Joseph cries eight times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, more often than any other individual in the Hebrew Bible. Only the Israelites as a whole are recorded as breaking into sobs more often.
Although Joseph is the most lachrymose character, he does not start crying in the Torah story until he is 37 years old and the viceroy of Egypt. When he is 17, his ten older brothers throw him into a pit, argue about whether to kill him, then sell him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.1 Later, the brothers remember that he pleaded for mercy;2 but nowhere does the Torah say he cried during that ordeal. Nor does the Torah report any crying when Joseph, as a head house slave in Egypt, is falsely accused and thrown into prison.3
If Joseph does not cry when he feels frightened or sorry for himself, when does he cry?
The first time Joseph cries is in the Torah portion Mikeitz (“In the end”). After a year of drought and famine, Joseph’s older brothers travel to Egypt to buy grain. They bow down to the viceroy of Egypt, not recognizing him as their brother Joseph 20 years later. Joseph speaks to them in Egyptian, using an interpreter so they will not suspect he knows their language.
He accuses them of spying, and they protest that they are all brothers, and honest men. When the viceroy says no, they are not, the brothers babble:
“We, your servants, are twelve brothers, sons of one man in the land of Canaan. And hey! The youngest is with our father now, and the other—is absent.” (Genesis 42:13)
Joseph throws them into prison for three days, then confronts them again. As they talk among themselves, they do not know he understands every word when they agree that although they are not spies, they deserve punishment because they did not listen to Joseph pleading from the bottom of the pit 20 years before.
And he [Joseph] turned away from them, vayeivek. Then he returned to them and he spoke to them, and he took Shimon from them and tied him up in front of their eyes. (Genesis/Bereishit 42:24)
vayeivek (וַיֵּבְךְּ) = and he sobbed, and he wept audibly. (From the root verb bakah, בָּכָּה, wept, shed tears.)
Joseph is overwhelmed when he hears them admit, in effect, that they were wrong to leave him in the pit. He steps out to break down in private, and returns only when he can control himself again.
When he recovers his composure he tells them he will sell them grain, but he will keep one brother hostage until they prove they are honest men by returning with their youngest brother, the one who stayed home in Canaan.
Maybe Joseph embarks on this elaborate game in order to punish his older brothers for their old crime. But most commentary assumes Joseph is testing his brothers to see if they have truly changed. The youngest brother is Benjamin, who was a small child when Joseph’s older brothers sold him, and the only one who has the same mother. Will the older brothers treat Benjamin as callously as they once treated Joseph?
After a second year of famine, the brothers finally return with Benjamin. When they arrive at the viceroy’s palace a servant brings Shimon to them, none the worse for imprisonment, and says the viceroy invites them to stay for a meal.
All eleven brothers prostrate themselves when the viceroy of Egypt walks in. Joseph asks them whether their father is still alive and well, and they say yes.
Then he lifted his eyes, and he saw Benjamin, his brother, the son of his mother … And Joseph hurried, because his compassion fermented, and he was close to bekot; so he came into the inner room vayeivek there. Then he washed his face, and he went out and he restrained himself, and he said: “Serve the food.” (Genesis 43:29-31)
bekot (בֶּכּוֹת) = weeping. (Also from the root bakah.)
This time the Torah attributes Joseph’s emotional ferment to a sudden feeling of compassion. The sight of his brother Benjamin triggers the compassion, but who is the object of it? Does he feel compassion toward all his brothers, for the ordeal he is putting them through now? Toward his father, who had to let Benjamin go? Or toward Benjamin himself, for growing up surrounded by brutal older brothers? The Torah does not say.
Joseph resumes his game, giving Benjamin five times as much food as the others.4 The older brothers do not act jealous. Next Joseph has a silver goblet planted in Benjamin’s pack before they leave, and sends his steward to catch them on their way out of town. The steward, following Joseph’s script, insists on searching their packs, and declares that the owner of the pack containing the missing goblet must return to the viceroy’s palace as a slave. When the goblet is found in Benjamin’s pack, the ten older brothers are free to travel on without him. But they choose to return with Benjamin to confront the viceroy.5
The third time Joseph cries is during the confrontation at the beginning the next Torah portion, Vayiggash (“And he approached”). Judah, the leader of Joseph’s brothers, steps up and volunteers to become the viceroy’s slave in place of Benjamin. He says he is doing it in order to spare their father from dying of grief. Joseph is moved by the revelation that Judah, at least, has changed from a man who would sell his own brother into a man who would sacrifice himself for the sake of a father who does not even love him.6
Then Joseph was not able to restrain himself in front of everyone stationed around him, so he called out: “Remove everyone from me!” And no one stood with him when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. And he gave his voice to bekhi, and Egypt heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. (Genesis 45:1-2)
bekhi (בְּכִי) = weeping, wailing, sobbing; distilling water. (Also from the root bakah.)
