Vayigash is characterized by a number of dramatic reunions between Joseph and his family. It is instructive to analyze the actions and attitudes of the great people who were involved in these emotional occasions. The most powerful of all the reunions was clearly that of Joseph with his father Jacob. Yaakov surely felt indescribable joy at seeing his beloved son after twenty two years of separation, having believed that Joseph was no longer alive. What did Yaakov do when he finally saw Joseph? Rashi tells us that he said the Shema.(1) Some commentaries understand that he was fulfilling one of the two daily obligatory recitations of the Shema; they discuss why he chose this point to fulfill his obligation of Shema. However, the Maharal writes that Yaakov was not fulfilling the daily obligation of Shema. Rather he was saying Shema as an expression of his great connection to God at this joyous time. Instead of focusing purely on the joy of seeing his son, he tried to direct all his happiness to love of God. He chose Shema in particular, because this represents an acknowledgement of how everything God does is ultimately for the good. Moreover, it involves kabbalat ol Malchus Shamayim,(2) which means that as a result of one's recognition of God one totally subjugates himself to God's will.(3) The most striking fact about Jacob's actions is that, even on an occasion of such great natural emotion, he strove to connect all his natural joy to Jacob and emphasize his subjugation to Jacob.
The Torah writes further that Joseph acted very differently in this same reunion. The Torah states: "Joseph harnessed his chariot and went up to meet his father, to Goshen; and he appeared to him, fell on his neck, and he wept on him excessively." (4) Rashi explains the clause, "and he appeared to him," to mean that Joseph appeared to Jacob. The Ramban asks, that these words seem superfluous - once we know that Joseph fell on Jacob's neck it is obvious that Joseph appeared to his father.(5) Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explains the significance of the fact that Joseph appeared to Jacob: He notes that it is evident that Joseph himself felt great joy at the prospect of being reunited with his beloved father after so many years. However, Joseph approached this reunion with only one intent - to provide his father with as much joy as possible in being reunited with his son. Therefore, Joseph made a conscious effort to 'appear' or 'make himself seen' by his father when they met.(6) He disregarded his own desire to see his father at that moment of reunion, and his single goal was to provide his father with as much joy as possible.(7) We see from this explanation that Joseph had a very different intent from his father in this joyful reunion. Jacob focused purely on his connection with God at this time, whereas Joseph concentrated on the mitzvah of kibud av v'eim (honoring one's parents) to the greatest degree possible. The common denominator between the two was that the intent of both was purely to do what they perceived to be God's will at this time. This shows a tremendous level of constant awareness of God and a permanent desire to do his will, even at the height of one's own natural emotions.
We learn similar lessons in this vein from the earlier reunion in the Torah Portion between Joseph and Benjamin. The Torah tells us: "Then he [Joseph] fell upon his brother, Binyamin's neck and wept; and Binyamin wept upon his neck." (8) The Rabbis tell us that the two brothers saw through ruach hakodesh (9) future calamities that would take place in their portions of land in the land of Israel: Joseph cried over the destruction of the two Temples that would be in Benjamin's portion whilst Benjamin mourned the destruction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) of Shiloh that would be in Joseph's portion.(10)
Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman discusses why they had such a vision at this time in particular. He explains that their thoughts and emotions were constantly directed to spirituality. Thus, despite the great emotion they felt at this time, their concerns were only spiritual. Had they only been focusing on their personal feelings, they would not have merited to receive ruach hakodesh. The fact that they did receive it at this time, demonstrates their lofty thoughts even at the heights of this powerful reunion.(11) This is another example of how the righteous approach moments of great joy. There is a further lesson in how the two brothers reacted to their sad vision. It is noteworthy that they did not cry over the future destructions that would take place in their own portions, rather over the loss in the other brother's portion. This shows, that, even in the midst of receiving ruach hakodesh, the brothers maintained a very high level of selflessness and sensitivity for others.
We have seen the great righteousness of Jacob, Joseph and Benjamin, in how they conducted themselves at the height of their emotions. This demonstrates their constant sense of connecting to Go and doing His will. Whilst their level seems unattainable for us, there are a number of ways in which we can strive to emulate them in our daily lives. Indeed, Jewish law dictates that even at times of great joy, we direct our happiness to God. For example, on the occasion of the birth of a child we say the blessing of shehechiyanu or hatov vehametiv.(12) Likewise, we say one of these blessings when we acquire a new item that gives us great joy. We can also emulate the heightened sense of bein adam lechaveiro (interpersonal relations) that Joseph and Benjamin demonstrated at their reunion. Even at a time of great joy, they thought about other people more than themselves. A common example where this can be emulated is when a person is celebrating some kind of happy occasion. At such a time, one can easily become totally absorbed in his own joy and not notice other people. Yet this is an apt time to make the guests and well-wishers feel good by showing them that we are really happy to see them. This gives them a sense of importance and being appreciated. May we all merit to emulate the great personalities in the Torah, by serving God even at times of great emotion.
1. Rashi, Bereishis, 46:29.
2. This literally means, 'acceptance of the yoke of HaShem's Kingship'. It involves total submission to HaShem's will.
3. Gur Aryeh, 46:29, os 10.
4. Bereishis, 46:29.
5. Ramban, Bereishis, 46:29.
6. The Hebrew word used in this verse is 'vayeira' which is normally translated as, 'appeared' but it can literally be read as, 'he made himself seen' - Rav Shmuelevitz seems to understand that this is how the verse should be read - that Yosef 'made himself seen' to Yaakov.
7. Sichos Mussar, Maamer 25, Parshas Vayigash, p. 105.
8. Bereishis, 45:14.
9. This is a form of prophecy.
10. Bereishis Rabbah, 93:12, Megillah, 16b.
11. Ayeles Hashachar, Bereishis, 45:14.
12. Shechyanu is said on the birth of a baby girl, and hatov hameitiv is said when a baby boy is born.