Why Did Joseph Cry when he revealed himself to his brothers?
Davar Torah-Vayigash Genesis Chapter 45:2
January 6, 2017
It is unfortunately true when folks say that there is so much violence in the Torah and the Bible as a whole. Yet, the story of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers strikes an exceptional tone highlighting repentance and forgiveness as Jewish values. This is a story not about how violence was used by Joseph to seek revenge against his brothers who kidnapped him and sold him into slavery. The Torah goes into detail to provide the reader an exact sense of the emotional turmoil that Joseph experiences as the brothers approach for the second trip to Egypt, this time with Joseph’s brother Benjamin (from the same mother Rachel). The narrative of Torah gives us the detail and nuance of Joseph internal spiritual struggle and the brother’s recognition of their evil deeds from the past. Unlike many stories in the Torah which describe the character’s external actions in a certain set of circumstances. This story, on the contrary, is about the internal drama of Joseph emerging out of his shell and his hidden identity into the open and demonstrating his maturity and, thus, according Elie Wiesel became a Tzaddik a righteous person by not taking revenge.
One of the most interesting and perplexing moments in this narrative is how Joseph burst out into tears when he was about to reveal himself. Wait a moment! I thought guys are supposed to suppress their emotions? Aren’t men expected to be in control of themselves and especially their emotions? Don’t we commonly hold to the stereotype that women cry and men stand stoically by their wives suffering?
Why did Joseph cry? What did it do for his relationship with his brothers? Did it enable them to reach out towards each other down the road? To begin with let’s take a look at the midrash. In chapter forty-five verse two the Torah tell us that Joseph cleared the hall of his palace except for this brothers. “He gave forth his voice in weeping Egypt heard, and Pharaoh’s household heard.”He rises to identify himself and speak to his brothers about his past and his divinely inspired role to sustain life and why he will want to be with them as their brother and that they all should come down to Egypt. After he says all this he concludes when he sees his baby brother Benjamin. (Remember they were both from Rachel who had long since died giving birth to Benjamin.) The Torah says, Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept; and Benjamin wept upon his neck. He then kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and afterwards his brothers spoke with him.”
One midrash comments on the verse “He cried out loud.” Just as Joseph conciliated with his bothers only through weeping, so the Holy One, blessed be he, will redeem Israel only though weeping”(Genesis Rabbah). Not rational discussion but a complete catharsis of tears, at least for Joseph, with his brothers. Not a sit down one on one conversation and gradual returning towards each other over the years. This time it was an explosion of emotion as if all their lives thy had held onto this secret. It was as if the hurt and the pain of the past was burned off like the morning fog and the expression of tears was what it took to transcend the past.
Sometimes it takes the releasing of that kind of emotion to bridge the divide that caused so much pain to Joseph. Maybe there is something to that for us as well in reconciling with old antagonisms with siblings and friends as well as relatives. I have seen moments when siblings who have not seen each other in decades were reunited. Sometimes it was because of the Holocaust and other times it was about the typical kinds of stuff that happens when one person allegedly hurts another years ago and the brothers or the sisters refuse to speak with other.
Yet the wisdom of the midrash says that only through the weeping can Israel find healing. Redemption moments are not always about the discussion, rather, those moments happen when both see past the petty things and recognize the bonds of family are enduring. Those redemption moments are often times intuitive.
In another modern commentary there are two other interpretations offered. One asks’ why did Joseph let loose? What was the trigger for him with his brothers? The answer was that he had spoken to them harshly before in order to have them realize the enormity of their sin and to repent so that they would atone for the sin of having sold him. This was the first moment, again an intuition, when Joseph realized that they had regretted their actions. That was why he was no longer able to restrain himself.
The second moment was that he could not tolerate to have the Egyptians stand by him and see how his brothers would be humiliated when he revealed himself to them.(Rashi). Why did he even care about their humiliation after all those years given what his brothers had done to him? Doesn’t that mean he cared about them being his brothers and they were still a reflection upon him? Or maybe, the commentator suggests, Joseph did not want his staff to see that a vizier of Egypt would cry? What a sign of weakness! Maybe one more reason he cried was that Joseph did not restrain his crying in order not to have others near him, and he was not worried about his own honor, but about that of his brothers. He was thinking about them not him. (Shem mi-Shmuel.)
“They shall come with weeping and with supplications will I lead them, I will cause them to walk by rivers of waters”(Jeremiah 31:9). This is a unique story because it gets to a place where a lot of men never go in their emotional lives. Men like Joseph show great strength and not weakness because they cry. They show that letting go of pain through tears is healthy and spiritually necessary. Joseph could not have been able to follow through the rest of the journey with his brothers had he not shared the length and breath of his emotions.
There is a lesson for us too when it comes not just towards reconciling with old antagonisms but embracing the fears and angers that we harbor over the years with relatives, spouses and children. Joseph is a great role model for men to take a step back and develop that intuition for moments that can make or break a life and its meaning.