Once Egyptians are cleared out of the room, a tearful Joseph finally identifies himself to his brothers. He excuses their old crime as the working out of divine providence, and tells them to bring their father and their own families to Egypt, where they will have plenty of food.7
The cause of Joseph’s sobbing this time is the shock of Judah’s revelation. An enemy who despised and sold him 20 years before has become a moral paragon, sacrificing himself to spare two other people. Perhaps Joseph’s compassion ferments again, this time toward Judah.
Then he [Joseph] fell upon the neck of Benjamin, his brother, vayeivek, and Benjamin bakha upon his neck. (Genesis 45:14)
bakha (בָּכָה) = he sobbed. (Also from the root bakah.)
For the first time, Joseph’s sobbing is reciprocated; Benjamin also sobs, in a mutual embrace. The two full brothers are full of emotion at their reunion after 20 years. They have no bad history with one another, so they simply weep tears of joy. (Benjamin probably weeps with relief as well, since his status has just changed from prospective slave to honored brother of the viceroy.)
Then he kissed all this brothers vayevek on them, and after that his brothers spoke with him. (Genesis 45:15)
By kissing, embracing, and crying on the ten men, Joseph accepts them at last as his older brothers. They are more reserved, because for them the situation is still unresolved. Joseph appears to have forgiven them, but he does explicitly pardon them; he only excuses their past crime as God’s means for getting him, Joseph, to Egypt. In their lingering anxiety about the possibility of future retribution, they remain suspended in a state of emotional tension.8 They do not embrace Joseph, but they do become able to speak with him.9
So what makes Joseph cry? The first five times he breaks down and sobs, he is emotionally overwhelmed when he suddenly sees one or more of his brothers from a new point of view.
First he is moved when his older brothers realize they deserve punishment (Genesis 42:24). Joseph thought his older brothers were irredeemable, but now he realizes they feel guilty. Next he sees Benjamin for the first time in 20 years and feels compassion (Genesis 43:29-31). Joseph had written off his baby brother, whom he thought was lost to him forever, but now he sees Benjamin in front of him.
The third time Joseph weeps is when Judah offers to become a slave to spare Jacob and Benjamin (Genesis 44:27-34 and 45:1-2). He thought none of his brothers would sacrifice his freedom for the sake of another person, but now Judah volunteers to do it. And the fourth time is when Joseph embraces Benjamin (Genesis 45:14). Joseph was completely committed to his life as an Egyptian, determined to forget his whole family in Canaan, but now he embraces his relationship with his innocent brother.
Joseph cries for the fifth time when he embraces the rest of his brothers, even though they do not reciprocate. He had considered them his implacable enemies. Now he sees them as the instruments of fate—but also as men who blundered and later felt guilty and are trying to do the right thing now; as human beings and brothers.
Joseph sobs three more times in Genesis, all in the last Torah portion, Vayechi. He sobs at his reunion with his father, when his father dies, and when his brothers plead with him afterward. We will listen to those sobs in my next blog post.
Have you ever felt moved to tears, or to a “ferment of compassion”, when an important person in your life is suddenly revealed in a new and better light? Did it change your relationship?
May we all be able to notice when things are different, and embrace relationships we had turned away from.
- Genesis 37:19-28.
- Genesis 42:21.
- Genesis 38:1-23.
- Genesis 43:34.
- Genesis 44:1-14.
- In the first Torah portion of Joseph’s story, Vayeishev, Jacob’s ten older sons noticed when Joseph was an adolescent that their father displayed extreme favoritism toward Joseph, giving him the “coat of many colors” and asking him to his older brothers’ misdeeds to him. That is why, when they are away from home and Joseph shows up in his fancy coat to spy on them again, they throw Joseph into a pit and then sell him into slavery. When they return home they tell their father that Joseph is dead, torn by a wild animal. Jacob goes into deep mourning and refuses to be comforted by any of them.
- Genesis 45:9-11.
- See Genesis 50:15 for evidence that the brothers felt lingering anxiety about the possibility of future retribution for years.
- At the beginning of the Joseph story, when Joseph is 17, the Torah says: “And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, and they hated him, and they were not able to speak to him in peace.” (Genesis 34:4) Now, finally, they are able to do it.