The way to redemption: Selfless weeping and unconditional love (Vayigash)

Efrat, Israel — “And Joseph fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on [Joseph’s] neck.” [Gen. 45:14]

The poignant moment when these two brothers are reunited after a separation of twenty-two years is one of the most tender scenes in the Torah. After a long chronicle of difficult sibling relationships – Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers – we finally come across two siblings who truly love each other. What made these two bond together so deeply? Apparently, since Joseph was isolated by the children of Jacob’s other wives, it was logical that he would seek companionship from the only other sibling born of his own mother, Rachel.

After Rachel died in childbirth, we can feel assured that Joseph drew Benjamin close to him, protected him, and shared with him the precious memories of the mother Benjamin never knew. Indeed, their exclusive relationship must have made their eventual separation even more painful and traumatic. But I am still left wondering: Where is the joy, the elation, the celebration? Why does the Torah only record the weeping of the brothers at this dramatic moment of their reunion?

Rashi cites and explains a midrashic interpretation suggesting that these tears relate to the future destruction of the two Temples allotted to the portion of Benjamin, and to the destruction of the sanctuary in Shilo allotted to the portion of Joseph. Rashi stresses that Joseph’s tears are for Benjamin’s eventual loss, and Benjamin’s tears are for Joseph’s eventual loss.

But why does Rashi assume that the tears are tears of pain for future tragic events, rather than tears of joy over their reunion in the here and now? And why does each brother weep for the loss of the other, rather than for his own?

I believe the answer lies in what Rashi wants us to learn from this meeting in future generations, in accord with the rabbinic principle that “the events of the fathers foreshadow the history of the children.” Our Sages rightly believed that all tragedies that befall the Jewish people have their source in the sale of Joseph as a slave. This sin, the foundation of causeless hatred between Jews, has plagued our people throughout our history.

The Talmud [Gittin 55b-56a], in isolating the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple, reports an almost mundane, personal event. A wealthy man had a party and wanted to invite his friend Kamtza. Inadvertently, his avowed enemy, Bar-Kamtza, was invited instead. Thrown out from the party and publicly shamed, Bar-Kamtza took revenge. He went to the Roman authorities and slandered the Jews in order to implicate them in crimes against the state. The rest is history.

Josephus writes that even as the Romans were destroying the Temple, Jews were still fighting amongst themselves. To this very day, we find the Jewish people split in enemy camps politically and religiously, with one group cynically and sometimes even hatefully attacking the other.

Indeed, during the Yom Kippur Musaf prayer, the author of the mournful Eileh Ezkera hymn of doxology, links the Temple’s destruction and the tragedy of Jewish exile with the sin of the brothers’ sale of Joseph.

Now Rashi’s interpretation assumes profound significance. In the midst of brotherly hatred, the love between Joseph and Benjamin stands out as a shining example of the potential for unconditional love. Indeed, it foreshadows the eventual healing of the sibling hatred, amongst the Jews themselves, and how that hatred can be removed.

Rashi links their tears during their meeting to the destruction of our Sanctuaries – the result of jealousy and enmity between Jew and Jew. And so they each weep for the future tragedies that will befall their descendants. However, although each brother will be blessed with a Sanctuary on his allotted land, the brothers weep not for themselves, but each for the other. Their love is truly “other”-directed, selfless and not at all self-serving.

This act of selfless weeping and unconditional love becomes the only hope against the tragedies implicit in the sale of Joseph into slavery. The only thing that can repair that sin – and by implication the sins of all the causeless hatred between factions down the long road of Jewish history – is nothing less than a love in which the other comes first, cause-less love, when one weeps for the other’s tragedy rather than for his own.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, z”l, taught that since the Temples were destroyed because of causeless hatred, the Third Temple will only be rebuilt because of causeless love, exemplified by the tears of Joseph and Benjamin. Rashi is providing a prescient lesson for our fateful times.

About the Author
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men's and women's institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU. (Photo credit: Chaim Snow)
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