Joseph, whose story is now coming to an end, is responsible for more weeping in the book of Genesis than anyone else. Just a cursory search reveals more crying by Joseph and in the Joseph novella than the rest of the book:
- Gen. 37:35
- Gen. 42:24
- Gen. 43:30
- Gen. 45:2
- Gen. 45:14
- Gen. 45:15
- Gen. 46:29
- Gen. 50:1
- Gen. 50:17
It reminded me of a poem by Yehuda Amichai – to understand you need to know that Ishmael is a name based on the verb to hear in Hebrew (שמע); Isaac – based on the verb to laugh (צחק); and an imagined figure Yivkeh based on the verb to weep (בכה):
Three sons had Abraham, not just two.
Three son had Abraham: Yishma-El, Yitzhak and Yivkeh.
First came Yishma-El, “God will hear,”
Next came Yitzkah, “he will laugh,”
And the last was Yivkeh, “he will cry.”
No one has ever heard of Yivkeh, for he was the youngest,
The son that Father loved best,
The son who was offered up on Mount Moriah.
Yishma-El was saved by his mother, Hagar,
Yizhak was saved by the angel,
But Yivkeh no one saved.
When he was just a little boy, his father
Would call him tenderly, Yivkeh,
Yivkeleh, my sweet little Yivkie –
But he sacrificed him all the same.
The Torah says the ram, but it was Yivkeh.
Yishma-El never heard from God again,
Yithak never laughed again,
Sarah laughed only once, then laughed no more.
Three sons had Abraham
Yishma, “will hear,” Yitzhak, “will laugh,” Yivkeh, “will cry.”
Yishma-El, Yitzhak-El, Yivkeh-El
God will hear, God will laugh, God will cry.
The fulfilment of the end of this imaginary son, the son of tears of God, is what causes him to live on through the text of the Torah. The salvation of Isaac and Ishmael is the undoing of the hearing and laughing. But after Amichai’s imagined son of Abraham we also have Jacob and Joseph who weep. Who do you think is next to cry in the Torah? – None other than the infant Moses rescued from the waters of the river in which he has been placed to escape the murderous legislation of the new king who knew not Joseph. And in Psalm 137 we recite, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.”
In the Talmud there is a discussion which, to my mind, we must read not as late antique science but as theological protest. It is a discussion of natural phenomenon such as thunder and earthquakes. With regard earthquakes in Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 59a in the words of a necromancer (who is roundly refuted by a sage) we read:
“When the Holy One, who is blessed, calls to mind His children, who are plunged in suffering among the nations of the world, He lets fall two tears into the ocean, and the sound is heard from one end of the world to the other, and that is the rumbling.”
Interestingly, even though the necromancer’s words are refuted by Rav Kattina as false, the 16th Century Maharal of Prague, dwells on this theme in his text Be’er Hagolah and suggests that Israel in exile and under the dominion of foreign rule is as if it has ceased to exist and thus God’s tears are like those of a mourner. I read the text more as a reflection of God’s absence, and a search for signs of deus absconditus in the natural order of things – the search for just a tiny morsel of communication from God in the fragile state of exile that the Babylonian sages found themselves in.
Much like the prophet is able to convey the distress and message of God, even in a state of exile. In the words of the 20th Century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on the prophet Jeremiah:
“Again and again the prophet brought God’s word to His beloved people: mourn, grieve, sorrow, lament. A sense of delicacy prevented the prophet from spelling out the meaning of the word: Mourn My people for Me as well…
…God is mourning Himself. ‘Thus says the Lord. Behold, what I have built I am breaking down, and what I have planted I am plucking up…’ (Jeremiah 45:4). God’s sorrow rises again and again to unconcealed heights of expression.” (The Prophets p. 111)
This is the meaning of Divine pathos, at the heart of Heschel’s theology – the God of the prophets is not the removed, indifferent God of the philosophers, but rather the God of concern. God is “both transcendent, beyond human understanding, and full of love, compassion grief or anger.” (Man is not alone p.244).
Heschel in his text ‘Man is not Alone’ continues:
“The Bible is not a history of the Jewish people, but the story of God’s quest of the righteous man. Because of the failure of the human species as a whole to follow in the path of righteousness, it is an individual – Noah, Abraham – a people: Israel – or a remnant of the people, on which the task is bestowed to satisfy that quest by making every man a righteous man. There is an eternal cry in the world: God is beseeching man. Some are startled; others remain deaf. We are all looked for. An air of expectancy hovers over life. Something is asked of man, of all men.” P. 245.
Yivkeh-El – God will cry. To my mind, this is really the state of inbetween-ness that the human condition finds itself in. Imperfect, sometimes noble, sometimes tragic, but caught in the vicissitudes of life – yet striving for that connection to something grander, bigger, to answer the question asked of us all.
The story of Joseph, who might be mocked in the playground as the cry baby, the weeper, is a story of deep emotional engagement and also of existential in-betweenness. Joseph becomes a vessel for the unfolding human story of love and loss, betrayal and reconciliation, of righteousness, of deus asbconditus who can be caught peeking through the light refracted in a droplet of water, a tear. Joseph, the producer of tears, the weeper, the wailer, accompanies us through our national experience of exile, left in Egypt waiting to be out in his coffin.
He is sold into the hands of traders who take him to Egypt, he returns to Egypt after burying his father, he dwells in Egypt and finally is embalmed in Egypt. The last word of our book, the book of family, the book of Genesis, is Egypt. Joseph lies in waiting to be carried back to the land of his ancestors, through the waters of the Sea of Reeds.
Thus Joseph and his tears become a triple symbol:
Firstly, Joseph is a symbol of the Jewish people’s longing not just for redemption, even if we do not still believe in such classical ideas of geographic exile, the redemption is that mysterious time when humankind will live in peace, false things will vanish and nation will not life up sword against nation; an age of righteousness and justice.
Secondly, Joseph is a symbol of our very personal yearning to break free from the fetters of slavery and exile. We all suffer the inhumanity and oppression in a physical way, but we also have an inward loneliness, the human experience of our own fragile existence on this planet. We ward off its pain in companionship and good deeds, like Joseph there is a desire for reconciliation and of wholeness. Though like Joseph we know perfection of the human spirit is only ever aspirational.
Finally, we are reminded that even though God is barely felt, yet when we embrace the prophetic message of pain of the vulnerable and weep it is God’s tears we weep. In the words of Jeremiah:
“Let my eyes run with tears, day and night let them not cease, for my hapless people has suffered a grievous injury, a very painful wound.” (14:17)
God hears the sound of every plea and God weeps with us. Yet, God cannot redeem our world. That is our task and God waits constantly for us.
This was originally delivered as a sermon and can be heard on a podcast format: