Vayigash: Tears to and End – A Time to Cry, A Time to Act

by Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Shliach to Jacksonville, FL

The unmistakable echo of hulking boots pounding the pavement was enough to strike terror into the hearts of the small band of Chassidim gathered in a dimly lit basement in the Russian city of Samarkand.

The purpose of the gathering was a “Farbrengen,” a Chassidic get-together meant to encourage and inspire one another in the pursuit of spirituality and Divine service. Such gatherings were obviously utterly outlawed in communist Russia and punishable by unthinkable penalty.

As the Farbrengen lingered into the wee hours of the night the discussion was heightened and the atmosphere intense. A number of younger Chassidim were weeping bitterly as they poured out their hearts to the presiding Mashpia (spiritual mentor) regarding their deficient spiritual state.

It was at this climactic moment that the thumping sounds from outside caught the attention of the group of Farbrengers, now gripped by sudden fear. Who else would be parading the streets at this ungodly hour if not the NKVD? Alas, their secret was uncovered and their game was up. Only G-d knows what would be with them now. Would they ever see their families again?

As if in auto-pilot they instinctively scattered in all directions. This one climbed under a bed, that one into a closet and another atop the furnace. But after a short while that seemed like eternity the footsteps subsided. They were in the clear after all.

After ample time has passed, they slowly regained their composure and one by one returned to the table where they tried to pick up where they left off, lamenting over their inadequate spiritual level.

“Wait a minute!” cried the Mashpia. How come when your physical life was in danger, there was no wailing, there was no philosophizing. There was instant action. Yet, when it comes to your spiritual state there is all this weeping. Ought you not react to your spiritual woes the same way you do to your physical woes?

There is no arguing that tears are cathartic. We all know that after a “good cry,” there is a sense of relief. But is crying a good thing? Is there any real benefit to shedding tears?

In describing the dramatic reunion between Yosef and Binyamin after 22 years of separation, our Parsha – Vayigash – states: Yosef “fell on the neck of his brother Binyamin and wept, and Binyamin wept on his neck.” (Genesis 45:14).

The Talmud interprets the weeping on each other’s necks as expressions of pain and sorrow over future tragedies in their respective histories: Yosef, the Talmud asserts: “wept over the two Sanctuaries that were to stand in the territory of Binyamin, which were destined to be destroyed. Binyamin, on the other hand, wept over the Shiloh Sanctuary that was to stand in the territory of Yosef and was to be destroyed” (Megillah 16:b)

“As the soul fills the body,” declare our Sages “so does G-d fill the world.” Ironic as it might be, the Almighty who transcends finite existence, desired for his presence to be manifest in our physical world. The Temples served as the seat of the Divine holy presence on earth, the spot which the Almighty chose as the gateway for His eminence to enter the world.

Each tribe, as we know, received a portion in the Land of Israel. As it happens, the first and second Temples lay in the territory of Binyamin.

Preceding the two Temples there was a Mishkan (portable sanctuary), which served the people of Israel in their journeys in the desert. Following Israel’s entry into the Holy Land in the days of Joshua, the Mishkan was erected at Shiloh in Yosef’s portion. In the end all our Sanctuaries were tragically destroyed, thus the weeping by Yosef and Binyamin.

The Holy Temple is commonly compared to the neck of the spiritual matrix – the juncture that links heaven and earth. Much as the neck connects the head and the body, the Sanctuary acts as a link between the spiritual and the physical – the point of contact between the Creator and His creation.

Indeed, when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem it served as the spiritual nerve center of the universe. The destruction of the Sanctuary is thus the breakdown of the juncture between head and body – between essence and matter – G-d and creation.

Therein lies the significance of Yosef and Binyamin’s weeping on each other’s necks. Yosef and Binyamin foresaw the times when the “neck” between spirit and matter would be damaged, alienating earth from heaven and body from soul, hence they wept on each other’s necks.

But why did they each weep over the other’s necks, Yosef over Binyamin’s destroyed Sanctuaries and Binyamin over Yosef’s? Why not weep over their own tragedies? Were they not distressed by the future breakdown of their own “necks”?

Moreover, later in the narrative, as the Torah describes Yosef’s reunion with his father Yaakov, the Torah relates, “he fell upon his neck, and he wept more on his neck” (Genesis 46:29). Here too, our sages assert that Yosef’s weeping on Yaakov’s neck was a further expression of distress over the destruction of the Holy Temples. But what about Yaakov? Why didn’t he weep?

In answer to this quandary the Rabbis submit that Yaakov was preoccupied at the time with reciting the Shema. But if it was time to recite the Shema, why was Yosef weeping instead of reciting the Shema as well?

The pattern seems rather consistent: Yosef weeps over the destruction of the Sanctuaries which lay in Binyamin’s province, but not over the Sanctuary which lay in his own. Binyamin weeps over the destruction of Yosef’s Sanctuary, but not of his own. And Yaakov weeps over neither, since as the father of all the tribes of Israel, his province includes all the Sanctuaries. The question however remains: Why is everyone weeping over the other’s spiritual deficiencies and not over their own?

The very nature and benefit of tears also seems to require some clarification. What does weeping actually achieve?

There is no arguing with the fact that tears are cathartic. A “good cry” is proven to bring much relief. But while tears give vent to distress and frustration that accompany the knowledge that something is not right, they do not address the problem that actually prompted the distress in the first place. Its relief is not dependent on whether or not the situation has improved. In the above light there is room to wonder, is crying a good thing? Is there any real benefit to shedding tears?

At first glance, it would seem not. Distress and frustration are what drive a person to rectify the negative conditions that give rise to them, to lessen the distress in any way other than to rectify the cause, would seem to counteract their purpose and utility.

But what if one has done all there is to be done? In this case, since weeping cannot be faulted for reducing the impetus for action, one can point to its constructive use, namely, to alert others to the gravity of the situation – others who are perhaps in a better position to help.

Ultimately, only Yosef can repair the destroyed Sanctuary at Shiloh – the “Yosef” dimension of Israel’s relationship with the Almighty – for it is his lot in life. Binyamin can only encourage and assist.

So after contributing all he could to Yosef’s efforts, Binyamin weeps in agony and concern vis-à-vis his brother’s neck. The same applies to Yosef’s weeping over the Sanctuaries in Binyamin’s domain. Hence Yosef and Binyamin allowed themselves to weep over the destruction of each other’s Sanctuaries.

However, concerning one’s own spiritual ills, there is no such thing as “having done all there is to do.” G-d has granted man free choice and has provided him with the necessary resources and abilities to overcome his every moral and spiritual challenge.

Hence the tearless approach of Yaakov, as well as Yosef and Binyamin, with regards to the destruction of their own Sanctuaries. To weep over one’s own “neck,” over the negative state of the relationship between one’s own body and soul (and its cosmic equivalent) is counterproductive. In this case tears relieve and diminish the internal forces that compel one to repair the problem.

Instead of weeping over the destruction of the Holy Temple and the resultant “exile,” Yaakov recited the Shema. He proclaims G-d’s unity and the imperative to translate this comprehension and awareness into thoughts, feelings and concrete actions in his physical life.

Instead of giving vent to his pain, Yaakov directs his inner turmoil toward the endeavor of rebuilding the damaged necks of Israel.

The story of Yosef and his brothers to which the Torah devotes more than a dozen detailed chapters (Genesis 37-50), sketch many a defining page in the blueprint of Jewish history. The twelve sons of Yaakov – founders of the twelve tribes of Israel – their deeds and experiences, their separations and reunions, not to mention their tears, contain an eternal lesson for their progeny. From them we learn the secret of when to cry and when to act.

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