Aaron Alexander

Embracing A Difficult Future — VaYigash, 5784

I really love reunion stories. I simply can’t get enough of them, and I can’t ever remember seeing a moment of long-lost return that didn’t immediately bring me to sobbing tears. This obviously means Parashat VaYigash and its multiple reunifications is very much up my alley.

Draw close, embrace, kiss, cry. That’s the general formula in the Torah. But the moment of embrace for Jospeh and Benjamin, just after Joseph reveals himself to all his brothers, is layered with textual difficulty.

וַיִּפֹּ֛ל עַל־צַוְּארֵ֥י בִנְיָמִֽן־אָחִ֖יו וַיֵּ֑בְךְּ וּבִ֨נְיָמִ֔ן בָּכָ֖ה עַל־צַוָּארָֽיו׃

With that he embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck(s) and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. (Gen. 45:14)

The first time neck is mentioned, it is in the plural–tzaverei. The second time, the singular–tzavarav. Why the inconsistency? Honestly, it’s probably not something to get stuck on, but our tradition kind of insists we do so anyways. In the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 16b, the question is raised:

?כַּמָּה צַוָּארִין הֲווֹ לֵיהּ לְבִנְיָמִין?

How many necks does Benjamin have?

In other words, since it is in the plural, which can’t be a mistake, what could the text possible mean? Is a multiple neck scenario possible? The response:

Rabbi Elazar said: [This intimates] that Joseph cried over the two Temples that were destined to be in the territory of Benjamin and were destined to be destroyed.

“And Benjamin wept on his neck” (Genesis 45:14); he cried over the tabernacle of Shiloh that was destined to be in the territory of Joseph and was destined to be destroyed.

So, Joseph falls on Benjamin’s neck (one neck), but in that moment is presented with a vision of the future. It’s prophecy laced into embrace.

The Torah, claims our Sages, is hinting to us through this grammatical oddity that there was more to the encounter than the text explicitly teaches. Joseph and Benjamin, on each other’s necks, together saw a dark future. And so they wept.

I know it might seem like a stretch–too cute, even. But this read is possible. Rashi even reads the word for neck in Song of Songs 7:5 to be a reference to the Temples. But beyond the textual possibility, I find my life in this midrash.

I, too, know embraces that point to a hard, dark future filled with loss. I imagine you do as well. When my mom z”l was first admitted to the hospital and we didn’t yet know what caused her dizziness and short bursts of memory loss, the family began to gather in Florida. As each of us (6 kids) arrived we would embrace with a hopeful outlook. It’s probably nothing. But a day or two later–aware of the brain cancer diagnosis–we knew there was only one outcome, and it wouldn’t be a long wait. So as more family arrived to sit with us throughout the short weeks of her coma, each hug became so much more than a loving embrace, but also a visceral, physical realization of what would be soon lost: Our center (read: Temple), gone. Tears, ever-flowing.

I have felt this recently as well. A few weeks ago I was in Israel on a quick solidarity mission. I embraced friends I haven’t seen in too long, heads laid on each other’s necks. And those tender moments were each time layered with a knowledge that life would get worse before better, more challenging before easing up. This was especially true as I embraced the heroic members of Unit 669 after breakfast together on the Gaza border (I was there during the brief ceasefire). We’d look at each other closely and know more loss was imminent.

I felt this about a month into the war when Palestinian-Israeli Sally Abed of Standing Together (Omdim BaYachad) came to speak with Alon-Lee Green at our synagogue. As I greeted Sally at the front door we first established we were both huggers, then embraced, and then exchanged a look of: this helps, but it’s going to get even harder.

So deep down, subconsciously maybe, Joseph and Benjamin both knew that no matter how good their embrace felt, it contained more than a mere hug–it was a glimpse of an unavoidable future.  It speaks to me differently this year, in this moment. It punches me in the gut.

There’s no silver lining here. But there is another midrash that at least gives me solace. Tears matter. Tears redeem. One of the primary lessons we learn from our ancestors is that crying was not foreign to them. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph — all criers, in touch with emotion and tears. It’s not everything, but nevertheless consequential.

When we allow ourselves to cry with and over our brothers, our others–as one another’s–we open a portal to slivers of redemption.  And we need more of those.

Just as Joseph appeases his brothers through crying, God redeems us in tears, crying.  (Genesis Rabbah, 93:12)

כְּשֵׁם שֶׁלֹא פִּיֵּס יוֹסֵף אֶת אֶחָיו אֶלָּא בִּבְכִיָּה, כָּךְ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֵינוֹ גּוֹאֵל אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶלָּא מִתּוֹךְ בְּכִיָּה.

About the Author
Rabbi Aaron Alexander is Co-Senior Rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. He previously served as Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.
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