Parashat Vayigash: Tears and Faith
We read in Parashat Vayigash of Yaakob Avinu’s move to Egypt, where he was reunited with his beloved son, Yosef, whom he had not seen in twenty years, and whom he had thought was no longer alive. The Torah describes how Yaakob and Yosef embraced, and Yosef "cried more on his neck" ("Va’yevk Al Savarav Od" – 46:29). Rashi explains this unusual phrase as referring to "Harbot Bechiya" – "abundant crying," indicating that Yosef "continued crying more than normal."
What is "normal" crying when one sees his father for the first time in twenty years? And why is this detail important for us to know?
Rashi then proceeds to cite the famous remark of the Midrash that while Yosef wept, Yaakob did not cry, because he was busy reciting Shema. Why was Yaakob Abinu reciting Shema at this special, emotional moment?
Our Rabbis established the fundamental principle of "Ma’aseh Abot Siman La’banim" – the actions performed by our righteous ancestors serve as a "template" of what would happen to their descendants. As Yaakob and his family moved from Eretz Yisrael to Egypt, beginning what would become a long, difficult exile, Yosef understood that this was establishing the precedent for all future exiles. Now that Yaakob had arrived in Egypt, Yosef foresaw the difficult history of the Jewish People, how for centuries and millennia to come, Am Yisrael would be in exile, away from its homeland, living among other nations, who, on many occasions, would be hostile and would persecute the Jews.
This, then, might be the meaning of Yosef’s "abundant crying." He wept bitterly because he foresaw at that moment the bitterness of exile. He foresaw the "abundant crying" of the Jewish Nation throughout the ages, the tears that would flow during the Babylonian conquest, the Greek persecution, the Roman conquest, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust – and all the other periods of terrible suffering which our nation has endured.
Yaakob Abinu responded by reciting Shema – the declaration of faith in Hashem.
The verse of "Shema Yisrael" proclaims that "Hashem Elokenu Hashem Ehad" – there is only one G-d. The Name "Havaya" signifies G-d’s attribute of compassion, and "Elokim" expresses the attribute of strict judgment. There are times when G-d manifests Himself through "Havaya," when His kindness and compassion are clear and evident, and there are times when He manifests Himself through "Elokim," when He brings hardship and adversity. The proclamation of "Shema Yisrael" affirms the belief that both "Hashem" and "Elokenu" are, in truth "Hashem Ehad" – one and the same. It affirms the belief that everything that happens is, in truth, "Havaya" – a manifestation of G-d’s kindness and compassion, because everything He does is always for the best, even when it is difficult to see how.
Yaakob made this proclamation at that moment in response to Yosef’s tears because this must be – and always has been – our response to the tears and pain of exile: faith in Hashem’s kindness under all circumstances. Immediately upon arriving in Egypt, setting into motion the long, painful history of Jewish exile, Yaakob Abinu equipped us with our most important asset through which we can survive the pain and suffering of exile – faith in "Hashem Ehad," the belief in Hashem’s boundless kindness, that even in times of hardship, He is, in truth, caring for us.
This faith has been the secret of our nation’s survival throughout our years in exile, and this is what will continue sustaining us until the end of our exile and our long-awaited redemption, may it arrive speedily and in our time, Amen.