According to some research, human beings are the only animals that cry in connection with emotions. We cry when we’re upset, angry, or scared. We cry when we’re happy, when the emotion of joy wells up inside of us. Occasionally we even laugh so hard we cry. Sometimes our tears rain in big drops; other times, it’s a chronic drip. Sometimes a cry is silent, tears streaming without sobs, and other times we sob and sob and cry and cry until there are no tears left.
This week’s parshah, parshat Vayigash, is punctuated with tears. It begins in chapter 45, verse 2 ofB’reishit with Joseph revealing himself to his brothers, which is such an emotional moment that his tears are heard throughout the kingdom. The text states:
“Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.”
One can imagine Joseph trying to stifle the emotions deep within him. For as long as it has taken the brothers to go back to Cana’an and then back to Egypt, Joseph has been keeping his emotions in check. Joseph knows who these men are, he knows that they are his family, and he has just learned that his father is still living. His emotions reach their boiling point in this moment, and he can no longer hold them in. He has an outburst of big tears and heaving sobs as he rejoices in this reconnection with his siblings.
Twelve verses later in chapter 45, verse 14, the emotions run forth again. Here, Joseph is reunited with his brother Benjamin, his only full sibling, his link to his father and his mother. As the text teaches, “with that he embraced his brother Benjamin around his neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.” These tears are joyful tears accompanying an embrace that Joseph and Benjamin have longed to enjoy.
The final tears shed in our parshah are found in chapter 46, verse 29. “Joseph ordered his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel; he presented himself to him and, embracing him around the neck, he wept on his neck a good while.” These tears are ambiguous. We know that someone cried on someone else’s neck “a good while,” but it is unclear as to whether it is Joseph or Jacob (or both) who cries.
Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), the medieval philosopher and scholar, suggests that Jacob is the one who weeps. He asks, “By whom are tears more easily shed? By the aged parent who finds his long-lost son alive, or by the young man who is ruler?” For Rambam, the tears must be tears of an emotional parent, tears of joy at this miraculous event. Joseph, the “ruler,” must not be crying according to Rambam because it wouldn’t make sense to shed tears of joy at this event when so many more major events have happened in his life. It almost seems as though Rambam would deem it inappropriate for Joseph to cry yet again.
However, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak), the 11th century commentator on the Torah and Talmud, suggests that it is Joseph who sheds the tears out of a mixture of strong, conflicting feelings, while Jacob offered a prayer of thanks to God. Rashi interprets the tears to be tears of joy that are shed as Joseph continues to ride the wave of emotions that come as a result of reuniting with his family.
Each of these sob fests is marked with intense emotions, but not apologetically so. Joseph and Benjamin aren’t ridiculed for their display of brotherly love. Jacob (or Joseph) doesn’t let any stoicism stifle his feelings. There’s no holding back as the emotions come to a head. The tears in this week’s parshah are tears of thanksgiving, tears of joy, and perhaps tears of sadness. Most importantly, they are linked together by the courage to cry and a supportive environment that allows this freedom of emotions without restraint. As we learn in this week’s parshah, if we humans are connected by nothing else, it is the healthy expression of feelings of love and loss. Sometimes, all you need is a good cry.
Family Discussion Questions:
- Our ‘ethical covenant’ urges each of us to honor and love one another, mecaved/ohev zeh et zeh. Joseph and Jacob are reunited after a long time apart, their emotions are intense. Sometimes we take for granted that someone knows we honor them. As a family, how do you show that you honor and love one another?
- Rambam taught that Jacob must be the one crying because “Joseph the big leader” doesn’t cry. Rashi teaches that Joseph cries. Which commentator do you agree with? Why? Who do you think cried?