Planting With Tears? Understanding Shir HaMaalot
Planting With Tears? Understanding Shir HaMaalot
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Planting With Tears? Understanding Shir HaMaalot
Hi everybody, it’s really nice to see you. I want to look with you at a mizmor tehillim that we say all the time. We say it over and over again, and it’s Shir HaMaalot. So this is a mizmor tehillim that we know very well and as such it is subject to an effect that I would like to call the ‘lullaby effect’. The ‘lullaby effect’ basically works like this, when you know things very well paradoxically, sometimes it gets in the way of you actually understanding them, because you just assume you know it because you know it all by heart ever since you were a kid. So for example, if you are reading a lullaby, think about your average lullaby, “Rock-a-bye baby on the tree top, when the wind blows the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come the baby, cradle and all.” Now, you actually can get your kids to sleep with these words, and we do. But if your kid is actually paying attention to the words, they would not be falling asleep. They would have many questions. What questions would you have if you were really listening to the words?Audience: [Unintelligible, 0:01:29]
Rabbi: What kind of parents are these? Who would put a baby on the bough of a tree? How high off the ground was the bough? Did anyone call 911 afterwards? Was the mother trying to kill the child? And of course if you are the child who is being rocked to sleep, you’d wonder if you have a passive aggressive mother and if my mother is really trying to kill me after all. These are the questions that comes to mind, but nobody ask these questions, right, you just fall asleep when you hear the lullaby. That’s the lullaby effect. The lullaby effect is you just fall asleep; you are lulled into complacency by the fact that you know the words, so you just stop listening to the words. Oftentimes a tune will help the lullaby effect, so when you have tunes with the lullaby and we don’t listen to the words, we have music for Shir HaMaalot, we all have our favorite tune; and we pay attention to the tune, we don’t pay attention to the words. What I want to do with you today is to actually pay attention to the words, and try to figure out what they mean. What do they mean? And it’s not like you can’t translate any word or two, some of them are complicated, but some of them are easy. But sometimes, especially in tehillim, you can translate words and still have no idea what they are talking about, and I think that’s the case for many of us with Shir HaMaalot, like what exactly is this talking about?
Typical poetry under the best of circumstances is tough. Poetry under any circumstances is tough. Poetry written in another language with its own unique stuff is doubly tough. So just because you read it doesn’t mean you have any idea of what exactly they are talking about. Today I want to delve into this mizmor to figure it out. I hope you will get three things out of this; (1) a new understanding of the possible message of Shir HaMaalot, but beyond that, a new enthusiasm for Sefer Tehillim. I think tehillim is one of those books that we don’t often really study when we think of learning. So you think of learning Gemara, maybe you think about learning Chumash, maybe you think about learning Navi; most people don’t think of tehillim and learning in the same breath. Tehillim is the thing that you say when someone is in trouble. So you say a few verses of tehillim for someone in trouble. Tehillim is a thing where is you are especially pious, maybe you try to finish all of Sefer Tehillim every week, every day, every year, something like that right? That’s tehillim.
Most of us think of tehillim as not something we study deeply. I think tehillim is something we study deeply, it can be something we can study deeply, if you can discern a methodology for doing so. So I hope that you will get a taste of a methodology that can work, not just for Shir HaMaalot, but can open up many, many mizmorei tehillim for you. I hope you take the challenge and try to take a crack at some of the other mizmorim that you know and love and to see them in a whole new light as well, because it’s an extremely exciting Sefer.
I am going to share with you my own sense of where a lot of Sefer Tehillim goes, before we even get to Shir HaMaalot. It’s a theory that I have developed just because I see it happening in mizmor after mizmor. I haven’t gone through the whole Sefer Tehillim with it but enough to have the sense that this is real and it work with many, many mizmorei tehillim, you’ll see an example of it here.
