Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

When to cry and when not to cry


Does crying help?

It depends.

In this week’s reading, Vayigash [1], we read how Joseph reveals himself to his brothers after the whole “show” that preceded it. Regarding the reunion with his brother Benjamin in particular, the Torah tells us [2]: “And [Joseph] fell on the neck of his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin wept upon his neck.” 

What does the detail of each one crying on his brother’s neck teach us?

The Talmud [3]  explains that the neck represents the Temple. (Just as the neck “connects” the life force in the head to the body, the Temple “connects” the universal life force —G-d— to the world.) The two Temples of Jerusalem were built (partially) in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin. The forerunner of these Temples was built in Shiloh, Joseph’s territory. All three were eventually destroyed, that of Shiloh by the Philistines, the first of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and the second by the Romans. At that moment of the meeting both brothers foresaw the destruction that was going to happen in the future and each one wept for the destruction that was going to take place in the territory of the other. Each one wept over his brother’s neck, not only physically —something that would be insignificant for the Torah to document— but also cosmically.

The obvious question is: being that each of them was destined to suffer destruction in his own territory, why cry over that of his brother’s instead of over one’s own? Which hurts more, one’s own toothache or that of your brother?

Here is a great teaching regarding the function of crying and when it is beneficial to do so and when it’s not.

Crying serves as a catharsis. You cry when your mind and heart cannot contain the pain or happiness. After crying one usually feels relieved.

It turns out, then, that when you can do something to resolve the situation that hurts you so much and instead you cry, your catharsis is counterproductive. You feel better, but the situation was not resolved. Crying is a beneficial only when you can no longer do anything to improve the situation. 

When can one do something and when can one not? When it comes to your own personal “destruction,” instead of crying about your situation, do something about it. Look for the solution or for someone who can help you find it. When it comes to a situation of destruction in another’s life, after trying everything you can to help them, since ultimately it is not up to you what the other person will decide to do with his or her life, it is time to cry. If you do not cry, it is a sign of insensitivity.

Now we can understand why each of the brothers wept over the neck — “destruction of the Temple” — of the other. It does not do any good to weep over one’s own destruction; the right course of action is to do something to prevent it from happening. 

This also explains why Jacob did not weep when he finally met his son, Joseph. The Zohar says that at that moment he recited the “Shema Israel”. All the destruction was going to happen in his territory, since the twelve tribes were all his descendants….  For Jacob it was not a time to mourn but to do something to prevent the destruction: The Shema Israel is the ultimate expression of Jewish faith, the purpose of the Temples and antithesis to their destruction. 

In reality, what happens is usually the opposite. When you ask a person how he is doing, he complains. He complains about his personal situation and blames it on the situation of the country, the world, etc. When you ask how so-and-so is doing, he begins to tell you how badly he is doing but that he is to blame because he should have done things differently. One always has very clear what the other one has to do…

So the tool for this week is: don’t cry about your problems when you can do something to solve them. Tears are good when you shed them as a result of your empathy for someone else’s suffering and your impotence to do anything about it. 

Based on Likutei Sichot Vol. 10, pp. 147-150

  1. Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
  2. Genesis 45:14 
  3. Megillah, 16b
About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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