The Midrash teaches us that at the moment of Yakov’s meeting with his beloved son, Yosef, after twenty-two years of anguished separation, Yosef wept but Yakov concentrated on reciting the shema – the core prayer of Judaism. What are we to make of this Midrash and what is its intrinsic message to us? There are many excellent interpretations of these words of our rabbis but I especially treasure the insight I heard long ago from one of my teachers in the yeshiva I attended in Chicago. Yosef wept out of personal emotion. He relived all of his dreams and struggles as well as the deep remorse he felt at having caused, even indirectly, so much suffering to his father. Understandably, Yosef’s emotions overcame him and he wept. Yakov, on the other hand, saw the events of Yosef’s life, not as a personal or even familial matter. Rather, he saw it in terms of the national identity and story of the Jewish people. He saw in his coming to Egypt not merely the moment of rediscovering and being united with his long lost son but rather he realized that this was the beginning of the realization of God’s words to Avraham at the great covenant bein habetarim that the Jewish people would have to be annealed in the fire of exile and hardship before becoming the Chosen People. How would Yakov’s children and grandchildren survive this great test? Only by their faith in the Creator and in their eventual redemption and inherent sense of mission. And all of this was embodied in the prayer of the shema. Tears would not sustain Israel in its centuries of testing. Only faith would do so.
In our times, the Jewish people are again being tested. The scars of the Holocaust have not healed and the State of Israel faces great and mortal dangers. Much of the Jewish world is caught up in a struggle to merely survive as Jews – to have Jewish grandchildren and a Jewish future. There are many tear-stained faces in the Jewish world of today and justifiably so. But as understandable and emotionally-releasing as tears are they offer no solution to our problems nor do they indicate a path to our future. The bedrock foundation of the Jewish people is our faith. It is not Western democracy, pluralism, liberalism, gay-rights or unrestricted abortion. Until our generation of Jews strengthens its resolve and beliefs, until it recites the shema with conviction and fervor, there is little hope for a lasting solution to the ills that plague us. Yakov sees himself in an historical perspective while Yosef is limited to his own personal viewpoint. Yosef weeps while Yakov prays. Only by broadening our own perspective, by seeing ourselves, our lives and deeds, in the backdrop of eternal Jewish life and its story of perseverance and faith, can we also rise above our tears and anguish and help build a stronger and more serene Jewish world. Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Berel Wein and Torah.org