Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

Letting the Tears Flow

Throughout Yosef’s story, he cries. At numerous junctures and inflection points in the narrative, Yosef is suddenly brought to tears. As we approach eighty days of war, and as we mark the first fast day focusing on the destruction of the Jewish people since October 7, what might we learn from the teary-eyed Yosef?

Our esteemed teacher, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein of blessed memory, sees in the literary arc of the Yosef story a poignant meditation on emotional life. Yosef doesn’t cry at moments of crisis: when he is thrown into the pit, sold into slavery, or thrown into jail. He cries as an emotional outlet. Yosef cries upon hearing his brothers express guilt for selling him (Bereishit 42:24), and again upon first seeing Binyamin after years of separation (ibid. 43:30). In both instances, Yosef ensures that his tears remain concealed, turning away from those around him and only letting out his cries while alone. There is certainly a tactical consideration at play – Yosef is not yet ready to reveal his identity and upend the machinations he’s worked out for his brothers. Yet his repeated hiding reflects an emotional stance, too; Yosef faces a wave of emotional turmoil, with layers of nostalgia and frustration and desire and loss all surfacing together, and he insists on bottling his unresolved emotions, rather than letting them out.

Yet once Parshat Vayigash begins, as Yehuda delivers his moving soliloquy, Yosef reaches his emotional limit. He  allows his emotions to swell and lets out a cry he had held tight to his chest for years and years,(ibid. 44:1-2).

There comes a point where our emotions break through, when we embrace our estranged brethren in tears. Chazal teach that Yosef, in that moment of embrace with his current reality reunion with his estranged brethren, he cried not only for the reunion but for the eventual destruction of the two Batei Mikdash (Temples) as well (BT Megillah 16b). When we let our tears out, they may become a stream of tears for all the facets of loss and love,  grief and hope, as well as brokenness and determination that reside within us side by side.

With the war raging, the losses mounting, hostages still being held captive – and most recently, the hostages who were misidentified and tragically killed by our forces – we have not yet been able to emotionally process and truly grieve the crushing catastrophes since October 7. On the contrary, we have done our best to hold it together for our spouses, children, students, colleagues, and friends, especially as the scope of the calamity continues to deepen, causing the wounds to open wider. But there is only so long we can put on our brave face without making space for the latent grief and fear we carry within us. In fact, as Yosef teaches us, it is the honest, vulnerable confrontation with our feelings that we and our children may need in order to move forward.

Opening ourselves to the floodgates of the tears is the means by which we open the gates to redemption. To be honest with one another and with ourselves about how we feel is not a sign of weakness, but of emotional maturity and strength. For it is those who sow in tears who will reap in gladness (Psalms 126:5). May we be among them.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 32 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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