• Samuel Lebens

Vayigash: Making God Cry

Updated: Jan 3

In his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera discusses one of his characters, Tereza, who is stuck in a situation in which she feels torn between something she deeply wants to do, and her feeling of nausea. Her mind wants one thing and her body, another. He writes:

It would be senseless for the author to try to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived. They were not born of a mother’s womb; they were born of a stimulating phrase or two or from a basic situation… Tereza was born of the rumbling of a stomach… Tereza was born … of a situation which brutally reveals the irreconcilable duality of body and soul, that fundamental human experience.

Tereza has a mother. In the story we learn about her. But outside of the story, her real mother – so to speak – is a metaphor; because every character is a metaphor for something that the author is trying to express. Tereza was born in this situation, as her body wanted one thing, and her soul another.


Just like Tereza, Abraham was the son of a woman; the wife of Terach. Mrs. Terach. The Bible doesn’t tell us her name, but it’s safe to assume that Abraham had a mother. In fact, he refers to her obliquely, at one point in the story (Genesis 20.12). The Talmud calls her Amathlai (Baba Batra 91a). Abraham lived a real life, and real things happened to him. But, in the Kabbalistic tradition, he’s also an expression of an idea; just like Tereza.

Abraham symbolizes God’s חסד (loving-kindness). God’s justice is represented in this world by Isaac. Jacob (perhaps surprisingly) is taken to represent God’s truth (although, as I've argued, Jacob's famous act of deception was undertaken to reveal a deeper truth).


Each Biblical character is a symbol. In other words: Abraham may have been born of a woman, in the story, but that doesn’t undermine the fact that his real mother was a metaphor.


Indeed, when the Torah tells us a story, two things are happening: there’s what’s true in the story – the real history about real people – but there’s also the drama that’s ongoing in the mind of God; a drama that’s expressed through the unfolding of the story. The Zohar alludes to this. The Torah starts with the second letter of the alphabet, with its numerical value, 2, in order to illustrate that there are two stories unfolding in unison; one revealed, and one hidden; a story told, and a story about the author telling the story.


It’s as if the Kabbalah seeks to gain a psychological appreciation of God, by looking at the story he tells, and coming to know more about him, just as we might psychoanalyse an author through their novel.


We're supposed to look at every character in the Bible (and, indeed, in the world) as an expression of some idea, or as a projection of some aspect of God's own character, since God is the author of the story. This attitude towards the Torah (and towards life itself) finds mature expression in Kabbalistic and Hassidic texts. But its roots are in the Midrash.

Take this week's reading, for example. Judah stands up to Joseph. He proves himself to be a reformed character: where once he was willing to sell a half-brother into slavery, he is now willing to become a slave himself, precisely in order to preserve the freedom of a half-brother. Joseph breaks down in tears, and reveals his true identity.


This is a historical story, but the Rabbis see, in this history, layers of meaning: not just about the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers, but about the ultimate reconciliation between humanity and God.


Witness, for example, the following Midrash:

"[Joseph's] sobs were loud... and his [dumbfounded] brothers were unable to answer him" (Genesis 45:2-3). Abba Cohen Bardelah said: "Woe unto us, for the day of judgement! Woe onto us for the day of rebuke! Balaam was the wisest of gentiles, and he was unable to stand the rebuke of his donkey (Numbers 22:30)... Joseph was the smallest of the tribes and [his brothers] were not able to stand his rebuke. As it is said, "His brothers were unable to answer him for they were dumbfounded before him" (Genesis 45:3). When the Holy One, blessed be He, comes and rebukes each and every person... how much more so [shall we be dumbfounded]?

On the one hand, of course, we'll be more dumbfounded by God than Joseph's brothers were by Joseph, because God is much greater, much more powerful, and much more awesome than anything we can imagine. On the other hand, there's something strange going on here.


As one reads more Midrashim, one comes to see that there's a pattern. Very often, the Midrash will offer us a comparison, or an analogy, between two phenomena, x and y. And very often, perhaps more often than not, that comparison will only appear to be apt at first glance, but will quickly collapse under scrutiny. The pattern occurs too often for a reader of Midrash to think that it's an accident. Either the authors of Midrash are just woefully bad at drawing comparisons, or - and, of course, I'd advocate this more charitable reading - the beauty of Midrash lies precisely in the task of exploring the dissonance between the x and the y. In this case, x is the dumbfoundedness of the brothers, once Joseph reveals himself to them, and y is the dumbfoundedness that we'll all experience when God, so to speak, reveals himself to us. On the surface, the comparison seems apt, but dig a little deeper and it falls apart.

Balaam was dumbfounded by the donkey because the donkey was the last person from whom Balaam was expecting to hear rebuke. Sure, he beat the donkey. But donkeys can't talk. Likewise, Joseph was the last person from whom Judah and his brothers were expecting to hear rebuke. Sure, they had sold him into slavery, but they thought he had been lost.


When the victims of our wrongdoings, who's silence we've come to expect, find themselves able to rebuke us, there's a very specific sort of shock. And that's why, however awesome God might be, the comparison here doesn't seem apt, because unlike the rebuke of a donkey, and the rebuke of Joseph, God's rebuke, however terrible it might be, we have plenty of reason to expect.


To rise to the challenge, then, of truly appreciating this Midrash, is to feel that dissonance, and then to try to resolve it. Imagine that you're standing before a King, and he accuses you of hurting someone. Imagine, also, that you're guilty. The King is right. But then, imagine that the King takes off his mask to reveal the face of the person you hurt. In taking off his mask, he reveals to you that the person you hurt is the King; and was the King all along.


