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Parashat Vayigash

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are that of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the Union for Traditional Judaism, unless otherwise indicated.

by Rabbi Pinchas Klein

This week’s Torah portion follows Chanukah and precedes the fast day of the 10th of Tevet. We move from the celebration of the eternal spiritual light of Judaism, enduring throughout the vicissitudes of time, to encounter a fast day that commemorates the reality of our history’s dark moments.

I believe that our Torah portion gives us a model for transitioning between encounters of light and darkness. It does this with the tale of an embrace. The Torah tells us that after being separated from his father for 22 years, Joseph eagerly sought to be reunited with his father, Jacob. Joseph made ready his chariot. Rashi explains that Joseph harnessed the horses with his own hands in order to honor the father whom he had not seen for so many years. At the moment of the reunion, Joseph fell on his father’s neck and wept. The Torah is silent in regard to Jacob’s response to this ecstatic moment of reunion with his long-lost son.

This is especially noticeable when comparing the loving greetings of others in the Torah. When his brother Aaron greets Moses, the latter kisses his brother (Exodus 4:27). When Esau is reunited with his brother after a long absence, the Torah says: “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4). The most memorable kiss, of course, goes to uncle Laban. The Torah states: “And it came to pass, when Laban heard the tidings of Jacob his sister’s son, that he ran to meet them, and embraced him, and kissed him and brought him to his house” (Genesis 29:13). Why is Jacob, who spent so many years mourning and grieving the loss of his beloved son, nonresponsive to Joseph at the moment of their reunion?

Rashi says that the reason that Jacob did not fall upon his neck nor did he weep was that he was occupied with reciting the Shema. Rashi’s explanation, of course, begs the question: could Jacob not have recited the Shema either a few minutes before or a few minutes after the reunion?

My grandfather, HaRav Yitzchak Klein zt”l, explains that Jacob wanted to teach Joseph that although father and son spent years filled with the dark pain of each other’s absence, nevertheless they had to express and experience their love of God and accept ol malkhut shamayim – the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven. This follows the teaching of the Mishnah in Berakhot (9:5):

One is obligated to bless God on the bad (that happens) as one blesses God for the good, as it is written: “You shall the love Hashem your God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your might – b’khol me’odekha… bekhol midda umidda shehu modded l’kha, hevei modeh lo bim’od me’od. Whatever measure (good or bad) God dispenses to you, acknowledge thankfulness to God.

Maimonides, in his commentary on the Mishnah, explains that there are events that begin in darkness and ripen to a bright and happy ending. Therefore, even as the initial darkness unfolds, we are to look forward to the unimagined bright fulfillment of God’s love.

Jacob wanted to serve as a model of embracing the bad with the good. Although he experienced unrelenting sorrow and grief over the loss of Joseph, nevertheless he saw the exaltation of Joseph and the survival of his family to be the consequence and bright ending of Joseph’s disappearance.

Today the Jewish people are also encountering dark moments. Many of our Jewish charities were hit hard by the Madoff crime. The kosher meat industry is full of scandal. The U.S. and global economies are going through shockwaves. Last but not least in our array of Jewish worries is the escalation of conflict in Gaza that I believe will be dubbed the Gaza War.

The inscape of our rabbis’ imagining Jacob’s passivity, like the recital of Shema, is a wonderful teaching of how Jews are to respond to crisis. We pray that, as we face the dark moments of life, we can nevertheless feel the power of the Shema’s call for us to love God even as we remember that the blessing before the Shema is Baruch attah Hashem habocher b’amo Yisrael b’ahavah – Blessed are You, Hashem, Who chooses His people Israel with love.

Shabbat Shalom!