseph appears to his father.
Rabbi Bergman continues and cites a Talmudic passage that states, "surrender your will to the will of the Almighty" as we find with Jacob who refrained from kissing Joseph. The Talmud explains that when Jacob was first reunited with Joseph he refrained from kissing him because he had not fully ascertained Joseph’s spiritual standing. He was concerned that after many years in a foreign environment, he may have in someway been influenced and departed from the values of the house of Jacob.
What a mind boggling statement! Jacob, who was a broken father all these years thinking that Joseph had been killed, had every reason to believe that his son had maintained a high spiritual level from all the first-hand reports he heard from his other children. Yet, before Jacob would give his full approval to Joseph and his lifestyle with a fatherly hug and kiss, the leader of the fledgling Jewish nation had to be very clear exactly where his soon stood. Can there be any greater demonstration of surrending one’s emotions to the will and agenda of the Almighty more so than this?
This, explains Rabbi Bergman, was the reciting of the Shema that Jacob performed. But Joseph, too, said his own version of the Shema at this very moment. He subordinated all the natural feelings welling up within him in place of a higher responsibility, the faithful fulfillment of bringing pleasure to his father.
Rabbi Shlomo Freundlich is an educator at the Yeshiva High School of Atlanta.
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