Why does Joseph weep? About baseless love, hatred and envy

The Book of Genesis begins with envy and hatred between brothers and ends with envy and hatred between brothers. But the end can be perceived as a form of tikkun olam.

 Jacob meets Rachel in the Bible. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jacob meets Rachel in the Bible.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In general, the Torah does not describe emotions. Even when Abraham is on his way to sacrifice his son Isaac, the Torah does not describe his emotions, or what on earth was going through his mind. The Torah does mention Hagar’s weeping: “And she lifted up her voice and wept” (Genesis 21:16), and Abraham’s weeping over Sarah’s death: “And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her” (Genesis 23:2), but intensive repeated weeping is something that we see only in the case of Joseph. The Torah describes eight instances of Joseph weeping, which gives rise to the question of why he wept.

There are many commentaries on this question. Nachmanides, for example, claims that when he encountered them, Joseph put his brothers through a complete whole educational process of repentance. What is repentance? Repentance is the creation of a situation where the person is returned to the situation he was in at the time the offense was committed, and his behavior is examined: will he repeat the same act?

Joseph wants to help his brothers repent, and to examine whether they would estrange themselves from Rachel’s son (Benjamin) or fight to rescue him like “real” brothers.

In practice, we see that they do indeed fight to rescue him. When Joseph asks them to abandon Benjamin, they are overwhelmed with sorrow and compassion, and they do not give up. Judah displays leadership and fights for him, and delivers the speech that thrills Joseph and the entire world. “Now, therefore, I pray thee, let thy servant abide instead of the lad a bondman to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brethren,” (Genesis 44:33) he says to Joseph emotionally. Indeed, in these words, we witness a great moment of total repentance.

In fact, the Book of Genesis begins with envy and hatred between brothers and ends with envy and hatred between brothers. But the end can be perceived as a form of tikkun olam. While the first hatred between Cain and Abel resulted in murder, the last hatred was resolved through a prolonged process of mediation and repentance and ended in life.

 Josephs Dream, as in Genesis 37:9–10, illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Josephs Dream, as in Genesis 37:9–10, illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Most commentators end the story of Joseph and his brothers at this point, interpreting it as a type of happy ending. The brothers have repented and are living a life of wealth and happiness in Egypt. But this endpoint brings Joseph back to the starting point: in the end, he is still left with many great questions that he had before. After his brothers went through this experience, and after they realized how he had taken care of them, would they love him and not continue to envy him? Would they perceive him as their brother, flesh of their flesh? This was the great challenge – he continued to be concerned that if his brothers hated him when they heard his dreams, they would surely continue to envy and hate him, maybe even more, when they saw that his dreams did indeed come true.

Joseph made his dreams come true honestly. He did not steal his success from anybody. He worked very hard from the time he was thrown into the pit, and he paid a heavy price for what he achieved. And therefore he continues to weep. He still perseveres with his mission of “I seek my brethren.” Just before he revealed his true identity to them, Joseph looked at his brothers and saw a cohesive group, and probably thought to himself: ‘Will they also include me in their group and treat me like a brother?’ “I am seeking my brethren” (Genesis, 37, 16). He still continues to seek his brethren after he reveals himself and asks that same question.

The answer to whether the brothers will include Joseph is no. They do not accept him into their group as a brother. The Vayechi Torah portion is proof of this. After Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers tell him that their father had asked him not to harm them. “Thy father did command before he died, saying, so shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now, the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin” (Genesis 50:16-17). Joseph realizes that they are not speaking the truth, and weeps again: “And Joseph wept when they spake unto him,” because he realizes that they still do not perceive him as their brother. Only due to the circumstances have they treated him favorably until then.

When did the brothers accept him as one of their own? Ironically, only after he died. While on his deathbed, Joseph asked them to treat him like a brother and not to leave him in Egypt: “And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel... and ye shall carry up my bones from hence” (Genesis 50:25), and their descendants did indeed fulfill his request.

It’s very sad if people only cease being envious after the person’s death. Envy leads to hatred, which also led to the destruction of the Second Temple. This is the reason why among the biblical matriarchs, the ultimate weeper is Rachel the Matriarch, about whom Jeremiah said: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation” (Jeremiah 31:15). Rachel’s weeping is not idle weeping. It is not that her eyes are soft like Leah’s eyes and she cries from time to time. In the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, Rachel weeps rivers of tears. She weeps because her sons are being exiled. And why are they being exiled? Because of baseless hatred! It is true that in that context, as a prophecy for its time, the words of the prophet may be interpreted as follows: Rachel wept over the first exile that was due to idolatry, bloodshed and incest, but these are not things to weep rivers of tears for.

The prophecy is a prophecy for generations, and Rachel knows that her sons will go into exile a second time because of baseless hatred. Only a woman like Rachel, who has experienced love, true love, is also capable of understanding what hatred is. And for the great hatred between the brothers that occurred between Joseph and his brothers, and that later caused the second exile of the Jewish people after the destruction of the Second Temple, she weeps, “lamentation, and bitter weeping.”

And we know that just as the Second Temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred, the Third Temple will be built on baseless love. This is the major challenge of our generation! May we be granted baseless love, the building of the Temple, and the coming of the savior of justice speedily in our time, Amen.

The writer holds the UNESCO Chair in Education for Values, Tolerance & Peace in the Faculty of Education at Bar-Ilan University.