Vayechi: Tears of Suffering and Hope

Tears of Suffering and Hope

by Dr. Yardaena Osband 

Dr. Yardaena Osband studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum from 1993-1995 and taught there from 2001-2003. Today she is a pediatrician and community scholar in Riverdale, NY

Parshat Vayechi brings the conclusion to the story of Yosef and his brothers.  The story occupies 14 chapters of Genesis (chapters 37-50) which is almost a third of the whole sefer. In Vayechi, Yosef’s story ends with his father Yaakov’s death (Genesis 49:33-50:1) and burial and with one last encounter between Yosef and his brothers where they must confront the consequences of Yosef’s sale (Genesis 50:15-21).

In both of these encounters, Yosef cries. But when Yosef’s entire story is examined Yosef cries 7 times. All 7 times occur once Yosef is in Egypt and begin when he sees his brothers for the first time. The first three (Gen 42:24, 43:30, and 45:1-2) occur when Yosef meets his brothers the first time when they come to ask for food. Yosef first cries when he hears his brothers discuss if this is a punishment for how they treated him. The second is when Yosef sees his brother Binyamin for the first time, and the third is after Yosef listens to Yehuda’s plea to take him instead of Binyamin, and Yosef can no longer control himself, and his cry is heard throughout Egypt (Genesis 45:2). The fourth cry is when Yosef finally reveals himself to his brother and cries on Binyamin (Genesis 45:14) and his brothers (Genesis 45:15). Yosef is described crying for a fifth time when he is finally reunited with his father Yaakov (Genesis 46:29) (the verse here is somewhat ambivalent and it may be describing Yaakov crying but most commentators believe it is to be Yosef who is crying). Finally, in Vayechi, there are the last two times where Yosef cries.

Why does the Torah share over and over again the details of Yosef’s emotional state? Certainly there are many other emotionally charged situations described in Tanach, but there is no other character who is described crying as often as Yosef. What emotion do his tears express? Other than when his father Yaakov dies and he cries, which seems to be an expression of grief, it is not clear what Yosef is expressing when he cries.

To understand Yosef’s tears it is important to remember that Yosef’s mother, Rachel, is the personality in Tanakh most identified with crying. As Yirmiyahu describes Rachel in Chapter 31:15

כֹּ֣ה ׀ אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֗ה ק֣וֹל בְּרָמָ֤ה נִשְׁמָע֙ נְהִי֙ בְּכִ֣י תַמְרוּרִ֔ים רָחֵ֖ל מְבַכָּ֣ה עַל־בָּנֶ֑יהָ מֵאֲנָ֛ה לְהִנָּחֵ֥ם עַל־בָּנֶ֖יהָ כִּ֥י אֵינֶֽנּוּ׃

Thus said the LORD: A cry is heard in Ramah— wailing, bitter weeping— Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, who are gone.

When Rachel tragically dies during childbirth (Genesis 35:16-20) Yaakov buries her apart from the rest of the Avot and Imahot. The midrash in Bereshit Rabbah 82:10 explains why Yaakov buried Rachel on the road to Efrat:

And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Efrat, this is Beit-Lechem (35:19) What did Yaakov see that he buried Rachel on the way to Efrat? He had a prophetic vision that the exiles would in the future pass through there, therefore he buried her there, so she would ask for mercy for them – so it is written, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping, Rachel is weeping for her children … Thus says God: Refrain your voice from weeping… there is hope for your future, etc.

Yaakov understands that the suffering Rachel experienced in her life, like waiting to marry Yaakov and the pain of infertility, sets her apart from the other Avot and Imahot. She becomes  the most appropriate voice to plead for mercy to God as the Jewish people suffer when they are exiled. While Rachel’s tribulations isolate her, it is after her tearful plea for mercy, when God comforts Rachel, that her suffering has meaning and will be rewarded with hope.  Her children will return from their exile and their suffering will come to an end (Jeremiah 31:16-17)

כֹּ֣ה ׀ אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֗ה מִנְעִ֤י קוֹלֵךְ֙ מִבֶּ֔כִי וְעֵינַ֖יִךְ מִדִּמְעָ֑ה כִּי֩ יֵ֨שׁ שָׂכָ֤ר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ֙ נְאֻם־יְהוָ֔ה וְשָׁ֖בוּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ אוֹיֵֽב׃ וְיֵשׁ־תִּקְוָ֥ה לְאַחֲרִיתֵ֖ךְ נְאֻם־יְהוָ֑ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ בָנִ֖ים לִגְבוּלָֽם

Thus said the LORD: Restrain your voice from weeping, Your eyes from shedding tears; For there is a reward for your labor —declares the LORD: They shall return from the enemy’s land.And there is hope for your future —declares the LORD: Your children shall return to their country.

Yosef, like his mother Rachel, is always set apart.  Beginning with his dreams in chapter 37, where he understands that he is destined to gain great power over the rest of his family, and even at the end of the story with his brothers in Chapter 50, he remains apart from them. This separateness comes from Yosef perceiving that the suffering he went through was all part of a larger plan of God’s. He cries at the moments when more of God’s plan is revealed and he can see that, hopefully, his suffering at the hand of his brothers has purpose. This culminates in Chapter 50:19-20 when, after his brothers plead with Yosef to not take revenge on them after their fathers’ death, Yosef reminds them:

וַיֹּ֧אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֛ם יוֹסֵ֖ף אַל־תִּירָ֑אוּ כִּ֛י הֲתַ֥חַת אֱלֹהִ֖ים אָֽנִי וְאַתֶּ֕ם חֲשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם עָלַ֖י רָעָ֑ה אֱלֹהִים֙ חֲשָׁבָ֣הּ לְטֹבָ֔ה לְמַ֗עַן עֲשֹׂ֛ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה לְהַחֲיֹ֥ת עַם־רָֽב׃

But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God?

Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.

Rachel and Yosef’s tears teach us that even though suffering often makes people feel alone and distant, the experience of suffering need not be meaningless. We must remind ourselves that, where there is suffering, we must still find hope.  As the Psalmist writes in 126:5-6:

 הַזֹּרְעִ֥ים בְּדִמְעָ֗ה בְּרִנָּ֥ה יִקְצֹֽרוּ׃ הָ֘ל֤וֹךְ יֵלֵ֨ךְ ׀ וּבָכֹה֮ נֹשֵׂ֪א מֶֽשֶׁךְ־הַ֫זָּ֥רַע בֹּֽ֬א־יָב֥וֹא בְרִנָּ֑ה נֹ֝שֵׂ֗א אֲלֻמֹּתָֽיו׃

They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy. Though he goes along weeping, carrying the seed-bag, he shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves.

May we be blessed that all our tears become songs of joy and hope.

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