We often think of tehillim as a sefer that’s in a way different than other sfarim. It’s different in the sense that I think we have an intuition it’s a more spiritual sefer; it’s more about emotions, it’s more about spirituality, it’s more about the inner spiritual life of people than other sfarim are. That’s why we say it in times of trouble, because those are the times when we want to connect in an inner, spiritual, emotional kind of way. It’s like tehillim has the words for us, at those times.
So let’s think a little bit deeply about that. What does it mean to say that tehillim is more of a spiritual sefer than the other sfarim. What would say the other sfarim are like? They are also spiritual but they are different in the sense that at least sfarim like chumash, navi, nevi’im acharonim, and particularly nevi’im rishonim, are historical and even if they are, historical might not be the best word and phrase, but they talk about events, they tell us what happen in events. And tehillim generally speaking doesn’t do that, tehillim is talking about feelings, about emotions, about relationships and those kinds of things. But, what I think is the case if you look carefully at Sefer Tehillim is that the book really does talk about events, it just talks about events from a different perspective than the rest of the Torah does; it talks about events from an inner, spiritual, emotional perspective. In other words, the lines of convergence between Sefer Tehillim and the rest of the Torah are actually much closer than you would think. Both of these sfarim, both parts of the Torah, actually talks about events. It’s just that the Torah talks about events from the perspective of what happened, and tehillim talks about events from the perspective of what it means or what the events felt like spiritually, what they mean emotionally. It’s giving you the emotional, inner, spiritual perspective on events.
If you look carefully at Sefer Tehillim, you will find in mizmor after mizmor clues, almost like jigsaw puzzles kind of clues, like when you put together a jigsaw puzzle, there is a strategy to putting together a jigsaw puzzle; what’s the strategy? First you turn over all the pieces. What do you do next? You look for the corners, those are going to be the easiest; the dead giveaway pieces. Then what do you do after you have the four corners? You build out the edges. Then what do you do? Then you try to find little blocks of things to go together, and fit those together, and you have the little things that go together and then you realize that this big area over here that intersects with this area over here, and you can put the larger pieces together. This is a strategy you use when doing a jigsaw puzzle, it’s also the strategy you use when figuring out a mizmor tehillim, it’s exactly the same way. There are corner pieces, the dead giveaways.
When you read through a mizmor you will find language, when you come across a piece of language that is unique, and appears here, and appears somewhere else in the Torah itself, and it happens once, it happens twice, it happens three times, these are the dead giveaways. The Torah is saying, “you want to know what we are talking about in this mizmor? We are talking about that event.” Why are we repeating the event? The answer is because if you look at that event in the Torah, all you know is the history of that event. If you want to know what that event means, if you want to understand the spiritual import of that event, want to know what it looks like from the inside, what the inner, spiritual, emotional life of the protagonist who lived through that event was like? Come into this world, we are going to explore that in Sefer Tehillim. It’s a fascinating thing.
So if you are looking at the life of Moses, we know a lot about the life of Moses, but as much as we know about the life of Moses, we know very little. What was it like to be Moses? What was it like to be told after forty years, after years and years of leading the Jews, what was it like to be told that you can’t go into the land? That you are supposed to ascend the mountain and look into the land and there you are going to die. What does it look like to be Moses going up the mountain at that moment? What was he feeling? How was he relating to God at that point? How was he relating to himself? What were the emotions? What were the feelings? What is the spirituality of that moment? When you look at chumash, we can only wonder. When you look at tehillim, you get David HaMelech’s best shot to explain that. You find mizmorim that are recapitulation of that event from the spiritual perspective. So today I want to look at one mizmor, I want to look at Shir HaMaalot and try to use this example and say this is a spiritual side of what event? And what are we to get out of it? So we’re going to look for the corner pieces.
