Many years ago, a man in my synagogue died suddenly. It was my duty to break the news to his young family, including Rebekka, age seven, and Josh, age fifteen. Rebekka stomped her feet, cried out, "No, no", and sobbed.
Josh was hard as stone. His body turned rigid, as if to say that it would not be right to cry. I took his arm and our eyes met. I tried to say: it's OK to cry. I saw the hint of a few tears as he retreated to his room and wept. Years later, home on vacation from college, Josh visited me and shared this reflection, "I am glad you told me that it's OK to cry. I used to think I was too old to cry."
A person is never too old or too young to be what he really is: a feeling, sensitive human being.
A Chasidic saying teaches that no one is a whole human being unless his or her own heart has been broken. A significant part of human experience is emotional. We sense and we feel. We love and we hate.
Yet the myth that weeping is a sign of weakness endures, especially among men. I once asked a group of teenagers if they had seen their mothers cry. Nearly all had. Then I inquired if they had seen their fathers cry. Less than half responded that they had.
The reality is that tears are among the most effective means of handling a challenging emotional transition. I see it when I engage with couples in marital counseling, when I visit patients in the hospital, and when I counsel individuals dealing with personal disappointment. And we see it clearly in this week's parashah, Mikeitz.
As a result of famine in Canaan, Joseph's brothers, ten of them, go to Egypt to purchase grain (Genesis 41:53-42-5). Joseph, who oversees food distribution in Egypt, recognizes them--his brothers who condemned him to the pit--but he does not reveal himself to them. Rather, he pretends to be a stranger and speaks harshly to them. Does he want revenge? Or is it a strategy to elicit their love? We cannot be sure, but we certainly feel the tension. He puts them to a test, instructing them to return home and bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, back to Egypt, while he holds brother Simeon as hostage.
Joseph then leaves their presence and weeps privately (Genesis 42:24). This will not be the last time Joseph turns aside to sob.
Back home in Canaan, the frightened brothers convince their father, Jacob, to allow them to return to Egypt with Benjamin. When Joseph beholds the youngster, his emotions are "so deeply stirred" that he retreats once again to an inner chamber where he weeps a second time (Genesis 43:30).
Note that he cannot weep in front of others. Perhaps it was to protect himself from his advisers. Perhaps it was inhibition. Quickly, he regains control of himself and the situation, ordering his servants to serve a meal. Benjamin's portion is five times that of the others. Amidst the tension, Joseph is making progress toward some kind of reconciliation. But you can still cut the tension with a knife.
In next week's parashah, Vayigash, after further intrigue, brother Judah cautions Joseph that if they return to their father without Benjamin, the old man will suffer deeply (Genesis 44:30-34).
At this point Joseph, who "could no longer restrain himself," clears the room of everyone except his brothers (Genesis 45:1). Rashi states that he removed the Egyptians so that his brothers would not be shamed before them. Then Joseph "gave voice to a loud wail," so intense that everyone in the palace could hear (Genesis 45:2). This was weeping episode number three!
The scene closes as Joseph, tears still flowing, embraces Benjamin and proceeds to kiss all his brothers and weep with them. Only then, states the Torah, "could his brothers respond to him" (Genesis 45:15).
Wow! These are powerful scenes! Years of pent-up feelings finally pour out from Joseph. Remember how it happened. First, he wept alone, as if to say, "I am human. I have fears. That self confident, stern, efficient image that I conveyed masked all my hurt, my love, and my anxieties." Then he wept a second time, also in private. Finally, his emotions poured out in the presence of his brothers.
At this point, Joseph is able to say to his brothers, "don't be troubled, don't be chagrined because you sold me here, for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you" (Genesis 45:5). In other words, "it was all part of God's plan so that I could save your lives."
We'll return to that theme next week. But for now, let's note well that the Torah describes not one or two, but three episodes of weeping that enabled Joseph to reach this perspective. Like his brothers, he too was carrying around with him heavy emotional baggage. And so do we. Finding ways of lightening that burden frees us to be happier and more productive human beings.
Happy Hanukkah and Happy Thanksgiving! Some sources say that the next time the first day Hanukkah and Thanksgiving may overlap will be tens of thousands of years from now. Enjoy!
Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff , past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and of ARZA, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey. He is vice-president for special projects at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and author of When Elijah Knocks, A Religious Response to Homelessness, (Behrman House) and Reform Judaism, A Jewish Way of Life, (Ktav).