We love life. We toast to it (L’CHAYIM), we venerate its numerical value (18), and many of our tribe wear a CHAI around their necks. But in our Torah reading concern about life seems to take on a new meaning. When Yosef finally reveals his true identity to his brothers, the next words out his mouth are, ‘Does father still live (HA’OD AVI CHAI, Breishit 45:4)?’ Hadn’t they already informed him of that fact a few verses earlier (43:28). Later in the parsha, the brothers return to Ya’akov Avinu, and tell him that Yosef lives. Ya’akov’s immediate reaction? ‘And he didn’t believe them.’
What’s going on here? We may love life, but we don’t believe others when they announce that a beloved relative still lives? Perhaps the brothers have lost all believability. There must be something deeper going on.
So, the Kli Yakar explains that Yosef might have thought that they had lied about their father’s status to elicit sympathy from Egypt’s ruler. Maybe he’d be more generous to sons seeking the welfare of an aged father.
But why would Ya’akov not believe the brothers when they brought the glorious news that Yosef still lived? The Avot D’Reb Natan (chapter 30) uses this scenario as a teaching moment. That text claims that when someone has lied it’s hard for others to believe anything that they say in the future. However, I think that the literal meaning is that the news was just too incredible. Not until Ya’akov saw the wealth and wagons following the brothers, could his brain accept what his heart continued to deny.
Okay, that’s all fine and good, but let’s reexamine the situation from a different vantage point. Why would Yosef not believe that Ya’akov still lived? Reb Ovadia S’forno suggests that Yosef couldn’t believe that Ya’akov could have survived the shock of being informed that Yosef had been killed. Yosef wants to know. ‘How could father continue to live without me?’
Let’s turn back to Ya’akov’s disbelief that Yosef still lived. Reb Eliyahu Mizrachi suggests that Ya’akov initially had trouble believing that Yosef still lived, because he wondered why God hadn’t informed him of the fact. It was only a bit later that he began to understand that this was all part of the plan for Jewish destiny revealed back in Lech Licha at the Brit Bein HaBetarim (15:13-16).
There still remains one more way to look at our story. The great Chasidic master, the Shem M’Shmuel looks at our story a bit differently. Our protagonists, Ya’akov and Yosef, aren’t only normal characters in a story. They are the founders of the Jewish nation. Their lives are always to be viewed on two planes, the physical or normal and the metaphysical and extraordinary.
The Shem M’shmuel, therefore, posits that we must examine the query of each hero about the other in the light of what it says in the holy Zohar concerning the verse: I can now die, because I have seen your face (46:30): The reality that Ya’akov continued to live was part of the secret reality (RAZA) of the holy covenant. ZADIKIM live forever. That critical idea doesn’t only mean that ZADIKIM do attain eternal life, it also indicates that the events in the life of a ZADIK are signs, symbols and predicters of what will befall the Jewish people throughout history. It’s another way of expressing the famous position of the Ramban: What happens to our ancestors are signposts for the future of their descendants.
That’s the amazing key to understanding the question of both father and son. They both believed that the other was still physically alive. They needed to know if their spiritual life of eternal significance still persisted. Yosef is asking: Has the disaster of my disappearance damaged the spiritual power of our father? Ya’akov has difficulty believing that Yosef remained the dreamer in Egyptian servitude.
It’s possible that life’s vicissitudes can break even heroic individuals. It’s not just a trope of Greek tragedy that strong characters can be broken by events. I know a number of very stong individuals who never recovered from the death of spouse or child. The questions of father and son are, therefore, very reasonable and sound. It’s the positive responses which we must find inspiring.
When we read the events of Breishit, we must be moved by the behavior of our forebears. But it’s crucial that we always see them living on multiple levels. They were frail humans just like us, but their greatness found expression on many levels, both historical and spiritual. And it lives on, in us.