Before we do, we have to do a little bit of work in pshat understanding of where this is going. So I just want to read through the beginning of Shir HaMaalot with you and just try to understand how the sentences hang together to form a larger whole and then we will go back and look, so to speak, for the corner pieces. So, Shir HaMaalot b’shuv Hashem et shivat tziyon hayinu kecholmim” – “When God returns, or when God will return the captives of Zion” “hayinu kecholmim” – “we will be like dreamers.” One of the interesting thing about this is that the tenses in Shir HaMaalot seems kind of mixed up. “hayinu kecholmim” is a strange way of talking, right? That why it means, “When God returns”, now when is that? That is in the future. “When God in the future returns the captives of Zion”, “hayinu”, now we’re in the past, “we were”, “kecholmim” – “like dreamers.” So it’s a little bit confusing what’s happening here, but it’s almost a sense that, maybe we’re so sure that it’s going to happen that it feels like it already happened. But, that’s what it’s going to be like, we will be like dreamers. “Az yimale s’chok pinu” – “Then our mouths will be filled with laughter”, “uleshoneinu rinah” – “and our tongues with songs.” “Az yomru vagoyim” – “Then the nations will say,” “higdil Hashem laasot im eleh” – “how great is God that he has done this to these people.” “Higdil Hashem laasot imanu hayinu smechim” – “How great is God that he has done this with us.” “Hayinu smechim” – “We will be happy.” Okay? Let’s just read a little bit further and try to put it together.
“Shuvah Hashem et shevitenu” – “Please God, return our captives,” “ka’afikim banegev” – “like flash floods in the desert.” “Hazorim bedimah berinah yiktzoru” – “Those who plant with tears will reap with joy.” “Haloch yelech uvachoh”- “Someone goes crying, and walking around and crying,” “nose meshech hazara” –“he is holding a bag of seeds,” “bo yavo verinah” – “the time will come that he will come back in joy,” “nose alumotav” – “holding the grain that the seeds have sprouted into.” Very opaque. What’s going on here? What exactly is going on? Again, you can translate anyone of these verses, but how it all hangs together is very difficult to understand. So let’s try to work it out.
First of all, very broadly speaking, without understanding any of the details, you can divide this mizmor into two parts right down the middle. Where would you say the mizmor divides, where you have Theme A followed by Theme B? And what would you call those themes? Yes?
Audience: [Unintelligible, 0:13:31]
Rabbi: Good. Exactly. That’s the difference. Excellent. There are two parts of this mizmor. The first part of this mizmor is, let’s come up with a title for the first part of this mizmor, the first part of this mizmor is, “What will it be like when the captives of Zion finally returns?” That is the first part of the mizmor. The second part of the mizmor starts from “Shuvah Hashem et shevitenu”, and that part of the mizmor is a prayer for God to actually do it. So first, ”What will it be like when it happen?” And then, having understanding what it will be like when it happens, “God, please make this happen.” More or less, that’s how you would divide the mizmor.
Okay. So let’s attack the first part first. What questions would you have on the first part? “Shir HaMaalot b’shuv Hashem et shivat tziyon hayinu kecholmim az yimale s’chok pinu uleshoneinu rinah az yomru vagoyim higdil Hashem laasot im eleh higdil Hashem laasot imanu hayinu smechim.” Any questions that comes to mind? Any thing that bothers you just about these verses? We have a hand up back there? Go ahead.
Audience: [Unintelligible, 0:14:54]
Rabbi: Okay. You’re asking a polite question, I will ask it a little bit more impolitely. “What are the goyim doing over here?” Right? That’s really the question; you just really didn’t want to go there. But that’s … this is a Jewish mizmor, like who really cares about the goyim? This is our personal redemption. Why isn’t it enough for us to be happy? Why are we talking about the goyim, and not only that, we’re talking about the goyim first. What’s that doing there? Would it have been so terrible if it was just “az yimale s’chok pinu uleshoneinu rinah higdil Hashem laasot imanu hayinu smechim”? That would have been good enough. Why do you add by having this whole other part, “az yomru vagoyim higdil Hashem laasot im eleh”? Who cares about the goyim? Not only that, if you have both, it’s all confusing. Do you know like how when you are saying Shir HaMaalot and you get to this part where you say, “higdil Hashem laasot”, and you’re thinking, “where am I up to again? Am I up to the first higdil Hashem or am I up to the…I better just start back at the beginning again, because I have no idea where I am at”, you know what I mean? It makes it actually confusing to actually say this. So why is it that we have this double repetition of the “higdil Hashem laasot im eleh, higdil Hashem laasot imanu”, why do I need that? Why do I need the goyim in here at all? Okay, very good question. Let’s go further.
