HE SAID THE SHEMA.
Rashi tells us, following the rabbinic sages, that when Joseph and his elderly father Jacob finally met again, the pious old man said the Shema (Gen. 46:29).
Perhaps it was because his first thought was to thank God that the long-cherished dream of reunion with his son had finally come true.
Others suggest that it was as a challenge to Joseph, as if to say,
“All these years that we have been apart, I had so many vicissitudes, but I let nothing come in the way of my faith in God. But what about you – are you still a believer? Has power weakened your ’emunah’, has life in the palace made you forget to say your prayers and live as a Jew?”
What did Joseph do? He wept, maybe because of the sheer joy he felt at being with his father again, maybe because his father had suspected him.
Imagine how many times this scene has repeated itself when parent and child, separated for many years and by life-forming experiences, found one another again.
You may recall the tragi-comic story of the old father from Poland who meets up with his American son after years apart and hears how life in America is different and people say they can’t keep Shabbat or kashrut any longer, and then the father says, “But tell me, son: are you still circumcised at least?”
WHAT LANGUAGE DID THEY SPEAK?
The sidra gives details of a conversation between Joseph, by now a high official in Egypt, and his brothers from Canaan. Joseph recognised his brothers, but they did not recognise him.
In what language was the conversation? It could not be in Hebrew since Joseph did not reveal his real identity, and it was not politically correct to conduct a conversation in the language of visitors from elsewhere.
The conversation was probably in Egyptian and conducted with the aid of an interpreter (Gen. 42:23), even though the brothers had a knowledge of the language of Egypt – Egypt and Canaan abutted on each other – though their Egyptian was not as fluent as their Hebrew.
At a particular point Joseph told the interpreter to leave the room. Was it because he could see that the brothers knew enough Egyptian to make an interpreter unnecessary? Probably not; he didn’t want anyone, interpreter or otherwise, to witness the family revelation that was to follow.
Rashi thinks that the brothers would be embarrassed if an outsider saw how shocked and repentant they were when they found that the Egyptian minister was the brother they had treated so badly.
Ramban adds that if the Egyptians found out that Joseph was their brother, Joseph would lose face and the brothers themselves might be denied permission to stay because if they could treat their own brother so badly they might not behave properly as Egyptians.
THE SOUND WAS HEARD
Joseph recognised his brothers but they did not recognise him. It suited Joseph to leave things like that for a time. But then came the moment for him to reveal his identity, and the news soon spread through the palace, “and it pleased Pharaoh well, and his servants” (Gen. 45:16).
The exact Hebrew words of the text are “v’hakol nishma” – literally, “and the sound (of the news) was heard”. Strangely, the word “kol” is spelled defectively, without the expected middle letter, vav.
The Zohar remarks that there are two kinds of sound – the full, audible sound and the weak, almost inaudible sound. The “kol” with the vav missing indicates the latter kind of sound, like that of Hannah’s prayer, of which it is written, “but her voice could not be heard” (I Sam. 1:13).
From this we learn that when a person prays their voice should be subdued: “prayer does not consist in audible voice, nor is the voice prayer… the prayer which God accepts is that which is performed with earnestness and devotion and proper concentration of the mind”.
The lesson for us is that when officiants are raucous and worshippers noisy, the moment, as the Baal Shem Tov used to say, is so full of prayers that God cannot hear.
A second interpretation in the Zohar comes in the name of R. Elazar, who says that the quiet sound implied in the defective spelling of “kol” is an allusion to the voice which wept on account of the first and second Temples. This was the voice of Rachel, whose weeping was heard in Ramah (Jer. 31:14).
Rashi, like the Zohar, reads Ramah as “on high”, where God hears Rachel’s lamentation for her children, who have been slain or taken into exile. The Zohar offers the comfort that when the time comes, “the Holy One, blessed be He, will raise that quiet voice from the dust and join the vav with it, and all that was lost to them in the time of exile will be restored and they will feast on the supernal radiances that will stream with added brightness from the supernal world” (Zohar Vayyiggash 209b-210a; Soncino ed., vol. 2, pp. 293-5).
From this too there is a lesson we can learn, that God fulfils His promises when the right time comes, that “lo alman Yisrael” – “Israel is never left bereft”; and that we need not angrily storm the heavens and shout to remind God that we are here. He hears, He knows, He will assuredly act.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles.
He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com