And thus, a historical confrontation between a band of Hebrew brothers in ancient Egypt is also, according to the Midrash, a metaphor for the end of days. God, we're told, is with the suffering (Pslams 91:15); he dwells with the lowly (Isaiah 57:15). But we don't see the face of God in the feeble faces of those we wrong. He may be there, but he's hiding. Now, imagine how dumbfounded we shall be when, confronted by the King of Kings, he uncovers his face, and reveals not only the wrong that we've done, but that he was, in some sense or other, the victim of our wrongdoing. And so Abba Cohen said, "Woe unto us for the day of judgement. Woe unto us for the day of rebuke."


Eventually, the brothers recover from their shock, and find that they're able to talk to Joseph. But it takes about 12 verses of Joseph speaking before we're finally told (Genesis 45:15):

He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him.

In other words, the brothers were dumbstruck and they could only be shaken from their silence by the kiss and the tears of Joseph. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the Netziv, explains: the brothers had come to realise, upon the revelation of Joseph's identity, that Joseph's dreams, in which they had bowed down to him, had -- indeed -- been authentic portents of the future. Now the question was, what had they meant?

The Netziv

Had the dreams meant that they would be Joseph's slaves? Or had they simply meant that a time would come when they would bow to him, and that he would be powerful, but that they would remain, nevertheless, as brothers? If they were now his slaves, then they shouldn't speak to him without permission. But if they were his brothers, then they could. When they saw that Joseph was treating them as brothers, with his kisses, and his tears, they understood that they were not his slaves, and felt free to talk with him.


This reading of the Netziv gels beautifully with the role that Joseph plays, not merely as dreamer, but as dream interpreter (just as we explored last week). Now that the brothers had come to recognise Joseph's gift, they left the interpretation of his dream up to him. Would they be his slaves, or would they be his brothers?


But, if we're to read this scene as a metaphor for the end of days, then what deeper meaning should we give to the kiss and the tears that released the brothers from their silence? Rabbeinu Bahya, draws from the Midrash, and suggests:

The Midrash teaches that each any every one of them kissed him and cried... and just as he only made peace with his brothers in the presence of [their] tears, so too, salvation will only come to Israel in the presence of tears. As it is written "In tears they will come, and with compassion, I will guide them" (Jeremiah 21:8).

The idea seems to be that the brothers can't truly talk to Joseph before they've cried with him. And, by extension, we can't really talk to God, and thus, we can't really become reconciled with him, until we've cried with him.


Paul McCartney wrote a love song to John Lennon years after his murder. It contains the words:

What about the night we cried? Because there wasn't any reason left to keep it all inside.

It paints for me a picture of friends who no longer have any pretenses; no masks; no barriers; and this left them free to share in a pure emotion together.


We can only cry, of sadness, or laughter, if we let our guard down. This, according to Rabbeinu Bahya, is what happened to Joseph and his brothers. Masks were removed. Barriers were let down. And tears were, therefore, the backdrop to real reconciliation. And so it must be in our reconciliation with God.


But, in spite of Rabbeinu Bahya, and his Midrashic source, the Torah doesn't say that all of the brothers cried. Only Joseph did. And so we find, in the words of a more challenging (and older) Midrash:

Just as Joseph was only appeased amidst crying, so too the Holy One, blessed be He, will only redeem Israel in the midst of tears, as it is said "In tears they will come, and with compassion, I will guide them" (Jeremiah 21:8).

But, like so many Midrashic comparisons, there's an obvious dissonance. In the book of Jeremiah, the people being redeemed are the ones who cry; not God. And, in the book of Genesis, we're not told that the brothers cried. It was only Joseph; and yet Joseph is supposed to be playing the role of God - so to speak - and the brothers are supposed to be playing the role of Israel. Rabbeinu Bahya, and his Midrash, avoid this tension, with the suggestion that the brothers were all crying; and that the tears of the brothers -- rather than Joseph's tears -- brought the reconciliation; just as our tears, rather than God's, shall bring the redemption.


But, according to our more challenging Midrash, we can't ignore the fact that, in the verse, only Joseph cries. Instead, we have to read the tears of Joseph, in Genesis, through the prism of the tears of the people, in Jeremiah, and the tears of the people, in Jeremiah, through the prism of the tears of Joseph, in Genesis. What the Midrash comes to teach us, then, is that the tears of the people in Jeremiah won't be sufficient without the tears of God; just as the tears of the brothers were not sufficient without the tears of Joseph. We will not be redeemed, our Midrash suggests, until God cries too.


Way back, at the start of the book of Genesis, in my very first post, I suggested that God's relationship with reality echoes the relationship of a novelist and her novel. This week's post has done the same thing. And so, I should ask... Isn't God crying for us akin to a human being crying for merely fictional characters; and can that make sense? From God's perspective, we're barely real. Why would he cry for us?


Umberto Eco raises the question:

Umberto Eco
What does it mean when people are only slightly disturbed by the death from starvation of millions of real individuals—including many children—but they feel great personal anguish at the death of Anna Karenina? What does it mean when we deeply share the sorrow of a person who we know has never existed?

Colin Radford and Michael Weston debated this issue at a joint session of the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association. Radford argued that it's not really rational for us to be upset for a merely fictional person, but hey ho, human beings aren't always rational! Weston resisted this conclusion. The plight of a fictional character moves us, he argued, only in the context of a work of art that moves us. And a work of art moves us only when it expresses a vision of life that resonates with us. To think that we're crying for Anna Karenina is to miss the point, so long as we divorce the character from the story of which she is a part.


So, perhaps at some level, the Midrash is telling us that redemption comes to the Children of Israel, and to the world at large, only when we manage, collectively, to tell a story that expresses a "vision of life"; a vision of life that resonates with God. And then our tears will move even our creator to tears, and in the wake of these tears, we shall witness redemption.

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