When we read the Bible in English, the whole story of the brothers returning to Joseph after Benjamin’s “theft” – their speech, their repentance, and then Joseph revealing his identity – seems like one uninterrupted story. Not so in Hebrew, however. The Hebrew Torah, along with chapter divisions, also has divisions into Torah portions – and our previous Parashat Shavua Miketz suddenly ends in the middle of the chapter 44. The flow of the story breaks – there is an invisible dotted line, a pause, signifying that something very important is about to happen – then the next Torah Portion, VeYigash, begins with the words: “Then Judah approached him .…” It is here, in VeYigash, that we read about the happy end: “then Joseph could not restrain himself… (וְלֹֽא־יָכֹ֙ל יוֹסֵ֜ף לְהִתְאַפֵּ֗ק ) and he wept aloud…” Could not restrain himself?
Let us return to this story, but a day or two prior to this scene. In Genesis 43, we see the brothers, now with Benjamin, standing before Joseph. Overwhelmed by his love for his brother, Joseph runs to his inner room to weep. Try to imagine the bewilderment of the brothers when this Egyptian governor, right in the middle of their conversation, without any explanation and for no apparent reason, turns and strides quickly out of the room. The brothers are light years away from the real reason that compels Joseph to run from the room: “he sought where to weep”. Not one of them, including Benjamin, has the slightest idea what is really going on in the heart of this “aloof” lord. They do not see the heart-breaking scene that you and I do: “and he went into his chamber and wept there”. They do not suspect what is happening with Joseph in this inner room. “Faith is the evidence of the things not seen” – and in this story, the gap is truly great between how they see the circumstances, and what is really going on in the invisible reality of that chamber. Moreover, what does Joseph do upon leaving his chamber? The complete opposite of what we might expect, and what he himself probably deeply desired to do: “he washed his face” so that his tears would not be seen – so there would be no trace of that love, “and came out; and he restrained himself… (ויתאפק)”. The word translated as “restrained himself” is the Hebrew word להתאפק, meaning to “hold back or control oneself”. We need to remember this word, “restrained” – these tears of love that Joseph had to hold back – while reading today’s Portion, where Joseph can no longer restrain himself… (לא יכול להתאפק)
From math class in school, we remember that two points can be connected by an infinite number of lines but only one of them will be straight. This is exactly what we see in our story. One point corresponds to what we have just read: “and he went into his chamber and wept there. Then he washed his face and came out; and he restrained himself…(וַיִּ֙תְאַפַּ֔ק)”; the other point is the story’s conclusion from our Torah Portion today: “then Joseph could not restrain himself… (וְלֹֽא־יָכֹ֙ל יוֹסֵ֜ף לְהִתְאַפֵּ֗ק ) and he wept aloud….” These two points are connected by not one, but two lines. One visible, circuitous line – the view purposefully revealed to the brothers – follows the observable surface of the day’s events: the restrained emotion; Joseph’s instruction to put the cup into Benjamin’s sack; the brothers’ exit; the stop and the search; the return to the city; the conversation with Joseph; the speech of Judah sacrificing himself for Benjamin’s sake; and finally, the tears of Joseph, revealing his identity to the brothers. There is a second line, however, one hidden and invisible to the natural eye, but visible to us as readers: the straight line directly connecting the Joseph who weeps in secret in the inner room with the Joseph weeping openly as he tearfully reveals himself to his brothers. Here, the tears of love that are held back and hidden at the first point, are revealed to their full extent at the second point, when Joseph could not restrain himself any longer.
But why could Joseph no longer restrain himself? Undoubtedly, the remarkable division of Torah portions here gives us a hint: when Parashat Shavua Miketz suddenly ends in the middle of the chapter, the new Parashat VeYigash, opens with the sentence: Then Judah approached him .… It is here, in VeYigash, after Judah’s move and Judah’s speech, that Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. This move of Judah proves to be crucial; it is perceived as something preceding, and even causing, Joseph’s revelation. Why is this?
We have spoken a lot about Judah on these pages. We saw that his voice is heard every time something is about to happen: it is according to his suggestion that Joseph is sold into Egypt; it is after his words that Jacob/Israel releases Benjamin go to Egypt; and it is after his speech that Joseph can no longer restrain himself, and reveals his identity. Among all the brothers, Judah seems to have amazing authority – his voice is decisive almost in every situation. And yet, there was something else in that man who approached Joseph – something that touched Joseph’s heart so deeply that he could not restrain himself any longer.
Many people know that Judah’s Hebrew name, Yehudah (יהודה), can be translated literally as “thanksgiving” or “praise”: the verb lehodot (להודות) means “to thank” or “to praise”, and the Hebrew name Yehudah is the noun form of this root Y-D-H (ידה). However, few are aware that the verb lehodot has yet another meaning: to admit, to confess. For example, Vidui, the Hebrew name of a special prayer of confession read before and during Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), comes from the same root. We saw this ‘confession’ aspect of Judah’s character in the story of Judah and Tamar: there Judah becomes a first person in Torah to admit his sin and his guilt. There is no doubt that the same characteristic of Judah provides an important additional insight into our story as well. In order for Joseph to release his ‘restrained’ tears, there has to be Judah – the one with a repentant heart, who will be ready to approach Joseph, to step in and to lay down his life for his brother. Only then does Joseph allow his restrained tears to flow – and only then does Messiah son of Joseph reveal himself to his brothers, falling on the neck of “Benjamin” and weeping.
The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion) classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, click on this link to get more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses:
If you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books, you can get them from my page: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/ . Also, I wanted to let you know that I am preparing the book with all these Hebrew insights into Torah, the book will be published and available in 2019.