Parashat Miketz

Real Men Cry

Joseph's tears, public and private

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The wording of the text suggests that Joseph recognizes that he needs to stretch the bounds of normative behavior--for a ruler, for a man--in order to display his feelings openly and publicly. Here, Joseph succeeds partially. Not yet ready to cry in public, he goes into another room, where the tears he sheds begin to transform him. Joseph's tears are no longer filled purely with rage; this time his tears are tears of pain. He surely cries for himself--for his lost childhood, for the gulf between him and his brother, for his loss of innocence, for his feelings of abandonment, for his suffering.

By acknowledging his pain, Joseph could begin to imagine a future that included both his public role and his private relationship with his family. Unprepared to go public quite yet, he washed his face (Genesis 43:31), "reappeared, and--now in control of himself--gave the order: 'serve the meal.'"

Joseph's transformation is completed only in next week's parashah, when he finally reveals himself to his brothers. At that moment, "his sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear...He embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept. He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them" (Genesis 45:2, 14, 15). Only then does full reconciliation and healing take place.

America in 1963 was just beginning to experience what would come to be known as the second wave of American feminism, a revolution that would have profound effects on all aspects of both American life and Jewish life, for men as well as for women. While the impact on women's lives in terms of educational opportunities, careers and liberating attitudes is better known, men's lives were also transformed. One of the ways men benefited is that it became acceptable for them to understand and come to terms with their personal as well as their professional lives.

It is partly as a result of the influence of this same wave of feminism that the field of Jewish studies has been transformed as well. Feminist perspectives and gender analysis often reveal aspects of our sacred texts that we never noticed before. Traditional commentators say little about Joseph's tears, but according to Sefer Hayashar (a medieval Midrashic work), quoted in Louis Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews, Joseph cried because Benjamin reminded him of his mother Rachel and "only tears extinguish the burning coals of the heart."

True Leadership

I agree. Joseph's tears are a necessary element in his transition to adulthood and to true leadership. Only when he has found a way to reconcile his childhood grief with the possibility of a new relationship with his brothers, his public persona with his private life, and his invincible power with his vulnerability, only then does he emerge as the biblical hero that fully ignites the empathy and admiration of both men and women.

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Shuly R Schwartz

Shuly Rubin Schwartz is the Irving Lehrman Research Associate Professor of American Jewish History and dean of the Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies of The Jewish Theological Seminary.