When Joseph sees his brothers in Egypt, and hears them recall their deafness to his own cries from the pit years back, an overwhelming emotion wells up in him. He has to turn away from them to hide his outburst.

This is the first of three occasions on which Joseph weeps. Each time he does so, something opens up in him, an unplanned response, which is at first a mere parenthesis, as he turns away and then turns back to his tyrannical role. In the course of that "parenthesis" he knows himself lost and remembered by his brothers. As they speak of what was not in the past, a new relationship is suggested, woven of regret, empathy, loss. Listening to them, Joseph begins to be; his real life takes on imagined luster in their words, in their contrition.

He weeps again, when Benjamin appears in front of him. Again, spontaneously, anarchically, tears force him away from his brothers: even more emphatically, the narrative stresses this withdrawal.

The effect is of a kind of slow-motion lingering on the experience of weeping — before, during, and after. This is time out of time, after which Joseph returns to the routines of his host role ("Serve the meal"). Again, a profound, repressed consciousness breaks through the tears. Nevertheless, he "controls himself."

Repressed memories of Joseph's brothers' cruelty to him rise to the surface, as their responsibility to Rachel's other son, Benjamin, is tested. Will they abandon him, as they abandoned Joseph in the past? This question — of abandonment, of alienation, rather than of active cruelty — is the essence of Joseph's plot, in its final stage. When Judah offers himself in place of Benjamin, simply because it is unbearable to him to witness his father's anguish, if he should return without him[1], Joseph again bursts out weeping. This time, however, he cannot restrain himself.

As on previous occasions of weeping, Joseph has time, before his tears overwhelm him, to make preparations. Before he breaks down, instead of withdrawing, this time he sends away all onlookers. And the passion of his tears is almost orgiastic. A whole verse is given to the description of the weeping, as it echoes through the palace. His weeping is an eruption of the pain of his loss, intensified to a point that compels him to give up the masquerade. As Judah recalls the rememberings of his father, Joseph is overwhelmed by the reality of his own absence; he weeps for the third time and reveals himself.

Joseph's tears are perhaps those of which the Psalmist sings: "Though he goes along weeping, carrying the seed bag, he shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves"[2]. André Neher[3] writes of these tears:

What is to weep? To weep is to sow. What is to laugh? To laugh is to reap. Look at this man weeping as he goes. Why is he weeping? Because he is bearing in his arms the burden of the grain he is about to sow. And now, see him coming back in joy. Why is he laughing? Because he bears in his arms the sheaves of the harvest. Laughter is the tangible harvest, plenitude. Tears are sowing; they are effort, risk, the seed exposed to drought and to rot, the ear of corn threatened by hail and by storms. Laughter is words, tears are silence....It is not the harvest that is important: what is important is the sowing, the risk, the tears. Hope is not in laughter and plentitude. Hope is in tears, in the risk and in its silence.[4]

[1] Genesis 44:34 [Back]
[2] Psalms 126:6 [Back]
[3] 20th cent. Jewish scholar and philosopher, born in Alsace, who was one of the spiritual leaders of the young intellectuals of the French-speaking world after the liberation of France. The moving force of his philosophy is the "alliance" of God with Man, and in particular with the People of Israel. He was inspired and guided by the teachings of Judah Loew b. Bezalel (Maharal). [Back]
[4] André Neher, Exile of the Word, p. 236. [Back]
Abridged version of Ms. Zornberg's study on Parashat Miketz in The Beginnings of Desire, JPS 1995.

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg was recently invited to be a Jewish Bible scholar in a PBS special on Genesis. She has gained great acclaim through her weekly lectures in Jerusalem, in which she ranges across literature, cultures and time to delve into the Bible's lessons on life.



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend