The Torah that Made the Rabbis Cry (Vayigash)

Parshat Vayigash contains one of the dramatic high points of the book of Genesis, in which Joseph reveals his true identity. Until this point, Joseph has acted like a stranger toward his brothers—a fitting punishment for those who refused to treat him like a brother when they threw him into the pit. Joseph accused his brothers of being spies and then listened in on their conversation while pretending he did not speak their language; he bound and detained Shimon; and he framed his brothers for two acts of theft which they did not in fact commit. Now at last, in this week’s parsha, Joseph sheds his harsh exterior and bursts into tears before his brothers. It is a moment so stirring and emotional that even the Talmudic rabbis cry.

By the time he finally breaks down, Joseph has been holding back tears for a while. When his brothers return with Benjamin, Joseph is so consumed by emotion that he hurries out of the room to sequester himself in an adjacent chamber lest he cry in front of them. He manages to keep a stiff upper lip only until the end of Judah’s impassioned plea that he be detained instead of Benjamin. Judah speaks of the sorrow that would overcome their father if the other brothers were to return without Benjamin. The thought of Jacob missing and longing for a beloved child unleashes the floodgates in Joseph, who dismisses all his attendants and then announces to his brothers: “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” (Gen. 45:3) His sobs are now so loud that all the Egyptians can hear, and the news of Joseph’s brothers reaches Pharaoh’s palace as well.

Joseph’s sobs continue to reverberate through the generations. The rabbis mention Joseph’s revelation to his brothers in the context of a discussion in Hagigah (4b) about particularly affecting biblical verses that moved them to tears. As emerges from their discussion, each rabbi had a different verse that he was unable to recite without falling apart. Some of their choices are more understandable than others; Rabbi Ami, for instance, was particularly affected by a verse from Lamentations, the biblical book takes its name—at least in English—from the act of weeping. But for Rabbi Elazar, the biblical verse he finds most poignant is the response to Joseph’s revelation: “His brothers could not answer him, so affrighted by his presence” (Gen. 45:3). Rabbi Elazar explains what he finds so unsettling about this verse: “If the rebuke of a man of flesh and blood was so much that the brothers were unable to respond, when it comes to the rebuke of the Holy One Blessed Be He, all the more so!” After years of assuming that Joseph was dead, the brothers have now seen his face again. As Rabbi Elazar understands it, their immediate response is the terror of being held accountable for the crimes of their youth.

But whereas the brothers are terrified of being rebuked by Joseph, Rabbi Elazar derives from this verse a terror of being rebuked by God. This Talmudic discussion appears in the opening pages of the first chapter of tractate Hagigah, which is about the biblical commandment to appear before God on the three pilgrimage festivals. As Rav Huna notes on this same page of Talmud, the biblical word for the commandment to “appear” before God (yeyra-eh) can also be read as the commandment to “see” God (yireh), which also serves to explain why the largest concentration of mystical material in the Talmud appears in this tractate. Rabbi Elazar is thus reading the story of Joseph’s revelation in the context of Rav Huna’s account of a reciprocal revelation in which we see God and God sees us. What was true for Joseph’s brothers is true for all of us: Being seen means exposing who we really are and being held accountable for our actions. And so when we fallible human beings appear before God, we all have reason to quake in our boots.

The Talmud in Berakhot (28b) offers insight into what it means to be seen by God in another story of weeping, this time involving Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai on his deathbed. This is the same rabbi who was famously carted out of Jerusalem in a coffin by his disciples who pretended he was dead so as to save his life; he then encountered Vespasian and pleaded with him to save the world of Torah learning even at the expense of the Temple. After previously faking his death and appearing before a flesh-and-blood king, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai now lies on his deathbed for real, prepared to meet the King of Kings. He begins to cry, and he explains to his concerned disciples the reason for his tears: “If I were being led before a flesh-and-blood king who is here today and gone tomorrow, who if he is angry with me, his anger is not eternal… even so I would cry. Now that I am being led before the supreme King of Kings who lives and endures forever; who if He is angry with me, His anger is eternal…will I not cry?”

The story in Berakhot ends with Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s disciples requesting a prayer from their sobbing rabbi before he dies. He responds, “May it be God’s will that the fear of heaven be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood.” The disciples are surprised; shouldn’t they fear heaven more than they fear mortal human beings? But as their teacher tells them, when people sin, they usually hope that no one else can see them; whereas in fact they should be concerned about being seen by the all-knowing and all-seeing God.

Like Joseph’s brothers, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai is terrified about being held accountable for the fateful choices and trade-offs he made earlier in life. He knows that when we are seen by God, we are seen in our full humanity – with all our strengths and weaknesses, our failures and successes, our defenses and vulnerabilities revealed. God sees with an unvarnished gaze all our missed opportunities and unrealized possibilities. When we stand before God, we have no secrets; there is no place to hide.

As Joseph’s brothers learn, even the sins we commit in secret, when no one else is watching, will ultimately be revealed. And as Joseph learns, even the tears we cry in secret, in the adjacent chamber, will ultimately be heard. We can spend our lives weeping in abject terror at the prospect of someday being seen for who we really are. Or we can seize the opportunities each day to ask ourselves honestly how we are seen by those around us so that when our time comes, we will not fear being seen by the King of Kings.

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