Between the Lines—Va-yiggash

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Genesis Rabbah 93:12

 

 

"He wept aloud . . . " (Gen. 45:2). Just as Joseph could only reconcile with his brothers through weeping, so too does the Blessed Holy One only redeem Israel through weeping, as it is stated, "They shall come with weeping, and with tachanunim will I guide them" (Jer. 31:9).

There are many reasons why we are moved to tears, and seeing another person cry rarely fails to grab our attention, if not also our sympathy. We cry when we feel pain or sadness, anger or frustration, or even awe and joy. We can imagine that Joseph felt each of those emotions in the series of events that led to his reunion with his brothers.

Nonetheless, one might question the rabbinic interpretation that Joseph's weeping moved his siblings towards reconciliation, given the plain meaning of the biblical passage. In the verse following the one that opens the midrash above, one finds that "his brothers were not able to answer him, for they were confounded in his presence" (Gen. 45:3). This report of silence and confusion does not describe a movement from estrangement to appeasement, so we must turn to the second part of this midrash to understand the rabbinic comparison of familial and national restoration episodes.

Indeed, our grasp of this midrash hinges on the rabbinic rereading of the verse quoted from Jeremiah. That prophetic passage foretells Israel's emotional future return from exile and the renewal of its covenant with God. The term tachanunim refers to God's compassion in response to Israel's weeping, but it also comes to refer in rabbinic parlance to human pleas for mercy, especially as prayers of supplication. One finds this duality of God's compassion and tearful human petitions a few verses later in Jeremiah:

Thus said the LORD: A cry is heard in Ramah—Wailing, bitter weeping—Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted, for her children, who are gone. Thus said the LORD: Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears; for there is a reward for your labor—declares the LORD: They shall return from the enemy's land. (Jer. 31:15–16)

The prophet here depicts God's message of comfort for an unconsolable Rachel, whose descendants from the tribes of Benjamin and Ephraim were exiled from the Land of Israel. Jeremiah's conception of the tragic matriarch in this passage provided the foundation for a midrashic trope in which Rachel morphs into a voice of the Shekhinah, the indwelling Presence of God who journeys with Israel throughout their dispersions. The rabbinic interpretation, then, depicts God as both mourner and comforter, as both needing and providing reconciliation and redemption.

Joseph's and Benjamin's tears in our Torah portion acquire deeper meaning through this understanding of their mother's weeping in the book of Jeremiah. Their mutual display of raw emotion captures the attention of the other brothers, and "only then were his brothers able to talk to him" (Gen. 45:15). Jeremiah's account, according to the midrash, shows us that God takes part in our sorrows and cries with us over the unredeemed state of Israel and of the world. This rabbinic perspective embraces the power of heartfelt communication for transforming the way that we talk to and listen to our family, to our people, and to God. May we open our hearts and our minds to hear and to convey this message of redemption.