While on my visit to Israel this week, I had an opportunity to consider the city of Tzfat and its connection to this week's Torah portion (Vayechi).
Those ten brothers who sold their younger brother Joseph into slavery must have been worried to death from the day they found out that he had become the second most powerful man in Egypt. They must have wondered how long it would be before he took revenge on them. They thought Joseph was just waiting for their father to die before having them all thrown in prison or executed. After all, his word was law in Egypt. He could do it with a gesture of his hand.
"Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, 'Please forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.' And now, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father."
The Torah tells us that Joseph cried when he heard these words (Genesis 50:15-17).
Why should Joseph have cried? He already forgave his brothers when he told them that it was not they, but God, who had determined that he be sold into slavery (Genesis 45:8). Perhaps his tears were in recognition of the fear that his brothers experienced because of his power over them.
Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827) had a different interpretation, one that is fitting to the brand of loving and forgiving Chasidism that he taught. He observed that Joseph's brothers knew about their family's legacy. In previous generations, there always was one son who was the appointed successor and the other brothers were cast away and rejected. Isaac, their grandfather, had been chosen as Abraham's successor and his brother Ishmael had been cast out into the wilderness. Their father, Jacob, succeeded Isaac as God's treasure, and his brother, Esau, was rejected and regarded as a villain. Jacob's first ten sons thought they would share Ishmael and Esau's fate when they recognized that Joseph would be the successor of Jacob.
This is why they came to Joseph with a plea that can be divided into two parts, each introduced by the words, "Please forgive." First they acknowledge how wrong it had been for them to throw Joseph into the pit and to sell him into slavery. They offer no excuses or rationalization for their behavior, and so Rabbi Simcha Bunim regards their apology as sincere. It is only after this that they again say, "Please forgive," and ask Joseph to recognize them, too, as "servants of the God of your father." They were pleading not to be rejected or left out of the story of the Jewish people.
According to the teaching, this is why Joseph cried when he heard the words of his brothers. He recognized what they were asking for. He recognized that, at this point in their lives, all they wanted was not to be discarded and to be given a place as inheritors of the covenant with God. Since this was exactly what Joseph, too wanted, he cried to hear their righteous words.
It is interesting that Simcha Bunim sees no hint of deception or self-serving motives in the words of Joseph's brothers. That would be the obvious interpretation of brothers who made up a deathbed plea from their father to save their skins. Simcha Bunim would rather give the brothers the greatest possible benefit of the doubt and see them as motivated by the highest, not by the lowest.
This loving and forgiving approach was the hallmark of Simcha Bunim's approach and it continues to have resonance in the branches of Chasidic Judaism. I was reminded of that today as I walked through Tzfat (also called Safed in English), which is regarded as one of the four holy cities of Judaism (along with Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tiberias) and it is the city most identified with Jewish mysticism.
In the 16th century, Tzfat was the city where Rabbi Isaac Luria reignited Kabbalism and transformed Judaism in ways that are still with us. (The Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service, including the song L'cha Dodi, was an invention of Luria's followers). Today, some of his spiritual successors continue to make Tzfat a city that takes pride in being a center of Kabbalah and Chasidism.
But we sometimes lose sight of the fact that the heart of Chasidism in its original form was not just mystical introspection, it was about loving people. The primary energy of Jewish mysticism is outward, not inward. Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught a foundational teaching of Jewish mysticism, that we are to search for the holiness that exists in each person, not to judge them or to assume the worst about them. Joseph cried, he says, cried for joy when he recognized that spark even in the men who had sold him into slavery.
The Jewish people need to embrace this truth. We often appear to be a people divided into conflicting segments, more and more removed from each other by our harsh judgment, distrust and
resentments. Imagine the tears of joy that would flow if we could see the holy spark within each other.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Vayechi: Repair of the Dysfunctional Family
Tu BiShvat: The Tree and the Renewal of Creation