Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned his son for many days. All his sons and daughters arose to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, “No, I will go down mourning my son to the grave.” And his father wept for him (vayevk oto aviv) (Genesis 37:35).
At the very instant that Jacob, seeing Joseph’s bloodied cloak, concludes that his son is dead, the world divides into two categories: those who know the truth — that Joseph is still alive — and those who don’t. Jacob’s grief intensifies, and we readers of the biblical text watch, all-knowing yet helpless as he falls into a pit of despair. From our perspective we realize the painful irony of the purportedly poignant scene of his children attempting to console him, when they (at least the sons) are the very cause of his pain. We feel uncomfortable — somehow complicit — that only we, along with the perpetrators of the crime, know that Joseph is actually alive.
There are those who suggest, however, that there was another who knew:
“And his father wept for him” — This is Isaac. Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Simon said: “When he was with [Jacob] he would cry, and when he would leave him he would walk and wash and anoint himself and eat and drink. And why didn’t he reveal to him [that Joseph was alive]? He said: “God did not reveal this to him — should I will reveal to him?” (Genesis Rabbah 84:21).
The background of the phrase “and his father wept for him” would indicate that, logically, it is Jacob who is crying for his son, Joseph. And yet, as this midrash implies, when read consecutively with the preceding verses, “him” seems to refer to Jacob, which allows for the possibility that it is Jacob’s father, Isaac, who is crying for his own son. Syntactic possibilities aside, Isaac’s midrashic insertion into an episode from which he has been absent is startling for two reasons. Not only was his death reported two chapters earlier (35:29), but also we are astounded at the suggestion that he would keep the truth from his son. And yet, in this midrashic reading, Isaac goes to great lengths to keep his secret. Playing with the meaning of the phrase “vayevk oto aviv,” which can mean, “and his father wept with him (see Genesis 21:1, 2 Kings 3:26), the midrash has him feigning mourning in Jacob’s presence, but going about his daily life — seemingly without a care — when out of Jacob’s sight. Isaac’s apparent emotional remove from his son’s experience is highlighted by the midrash’s dry, halachic summary: “It is customary to mourn together with close relatives who are mourning” — emphasizing that according this midrashic reading of the text, Isaac pretends to mourn only because custom would require it.
Rashi grabs hold of the kernel of this midrash — that Isaac knew that Joseph was alive — and, with a few subtle changes, creates an intriguingly different picture:
“And his father wept for him” — “His father” refers to Isaac: he wept for Jacob’s distress, but he did not mourn, for he knew that he [Joseph] was alive (Rashi on Genesis 37:35).
In this sensitive reading of both the language of the text and of the range of human emotion, Rashi distinguishes between the mourning of Jacob, who believes he is has lost his son forever, and the crying of Isaac, who is pained by Jacob’s pain. In this nuanced analysis, Isaac’s tears are real, but their source is different than Jacob’s. The original midrash has Isaac acting as he would have had he believed his grandson dead, because he couldn’t let on that he knew the truth. Rashi, in contrast, has Isaac crying because his son is suffering.
The image we have all surely conjured in our minds of Isaac weeping by Jacob’s side in the shiva-tent is a construct of midrashic creativity. Isaac’s portrayal as the bedrock of stability and hope of Jacob’s rocky world, however, is based firmly in the biblical text. Jacob’s long-delayed returned from exile in the house of Lavan brings him back to his father: “And Jacob came to his father Isaac” (35:27). This homecoming is deemed successful because he has not only married (and reconciled with his brother), but he has with him a complete set of 12 sons — the basis of a nation (35:22, see also 17:20, 22:20-24). Isaac’s death is reported at this point (35:29), although he actually dies later (see Rashi), because with Jacob’s arrival, Isaac’s role is complete, and he now cedes the stage to his son.
Jacob’s hard-earned and short-lived serenity (see Rashi on 37:1) is summarized briefly in the introduction to this week’s portion. Once again this serenity is described in terms of his father: “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned” (37:1).
Although Isaac has no active role in this week’s portion, his function in Jacob’s life is spelled out in the very first verse. And when Jacob loses Joseph, he also loses the stability that he worked so hard to achieve, stability which is symbolized by his return to his father. When the midrash claims that Isaac is the weeping father, it evokes these other past references to him — something which does not occur if the “father” in our verse refers to Jacob. In the resulting echo, it is Isaac, appropriately, who weeps (at least according to Rashi’s understanding) for what his son has lost.
And yet, Isaac not only embodies Jacob’s wish for stability in the midrash, he also acts a foil for Jacob. Jacob’s assumption that Joseph was dead was logical, and his reaction understandable, and yet he could have concluded otherwise. His response is tragic, not only because he was mistaken, but because he failed to realize that the evidence allowed for more than one possibility. It is not hard to imagine Isaac reacting differently — channeling his ability to see the same thing, but to draw a different conclusion. After all, many years before, Isaac himself had set out on a journey from which he was not expected to return. Perhaps on that occasion, he had observed his father Abraham’s calm demeanor, as he gathered him into one arm, with wood, kindling, and a knife in the other. Maybe Isaac learned by his father’s example not to despair, because the future is open to different interpretations, and a story might just take an unlikely and unanticipated turn. By that journey’s end, he realized that he, who was not expected to make the round trip, did return after all. This is fitting for the person who by any logic should not have even been born, one whose very name evokes the laughter of surprise and of unexpected happy endings.
How appropriate that Isaac is cast as the one who could see a future that Jacob was unable to envision. We now understand better how Isaac could continue on with life, as described in the midrash, just as Jacob believed his to be over. It is most interesting that we never read that Isaac was told that Joseph was alive, just simply that “he knew.”
The midrash, of course, cannot have Isaac tell Jacob the truth, and not only because that would upset the biblical storyline. While Isaac may have been well-trained in expecting the unexpected, he might have also understood that sometimes, in order to reach the desired finish line, the story must run its course. Isaac and his father would not have been the same without that shared journey, and Jacob would not have been the same had he not sojourned in Lavan’s house. Similarly, Joseph and his brothers may never have truly become a nation had the Midianites been paid off and Joseph spared a trip to Egypt. So in our midrashic imagination Isaac must sit back, like God Himself, and let the tangled tale unfold; he must wait patiently for Joseph to return, just as he had awaited Jacob.
In fact, it was Joseph’s father who cried for his son on that sad day, or so most commentators agree. While the preceding verses seem to indicate that “him” refers to Jacob, the verse that follows makes clear that it actually refers to Joseph: “And his father wept for him: Meanwhile, the Midianites sold him into Egypt” (Genesis 37:35-36).
Even if Isaac is absent from these verses, his message is found at the very center of this simple reading. As the juxtaposition of these two verses accentuates, at the precise moment that Jacob was bewailing Joseph’s death, Joseph was really very much alive. Although he was seemingly headed in the wrong direction, he was actually at the beginning of a remarkable, complicated, roundabout journey home.
Jacob, it should be said, eventually learns the truth, as well as the lesson that comes with perspective. Sometimes these things have to be learned the hard way – and so, the heartbreaking error in thinking which began this story, “No, I will go down mourning my son to the grave,” is ultimately repaired: “Enough! … My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die” (45:28).