By: Deborah Abecassis Warshawsky. An Akiva parent, Debbie has an MA and PhD in the history of Jewish Bible Interpretation from McGill University as well as a Masters in Library and Information Science (MLIS) also from McGill.
And so begin the protests. “I didn’t play with the Barbies.” “I only used the blocks.” “I wasn’t even in there this morning.”
The room looked like a tornado went through it, and the disaster was certainly not the result of one morning of playing. Several days of not tidying before leaving the space had produced this overwhelming clean-up job. Much more than a 10-second tidy.
But I did not open a discussion of who was responsible for cleaning which part of the room. No one likes being accused, embarrassed or put on the defensive. Sisters do not need more ammunition to grumble at, or blame each other, and ultimately, as a family unit, we are all responsible for each other and the space we occupy together.
Who did what was not as important as :
- the overwhelming mess that needed to be cleaned up;
- the preservation of another’s dignity and reputation and
- the development of one’s own sense of personal responsibility for the well-being of the group.
In this week’s parashah, Va-Yigash, we continue to see the dynamics between Joseph and his family. Judah pleads with Joseph, at this point still a stranger and an Egyptian dignitary in Judah’s eyes, to release Benjamin and permit him to return to his father, lest his father die from grief.
“Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he called out, ‘Remove everyone from before me!’ Thus no one stood with him when he made himself known to his brothers.”
As we learned last week, Joseph had been holding back his emotions and playing the stranger before his brothers, but after Judah’s plea, the text tells us (using the same verb), that Joseph could no longer contain himself. The commentators wondered why he insisted (in a seemingly panicked way) on sending out everyone else in the room.
Once all the Egyptian attendants have departed, Joseph says, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” When his brothers, out of shock, do not respond, Joseph ushers them closer to him and says again, “I am Joseph your brother – me, whom you sold to Egypt.”
Rashi explains that Joseph sent his Egyptian attendants out of the room because he could not bear to shame his brothers in front of them when he identified himself through their sinful behaviour.
The Ramban, however, explains that Joseph no longer felt he had control of the room. After Judah’s passionate plea, the Egyptian attendants and guards, who had initially brought Benjamin, an alleged thief, to Joseph, were now exhibiting compassion and pity for the younger brother. Joseph sent them out in order to hold onto his authority and position of fortitude.
According to Ramban, Joseph also sent them out to uphold both his and his brothers’ reputations. He did not want witnesses to their family drama that could then be used against them when they wished to settle in the land of Egypt. He feared the Egyptians would not be hospitable to men who, in the past, sold their own brother, and he worried he would no longer have the trust of the Egyptians when they realized he had been tricking his brothers.
Although Joseph appears to be rubbing salt in the wound when he identifies himself as “whom you sold to Egypt.” He follows that statement with:
“And now be not distressed, do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was as a supporter of life that God sent me ahead of you.”
He reassures his brothers that God’s plan was for him to be in Egypt and to ultimately help his family; he was not holding any grudges. Then he sends his brothers to bring Jacob, their father, and arranges with Pharaoh for them to settle in the land of Goshen.
When Joseph hears of Judah arriving with Jacob, the text tells us:
“Joseph harnessed his chariot and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen; and he appeared to him, he fell on his neck and he wept on his neck more.”
The scene is quite powerful. After all these years that father and son were separated – the father believing his son was dead – Joseph and Jacob meet in an emotional reunion with hugging and weeping.
The question is who appears before whom and who falls, weeping, on who’s neck. The verse is not clear.
Rashi believed that Joseph appeared before Jacob and Joseph fell upon Jacob’s neck because he is the primary subject of the verse, which unambiguously states at the start “Joseph harnessed his chariot.”
The Ramban believed that Joseph appeared before Jacob, but when Jacob recognized who he was, Jacob fell upon Joseph’s neck and wept. Joseph knew he was heading out to meet his father, so it makes more sense that his (surprise) appearance before Jacob led to an emotional reaction from the father and not the son.
Moreover, the Ramban felt that falling upon your father’s neck is not an appropriate demonstration of honour and respect. Joseph would have bowed before his father or kissed his hand. Additionally, the text says “he wept on his neck more.” Jacob had been crying for Joseph since he was sold, and thus, in this context, the word “more” alludes to the grief Jacob has felt all along. Finally, the Ramban argued, an elderly father who discovers, after intense despair and grief, that his beloved son is alive is more likely to weep than a mature man in a position of state leadership.
Ramban’s psychological interpretation of the emotional scene is sensitive and intuitive, but the ambiguity in the verse shows us that, like the mess in my playroom, it doesn’t really matter who was crying on whom for us to understand the drama and intensity of the narrative. I too, through psychological analysis of my children’s habits and personalities, could provide a reasonable appraisal of who contributed to which part of the disorder. But to what end?
Joseph shows us it is important, even in a heightened emotional state, – when you’re about to reveal yourself to the brothers who sold you (or when my house is upside down and no one seems to care but me) – to consider the ramifications of your words and actions. Every situation is bigger than that immediate moment. We are responsible not only for our own feelings but how we represent the people around us – to themselves and to any bystanders.
None of my girls wanted to feel as if individually they were responsible for the mess. They did not want to be blamed by their sisters for implicating everyone in a clean-up session. And as much as I wanted to release my restrained frustration with my children’s inability to keep the room tidy and organized, the possibility for greater, long-standing change hinged on a purposeful plan, with deliberate, conscious instructions.
Will my play room look like a tornado hit again? I hope so. I love when my children play and enjoy their toys and their space.
Will they think twice about the mess they leave or jump up willingly and happily to clean up the next time I ask them? Well, let’s say, it’s a work in progress.
I hope (and pray) that I am teaching them that tidying their play room is bigger than “just” appeasing their mother who likes things orderly. Who made the mess is much less important than how we take responsibility for and show respect to each other and the spaces we share.
I wish you all a relaxing and refreshing winter break and Shabbat Shalom.
Discussion Questions for the Shabbat Table:
- Why did Joseph finally reveal himself to his brothers?
- What do you think the brothers were thinking when they learned who Joseph was?
- Why do you think Joseph sent out the Egyptian attendants?
- Describe how you imagine the meeting between Jacob and Joseph?
- The rabbis is the Talmud taught: One who embarrasses another in public, it is as if that person shed blood. Explain why?