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Torah Portion of the Week: The Tales Behind the Tears

Parashat Miketz.

'Joseph Interprets Pharaoh's Dream,' a fresco by Peter von Cornelius, circa 1816–1817.
'Joseph Interprets Pharaoh's Dream,' a fresco by Peter von Cornelius, circa 1816–1817. The Yorck Project / Wikimedia Commons

In the four Torah readings that depict his life, Joseph has frequent bouts of weeping. Commentators have identified no fewer than eight such incidents. In this week’s portion, Parashat Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), Joseph weeps secretly when he hears his brothers attributing their current troubles to their having mistreated him: “He turned away from them and wept. But he came back to them” (Gen. 42:24). Similarly, after the reunion with his younger brother, Benjamin, “Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there. Then he washed his face, reappeared … now in control of himself” (Gen. 43:30-31).

When he finally reveals himself to his brothers, too, Joseph weeps – “His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear” (Gen. 45:2) – as he does upon seeing Benjamin again – “With that he embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept” (45:14) – and also tearfully kisses his brothers: “He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them” (45:15). Reunited with his father, Jacob, Joseph embraces “him around the neck … [and] wept on his neck a good while” (46:29). When Jacob dies, “Joseph flung himself upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him” (50:1). After his father’s death, when his brothers tell him that Jacob had commanded Joseph not to seek revenge, “Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him” (Gen. 50:17).

In light of this evidence, many commentators describe Joseph as a sensitive and passionate individual, though one capable of great self-control. They interpret various episodes in his life as a vivid depiction of processes that unfold in Joseph’s soul, and of his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to hide those processes. However, one need not accept the psychological reading of Joseph’s personality as the only means for understanding him. To propose an alternative type of interpretation, one can broaden the perspective by citing other descriptions of weeping in the Bible.

The verb root bet-kaf-heh, meaning “cry,” appears in the Scriptures in various contexts. One is during mourning for a dead person. For example, “Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her” (Gen. 23:2). One can also weep and mourn over other losses. In the story of Jephthah’s daughter, for example, “she and her companions went and bewailed her maidenhood upon the hills” (Judges 11:38). In Lamentations, on the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah, “For these things do I weep, my eyes flow with tears … for the foe has prevailed” (Lamentations 1:16).

Joseph’s tears when his father dies belong to this category of loss: “Joseph flung himself upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him” (Gen. 50:1). We later read: “The Egyptians bewailed him seventy days; and when the wailing period was over, Joseph spoke to Pharaoh’s court” (Gen. 50:3-4). A mourner’s cries are not necessarily an external expression of what is transpiring in his soul; they can be directed outward, toward the deceased and the public. When Joseph mourns, the Egyptians also mourn; their mourning is orderly and time-demarcated: There is a “wailing period.” This category of weeping is common, accepted, but does not necessarily attest to an exceptional level of passion.

A second category of weeping in the Bible reflects distress directed toward a leader, either divine or human. At Kibroth Hataava, the “Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat!” (Numbers 11:4). In the episode involving the dispatch of the spies to the Holy Land, the “whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt … or if only we might die in this wilderness!’” (Numbers 14:1-2). In 1 Samuel, Jabesh Gilead’s residents hope King Saul will rescue them: “all the people broke into weeping…. Saul asked, ‘Why are the people crying?’ And they told him about the situation of the men of Jabesh” (11:4-5).

A third category of weeping is less common but is particularly important in terms of the matter at hand. It results from an encounter or reunion between relatives or close friends. When he first meets his cousin, “Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears” (Gen. 29:11). Reunited with Jacob, “Esau … embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept” (Gen. 33:4). On meeting David, his enemy and son-in-law, Saul relates to him like a prodigal son: “Saul said, ‘Is that your voice, my son David?’ And Saul broke down and wept” (1 Samuel 24:17).

Like weeping over the loss of a loved one, weeping in times of distress or during a reunion is an act of communication, and is therefore typically accompanied by an additional gesture – a kiss, an excited tone of voice or an embrace. In the case of a reunion, tears are shed during the initial moment when the relatives or close friends recognize each other: The weeping confirms and expresses their bond. Thus, weeping does not necessarily express an emotional collapse or inner turmoil; conversely, a person’s avoidance of weeping does not necessarily reflect indifference.

Recognizing his brothers, Joseph weeps but not until he hears them mention their past behavior. Weeping is not simply a technical act, and the reunion with his brothers shakes him up. He conceals his tears to prevent exposing his blood ties with them – not his emotions. Based on descriptions of weeping elsewhere in the Bible, we can hypothesize that weeping is central in Joseph’s story because of his unique situation, not his unique personality: It emerges during the reunion with his family when Joseph cannot, or will not, reveal his identity.

Joseph cries so frequently not because he is emotional, but because the reunion with his family takes place over time. When first meeting his brothers and Benjamin in Egypt, he is still unwilling to reveal his identity and thus weeps secretly. On the other occasions (including crying after Jacob dies, which, as noted, is an accepted custom), weeping is accompanied by other accepted gestures: a kiss, an excited tone of voice or an embrace. The only occasion Joseph cries that does not fit into the category of reunion with a relative or close friend is the last time – when he hears his brothers talk about their father. Perhaps this teaches us that the very hearing of the words of a close relative is tantamount to a reunion with him.

All biblical quotations are from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.