What kind of person is Joseph in the book of Genesis/Bereishit? Does he forgive his ten older brothers for selling him as a slave, or does he fail to notice that they need to be pardoned?1 Does he set up his elaborate charade to test them, or to punish them?2 Why, once he has been elevated from prison slave to viceroy of Egypt, does he fail to let his father know he is alive and well?3
These questions are open to interpretation. But one thing is clear: Joseph is often moved to tears. He sobs eight times in the book of Genesis, more than any other character in the Torah.
When an adult sobs, it is often an emotional release triggered by some change in the sobber’s perception of circumstances. Not every adult reacts with tears, but those who do can understand Joseph, who has to work to restrain himself in moments of high emotion.
I discussed the first five times Joseph breaks down and cries in my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Serial Sobber, Part 1. He sobs once when he overhears his older brothers privately acknowledge their guilt for selling him, and realizes they have changed. He sobs a second time when he first sees his little brother Benjamin after 21 years. And he sobs three times after Judah, the leader of the ten older brothers, proves his character is completely transformed: once right after Judah speaks, once when he embraces Benjamin, and again when he embraces his older brothers.
But his tears are not exhausted. Joseph sobs three more times in the last Torah portion of Genesis, Vayechi (“and he lived”).
After he has revealed his identity and wept upon the necks of all his brothers, Joseph invites them to move to Egypt along with their father, Jacob (also called Israel), and their whole extended family. They arrive in Goshen, the area of the Nile delta that Joseph picked out for them, and Josephs rides his chariot there to greet his father.
And [Joseph] fell upon his neck, vayeivek upon his neck again and again. And Israel said to Joseph: “This time I may die, after I have seen your face, that you are still alive.” (Genesis 46:29-30)
vayeivek (וַיֵּבְךְ) = and he sobbed, and he wept audibly. (From the root verb bakah, בָּכָּה, wept, shed tears.)
In last week’s Torah portion, when Joseph falls on Benjamin’s neck and weeps, Benjamin reciprocates. Joseph is probably sobbing with joy over being reunited with his innocent younger brother, now that he can be himself instead of pretending to be an Egyptian. Benjamin is probably sobbing with relief that the threatening Egyptian viceroy has turned into a long-lost brother who wishes him well.4
Joseph weeps on the necks of his other brothers because he finally accepts them as brothers rather than enemies. They have passed his tests and proven they have become better men; and Joseph has reinterpreted their original crime as a necessary step toward a happy ending in Egypt. His older brothers, however, do not weep along with Joseph; they are still too anxious. But they are able to speak to him face to face.5
In this week’s portion, when Joseph weeps on the neck of his father, what change causes his emotional release? In my post Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy, I argue that for years Joseph resented his father for making his ten older brothers hate him.
When he was an adolescent, Jacob not only showed blatant favoritism by giving Joseph alone a fancy new coat, but also regularly asked the boy to check up on his older brothers and report back. The last time Jacob sent Joseph out to inform on his brothers, they threw him in a pit, discussed killing him, and sold him into slavery. Joseph named his second son Menashe because he wanted to forget his whole family in Canaan, including his difficult father.6 So for 21 years he sent no message to Jacob, even after he was elevated to the position of viceroy.
Does Joseph discard his resentment now because the sight of his father reminds him of the good times in his childhood before things went south? Or do his feelings suddenly change when he sees that his father, whom he used to obey as a dependent, is now merely the superannuated elder of a starving Canaanite family? Joseph is the one in charge now, and he can enjoy being magnanimous to a father who is now dependent on him. Maybe he weeps on Jacob’s neck with joy and relief that the tables have turned.
Jacob, on the other hand, stands there dry-eyed, even though he mourned over Joseph’s apparent death for 21 years. I believe that seeing Joseph alive and well (not to mention rich and powerful) is a happy occasion for Jacob, but he is emotionally worn out. He has no tears left. Instead of feeling rejuvenated, Jacob declares that he can now die in peace.
At age 39, Joseph has the energy to sob with relief at the reversal in his relationship with his father. His father, at age 130, is too exhausted to sob any more.
Jacob lives for another 17 years. Shortly before his death he includes Joseph’s first two sons in his inheritance; speaks to each of his own twelve sons; and requests burial in the cave of Machpelah in Canaan, next to his first wife (Leah), his parents, and his grandparents.
And Jacob finished giving orders to his sons, and he gathered up his feet into the bed, and he was gathered to his people. Then Joseph fell on his father’s face, vayeivek upon him, and he kissed him. (Genesis 49:33-50:1)
For the last seventeen years Joseph has been taking care of the old man, secure in his role as the provider rather than the vulnerable dependent. This makes it easy for him to feel love toward Jacob and cry at his death. He also knows that his own life will change now that he is no longer responsible for his father.
And he may feel some lingering guilt over his earlier period of neglect. The Torah says Joseph has his father embalmed according to the complete 40-day process. The mourning period for Jacob lasts for 70 days—40 days during the embalming plus the traditional Israelite mourning period of 30 days.7
Next Joseph asks the pharaoh’s permission to bury Jacob in the cave of Machpelah in Canaan. Pharaoh consents, and all twelve brothers accompany Jacob’s body to the burial place, along with an honor guard of Egyptian soldiers.
Why does Joseph arrange such a big display over Jacob’s death? Maybe he sobbed when his father died because he suddenly realized it was too late to apologize or compensate Jacob for letting him suffer for so many years over the supposed death of his favorite son.
All twelve brothers return to Egypt after Jacob’s burial. Then the ten oldest ones worry that maybe Joseph refrained from taking revenge on them only because their father’s presence. They send messengers to Joseph with instructions to tell him:
“Please pardon, please, the transgression of your brothers and their guilt, because they did evil to you. And now pardon, please, the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Vayeivek, Joseph, when they spoke to him. (Genesis 50:17-18)
Joseph breaks into tears because he feels as if he took God’s point of view considering their crime, but now he learns that they still think of him as a potential avenger. He probably feels hurt that they do not trust him.
And his brothers also went and fell down in front of him and said: “Here we are, your slaves.” Then Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for am I instead of God? And you, who designed evil against me; God redesigned it for good, in order to keep alive a large number of people to this day.” (Genesis 50:19-20)
Then he goes a step farther than he had seventeen years before.
“So now don’t be afraid. I will feed you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and he spoke to their hearts. (Genesis 50:21)
Even without explicit forgiveness, even though he insists on his role as benefactor, Joseph manages to reassure his brothers that they are safe in his hands. But the they still do not weep.
A change that moves one person to tears may leave the other one dry-eyed. Even when two people are both sobbing, they may have different reasons for their tears.
May we all be blessed with awareness and acceptance of the differences between ourselves and the people we are connected with. If we cry, may we be blessed with tears of relief, and even joy. And if tears do not come, may we find comfort when relationships change.
- See my posts Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving? and Vayeishev & Mikeitz: A Narcissist in the Pit and Vayiggash: Near a Narcissist.
- See my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Testing.
- See my post Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father.
- See my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Serial Sobber, Part 1.
- 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 they can.
- Genesis 41:51.
- The Torah adds that the Egyptians wept with Joseph for 70 days (Genesis 50:3). Some traditional commentary claims that the Egyptians were honoring Jacob because the famine ended when he arrived in Egypt, only two years after it began instead of the seven years God had originally planned. Yet the Torah describes Joseph impoverishing the Egyptians during the famine in three stages, each lasting at least a year. So I think the Egyptians mourn for Jacob because Joseph, the viceroy, orders them to do it.