It was a moment of the purest joy. After so many years of estrangement and
separation, Joseph and his brothers were finally being reunited. Most
poignant of all was the reunion between Joseph and Benjamin, the only sons
of Jacob’s wife Rachel. The Torah describes this emotional reunion, how
Joseph hugged his beloved younger brother and burst into tears.
Why did Joseph weep on this occasion? The Talmud (Megillah 17) tells us
that Joseph knew prophetically that the First and the Second Temples would
be built in the portion of Benjamin, and he foresaw their eventual
destruction. And as he embraced his brother Benjamin, he wept for the
terrible tragedy which would one day befall the Jewish people.
Why does the Talmud find it necessary to give an explanation for Joseph’s
tears? Isn’t it only natural to shed tears of joy on occasions of
transcendent happiness? Furthermore, why was Joseph moved on this
particular occasion to weep for the destruction of the Temple, a tragedy
that would take place a thousand years later?
Let us reflect for a moment. Why indeed do people cry at the weddings of
their children and other times of supreme joy? Why do tears course down
their cheeks when their faces should be wreathed in beaming smiles?
It is the realization of the transience of life that injects undertones of
sadness into these moments of joy. A person who experiences moderate joy
still aspires to greater joy, and he is not inclined to reflect on its
impermanence. But once he reaches a pinnacle of transcendent joy, when his
heart is full to bursting with gladness, he is struck by the knowledge
that this ecstasy cannot continue forever, that nothing in life is
permanent and this too will also come to an end. This sobering thought,
whether conscious or subconscious, is what causes people to “cry for joy.”
We live in a material world, a world of temporal joys and satisfactions,
and all of life is but a fleeting shadow, a dream that flashes by. Only
joys and satisfactions of the divine soul have permanence because they are
experienced in the spiritual dimension, which is timeless and unlimited.
When Joseph embraced Benjamin, his joy knew no bounds.
Reunited at long last, his thoughts were thoroughly absorbed with his
beloved younger brother and everything he represented. Benjamin was more
than the man of flesh and blood standing before him. He stood for a unique
set of qualities, concepts and principles that characterized his part of
the future Jewish people. Benjamin’s greatness had earned him the honor of
privilege of having the Temple situated on his land. Clearly, he was a man
with a role and a destiny, and all these Joseph perceived at this
wonderful moment of reunion. This was the precious gift that had been
returned to him after all these years of separation.
As Joseph’s heart filled with an overwhelming love and appreciation for
this outstanding young man who was his brother, he realized that after all
is said and done we live in a material world, that even someone as
outstanding and pure as Benjamin would suffer tragedy and pain, that even
the Holy Temple, the most spiritual point in the world, also had its
material side and would someday be destroyed. And Joseph wept.
Two climbers exuberantly scaled a high mountain. As they sat down to rest,
one of them became sad and dejected.
“You should be thrilled by what we’ve accomplished,” remarked his
companion. “Why are you so sad?”
“Because tonight I will sleep in a bed like an ordinary person.”
“But didn’t you know that an hour ago?”
“An hour ago, my next step was up. Now, my next step is down.”
In our own lives, we all have moments of superlative joy, precious times
we yearn to capture and preserve forever. But all the snapshots and film
footage in the world cannot trap a fleeting moment of joy. All they
preserve are fading memories, the bittersweet echoes of happy days gone
by. There is no permanence in the material dimension, not people not
things, not experiences. We can only preserve a precious moment by
infusing it with spirituality, by linking it to a continuous process of
spiritual growth, of enriching our immortal souls, of drawing closer to
our Creator. Then, even when the material aspects of that precious moments
fade away, its glowing spiritual core will endure forever.