For twenty-two years, Jacob had grieved inconsolably over the loss
of his beloved son Joseph. And now, his sons, returning from Egypt,
had burst in on him with the most amazing news. Joseph was alive and
well! Moreover, he had risen to the post of viceroy, becoming for all
intents and purposes the undisputed ruler of the fabled Egyptian
Surely, there can be no more dramatic instance of a dream come
true. So what was Jacob’s first response to these wonderful tidings?
Incredibly, he was incredulous. As we read in this week’s portion, he
simply refused to believe them. Only after they repeated to him exactly
what messages Joseph had sent to his father, and showed him the
wagons he sent to transport the whole family back to Egypt, did Jacob
finally accept their news. Only then was “his spirit revived.”
The question immediately arises: Why indeed did Jacob refuse to
believe them at first? Surely his sons, all great and upstanding men,
would not have conspired to play a cruel practical joke on their old
father. What could they possibly gain by dragging him down to Egypt
only to discover that Joseph was not awaiting him? Why then was
Jacob so incredulous?
The commentators explain that had spent the first seventeen years
of Joseph’s life molding him into a supremely spiritual man, a man
steeped in the most profound Torah concepts and attuned to the
deepest mysteries of the universe, a man of transcendent aspirations
and goals, a man intensely alive in the full spiritual sense of the word.
This was the living son he had lost so many years before, the spiritual
successor for whom he had never ceased to grieve.
Now, after twenty-two years, his sons had returned from Egypt with
the news that the selfsame Joseph who had studied Torah with his
father was now the autocratic ruler of Egypt. Jacob did not believe it. He
had no problem, of coursing, accepting the objective fact that the flesh
and blood Joseph was still alive and breathing. But was he the same
person who had grown up in his father’s sanctified home? How could it
be that he had risen so high in the Egyptian power structure without
compromising his values and ideals? And if so, this man’s identification
with the lost Joseph was no more than a superficial, physical one, and
his return could not compensate Jacob for his terrible loss.
But then the brothers relayed Joseph’s word and showed him the
wagons Joseph had sent. According to the Midrash, these symbolized a
Torah discussion they were having shortly before they were separated.
Clearly, Joseph was sending a message to his father that he had not
succumbed to his new environment, that he was still the same Joseph
with same abiding devotion to the Torah and everything for which it
stands. Only then did Jacob understand that his lost son had survived
not only physically but s[spiritually as well, and “his spirit was
A young man studied for many years in the academy of a great
sage. One day, he decided to go out and seek his fortune. He took his
leave of his mentor who had taught him wisdom for such a long time
Many years later, a middle-aged man came to visit the sage. He
wore vulgar and flamboyant clothing, and gaudy jewelry adorned his
fingers. He took out a thick wad of money and handed it to the sage.
“This is for your academy,” he said. “You may not remember me,
but I was your student years ago. I have made a large fortune in the
circus, and I have decided to give something to my alma mater. Life is
strange, isn’t it? Would you ever have believed that a student of yours
would one day manage a circus?”
The sage smiled sadly. “I would never have believed it, and I still
don’t believe it. My student has ceased to exist. The man who owns the
circus is an altogether different person.”
In our own lives, each of us developed a certain self-image during
the formative years and still feels connected to that special person we
once considered ourselves to be, even though the years may have
coerced us into making certain compromises. But are we really? Only if
our compromises did not involve sacrificing our basic values and ideals
can we still be considered the same people we once were.
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanebaum Education Center.