Twice in this week’s parasha, Joseph is moved to tears. First (Genesis 50:1) the tears flow in grief as his father Jacob lies dead before him. The second weeping is after he and his brothers return to Egypt from burying their father back in Canaan. The brothers, fearful that Joseph will now take revenge upon them, relate a deathbed message from their father Jacob imploring that Joseph forgive them for the evil they had plotted against him. Upon hearing this request, Joseph weeps the second time (Genesis 50:17).
What causes this second grief? Perhaps it is the sorrow of realizing his brothers think the worst of him. They do not believe his original offer of forgiveness from years earlier. They imagine that he has hidden his true feelings, biding his time until their father’s death, which will free him to take revenge at last.
Who has not been moved to tears upon realizing he or she has been so misunderstood, especially by those who are the closest to us? We try to show our truest and best selves to our parents, our spouses, our children, our siblings, and our nearest and dearest friends. Miscommunication or misinterpretation can cause them to judge us harshly when we believe we do not deserve it. Such incidents may lead us to question how well our loved ones really understand us. How painful when those we love the most fail to see who we really are. Joseph’s tears are perhaps the tears of that radical loneliness each human being must inevitably face.
Or perhaps the tears upon hearing his brothers’ request for forgiveness come from another place. Joseph was first set apart from his brothers in childhood by his dreams and his father’s special attention. Joseph is set apart from them again in Egypt when they go to dwell in Goshen and he remains at Pharaoh’s side. It is not only they who do not know him, but he has not come to know them. He missed the cues that might have informed him that they were still guilt-ridden or even afraid of him. Now he understands that they are frightened and vulnerable. He feels their anguish and sees that perhaps he caused some of it by not being the brother he could have been. His tears are then tears of empathy. That is why the Torah tells us that after reassuring them that he means them no harm, Joseph “yenachem otam” – he comforts them. Moreover, he speaks “al libam” – to their hearts.
It is not enough that he reassured them years before that their actions had been part of a greater divine plan. It is not enough that he gave them food and settled them in Goshen. It is not enough that he protected them and their families. What his brothers needed from him was not material gifts but the heartfelt connection of family. They needed kind words. They needed to know that in his innermost being he loved them.
Our families need that as well. They need us to pause and speak “al libam” – to their hearts. The Torah does not tell us exactly what words Joseph spoke to his brothers’ hearts, because there are no set words when one speaks heart to heart. It simply tells us that it is never too late to find those words; and that sometimes the heart can only be open to speaking those words if tears wash away our separateness or our indifference.
As we complete the first book of the Torah this Shabbat and recite the traditional “chazak chazak v’nitchazeik” (be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another), may we be strong enough to open our hearts to our loved ones as Joseph did so long ago.