Vayiggash: A Serial Sobber

December 23, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayiggash, Vayishlach | 3 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

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 in the Hebrew Bible, he does not start crying until he is 37 years old and the viceroy of Egypt. When he is 17, his ten older brothers throw him into a pit, then sell him as a slave. His brothers remember later that he pleaded for mercy, but nowhere does the Torah say he cried. Nor is any crying reported when Joseph is falsely accused and imprisoned in Egypt.

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

Twenty years later, in last week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, Joseph’s older brothers bow down to him in Egypt and ask his permission to buy grain. They do not recognize the viceroy, but Joseph recognizes them.  He accuses them (in Egyptian) of spying and throws them into prison.  Then he overhears them agreeing that they are guilty because they did not listen to Joseph’s pleading when he was in the pit.

And he [Joseph] turned around 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.

Joseph breaks down in private, but when he recovers he knows he needs better evidence that his brothers have truly changed.  He devises a test, and tells them that he will keep one of them as a hostage until the rest return with the youngest brother, whom their father kept at home.

When they finally do return with Benjamin, Joseph runs out of the room to cry a second time.

And Joseph hurried, because his compassion fermented, and he was close to bekot (sobbing); so he came into the inner room vayeivek (and he sobbed) there. Then he washed his face, and he went out and he restrained himself. (Genesis 43:30-31)

His emotional ferment is close to the surface, but he manages to resume the test. Before his eleven brothers depart for Canaan, Joseph plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s pack. He has his brothers stopped and searched.  When they return to the viceroy’s palace, he accuses the youngest of stealing, and commands that Benjamin stay in Egypt as his slave.

The third time Joseph cries is in this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (“and he approached”).  Judah, the leader of Joseph’s brothers, makes a passionate speech and volunteers to become the viceroy’s slave in place of Benjamin, 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.

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 free reign in bekhi (sobbing), and Egypt heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. (Genesis 45:1-2)

Joseph identifies himself to his brothers, excuses their crime as the working out of divine providence, and tells them to bring their father and their own families to Egypt.

Then he fell upon the neck of Benjamin, his brother, vayeivek (and he sobbed), and Benjamin bakha (sobbed) upon his neck. Then he kissed all his brothers, vayeivek upon them, and after that his brothers spoke with him. (Genesis 45:14-15)

For the first time, Joseph’s sobbing is reciprocated; Benjamin also sobs, in a mutual embrace. Their ten older brothers are more reserved, because for them the situation is still unresolved. Joseph has excused their past sin, but he has not pardoned them. In their lingering anxiety about the possibility of future retribution, they remain suspended in a state of emotional tension. They do not embrace Joseph, but they do become able to speak with him.

This scene is a variation of a scene between their father, Jacob, and his brother, Esau. Earlier in the book of Genesis (in the portion Vayishlach), Jacob returns to Canaan twenty years after he ran away because Esau threatened to kill him. Esau travels toward him with four hundred men, and Jacob sends generous gifts ahead to propitiate his brother. When he sees Esau on the road, he arranges his family with his favorite wife (Rachel) and child (Joseph) in back.

Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, by Peter Paul Rubens, detail

Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, by Peter Paul Rubens, detail

Then he himself crossed over in front of them, and he bowed down to the ground seven times, until he came all the way up to his brother. And Esau ran to meet him, and he embraced him, and he fell upon his neck and he kissed him, vayivku (and they sobbed). Genesis 33:3-4)

In both scenes, two brothers have been separated for twenty years. In both scenes, the two brothers sob. And in both scenes, the emotional displays are unequal.  Esau, who has more power in the first scene, runs eagerly, hugs his brother, falls on his neck, and kisses him. He has forgiven Jacob, and he cries from relief and the joy of reunion. Jacob bows to propitiate his brother, then stands nervously until Esau’s affectionate behavior convinces him he has nothing to fear for the present. Then he sobs in relief.

In the second scene, Joseph has the power. He sobs as he reveals himself and welcomes his brothers as friends instead of enemies. Next he is overwhelmed by relief and joy over his reunion with Benjamin, the little brother who never harmed him. He falls on Benjamin’s neck and sobs again. Benjamin reciprocates, but his primary relief and joy is that his own status has changed; instead of being considered a thief and a slave, he is now the viceroy’s favorite brother.

Then Joseph kisses all his brothers, as Esau kissed Jacob, and sobs over them. But the ten older brothers can only respond by speaking with him; their level of emotional relief does not match his. Joseph has excused their past crime as God’s means for getting him to Egypt, but he has not explicitly pardoned or forgiven them. Like Jacob when he was reunited with Esau, Joseph’s brothers are not sure their brother’s goodwill is going to last.

A third variation of the scene occurs when Jacob and his extended family travel to Egypt to live under Joseph’s protection. Joseph rides his chariot to meet his father on the road.

And he fell upon his neck, vayeivek (and he sobbed), still, upon his neck, as Israel (Jacob) said to Joseph: This time I would die, after I have seen your face, for you are still alive. (Genesis 46:29-30)

Maybe Joseph sobs because the sight of his aged father floods him with emotional memories.  Or maybe he sobs because his long and difficult relationship with his father is suddenly resolved. (See my posts Vayeishev: Prey, and Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy.) Now Joseph is the one in charge, and he can enjoy being magnanimous to his now-dependent father. What a relief!

Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, does not sob. He mourned over Joseph’s apparent death for years, and even when he switched to doting on Benjamin, he frequently predicted his own death. Although seeing Joseph alive and well (and rich and powerful) is the best thing that has happened to him since Rachel was alive, Jacob is emotionally worn out. He has no tears left.

In my own life, I have sometimes been the eager, loving one, and I have sometimes been the wary but hopeful one. And I have sometimes been the one who is too worn out to feel what the occasion requires.

When two people meet, they never have the same experience inside. Even when they are both weeping in an emotional release, they have different reasons for their tears.

May we all be blessed with awareness and acceptance of these differences between ourselves and the people we are connected with. And may we all be blessed with tears of relief.



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  1. Wonderful — Thank you, Melissa. I loved that opening and how the material flowed to the meaning for each of us in emotional connections/disconnections and the variety of feelings that sobbing can represent. Great opening, too!

  2. […] Nothing has changed in the seventeen years since Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. His older brothers still feel guilty. Joseph is sobbing again.  His brothers bow down to him again, and offer to be his slaves again. (See my last post, Vayiggash: A Serial Sobber.) […]

  3. […] Nothing has changed in the seventeen years since Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. His older brothers still feel guilty. Joseph is sobbing again.  His brothers bow down to him again, and offer to be his slaves again. (See my  post Vayiggash: A Serial Sobber.) […]

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