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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat Yigash and the Importance of Crying

Your servant my father [Jacob] said to us, ‘As you know, my wife bore me two sons. 

But one is gone from me, and I said: Alas, he was torn by a beast! And I have not seen him since. If you take this one from me, too, and he meets with disaster, you will send my white head down to Sheol in sorrow.’ “Now, if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us — since his own life is so bound up with his — when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief. Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.’ Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. (Genesis 44:27-33 - 45:1-2)

In Parashat Va’yigash, we read about an interaction more than a decade in the making. Years had passed since Joseph last saw his brothers. His last memory of them, as they tore off his beloved coat given to him by his father, screaming and pleading for mercy, for them to change course, must have been playing on a loop in his mind as his brothers came before him. While he recognizes them, Joseph does not know the men his brothers have become. So, he tests them. When a threat is leveled against their now youngest brother, Benjamin, Joseph’s brothers plead for one of them to be held instead, saving their father further misery and proving that they are no longer the callous young men they once were. 

Upon seeing this, Joseph is overwhelmed. So much so that he asks all his attendants to leave the room - he then cries like he had never cried before, his sobs so loud that it was discussed all throughout Pharaoh's palace. 

Joseph shows us a healthy response to the emotional turmoil his reunion with his brothers causes him. He holds nothing back, deeply feeling the pain of the past released in the present. 

I will admit, friends, that I have not been able to follow Joseph’s example since October 7th. While I have felt pain, fear, anger, confusion, among other complex and challenging emotions, I have not been able to cry. Even though my heart is breaking - for the loss of innocent lives, for the lifelong pain and trauma caused for so many, for a world in where there are people who carry such deep hatred for other humans that they could be brought to carry out such horrible acts of violence - I have not been able to shed a tear. 

I think the primary difference between Joseph and I is that, for him, his moment of emotional reckoning came at the end of a long journey, a culmination of years of reflection and accomplishment that gave him distance between his hour of deepest pain and his moment of finally releasing what had plagued him for so many years. For me, and perhaps for some of you, the experience of the last months feels very present. It still actively weighs on me. Instead of being able to grapple with all that has happened, there is a feeling of being utterly emotionally overwhelmed. There is an emotional block, a dam holding back so much that that has been built over the past weeks. 

While I know this is my way of coping, I am worried that I am missing out on a central lesson of the example Joseph sets for us in this week’s parasha.

When I read the Joseph story this year, one of my first associations surprised me. I was reminded of a show from my childhood - maybe some of my fellow millennials will remember it - it came on the local PBS network sometime in the afternoon after school. The show was music videos and songs for kids with lessons and life advice. One of the songs was called “It’s Alright to Cry”. It was a message of permission, even encouragement for kids that if and when they were hurt or scared or anything else that it was ok to cry. The song encouraged displaying emotion, a piece of advice I wish at times was easier to take. 

It may seem a bit comical to be reminded of this message by a song that I learned in 1995 or 1996, but the source does not negate the profundity of the message… especially for grown ups who have seen a thing or two in the world and sometimes emotion does not come quite as easily. 

We should, like Joseph did in his time, heed the simple, yet wise advice that it is alright to cry. We cannot wait for the fighting to end, though we pray that it will be soon, to start the difficult task of binding up the emotional and spiritual wounds that the last few months of 2023 have left upon our souls. It will be a long road to recovery in many ways. But if we leave it as the last thing we do it will be an even harder struggle. It will not be easy, but if we can be like Joseph, if we can look the pain and anger we carry in the eye and allow ourselves to feel, even though it will be difficult, we can make healing an ongoing journey, rather than something we are forced to do all at once when the fighting comes to an end. 

May Joseph’s strength be our strength as we work to bind up these wounds and scars we have been left with over the past weeks and months. 

Shabbat Shalom!

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