Throughout the mizmor itself, we find different modes of expression; different modes of verbal expression. When you think about how your mouth expresses itself, if you think about it, there are basically four ways that your moth expresses itself. What are those? Only one of them is cognitive, only one of them is intellectual. And that’s the way most of the times we express ourselves with our mouth which is what we do, we talk, right? The whole point of talking is what?
Rabbi: Communicating what? Thoughts and ideas. The beauty of speech is that we’ve figured out this way to code word for things, we call some things, we call tape recorder a tape recorder and then you know what I am talking about. And then we also lift up a tape recorder and show people and then we have a conceptual image which comes to mind when I talk about a tape recorder. And so we exchange ideas by way of thoughts, that’s what we do; it’s a cognitive enterprise. But if you think about it, that’s only one way in which your mouth communicates. Your mouth communicates in three other ways also, which is what? The three other ways interesting, are all represented within this mizmor. The only one that’s not represented is talking. So it’s the other three ways that your mouth communicates. What are those? One is singing, one is laughing and the last is crying. Singing, laughing and crying, they are all here. How are singing, laughing and crying different than talking?
Audience: You don’t have to understand the language to understand what someone’s expressing when they are crying or laughing.
Rabbi: Yes. Somehow it’s a more direct kind of expression, it’s more universal; it skips the cognitive element. So if somebody is a Frenchman and you can’t understand a word of what he is saying but you see them crying, you can immediately relate to what it is that’s going on without having to have the conversation. Similarly with laughter, similarly with crying. So it’s direct mode of communication that just jumps over the cognitive realm. It’s not cognition, it’s not about ideas; it’s about what? It’s about feelings. It’s the direct language of feeling without the brain getting in the way with ideas.
When is crying, laughing and singing, more appropriate than talking? So someone that it’s less appropriate. Let’s say that you are seven years old or nine years old, is having a tantrum about something that they shouldn’t be having a tantrum about. So you might say, “compose yourself and use words to explain what’s going on”, right. You are asking them to move out of that emotional sphere and go into the intellectual sphere so that you can deal; with it intellectually. But there are sometimes when you don’t do that. When don’t you do that? When is that a wrong thing to do?
Audience: [Unintelligible, 0:20:01]
Rabbi: Birth, deaths. There was an interesting controversy yesterday in The New York Times, I don’t know if you saw that, where there was a criticism of an NBC reporter for the way they interviewed an athlete in the Sochi winter games. Do you know what I’m talking about? What happened? I don’t know the details but apparently there is this athlete whom I guess his brother must have died the year before, something like that. And here he was, he just won a medal at the Olympics, so the reporter comes and ask him, “Tell me, how good does it feel to have this medal? You came back after your brother died, what is it like for you? What does it mean to you?” And he says, “Well, it has been a tough year…” and he’s talking about it. And the reporter doesn’t take the hint, the reporter goes and presses and says, “Well I know it has been a tough year, your brother has died, what’s going through h your mind as you’re doing this?” And the thoughts are tearing up, and the reporter keeps on pressing and asking, “So I see this is really emotionally tough for you, so tell me, what’s going through your head as you think of your brother.” And then he just freezes and he’s crying, and the reporter saying “So tell me what your feelings are at this time.” And then he is just crying and he walks away. And that’s the end of the interview.
And people rightly criticized the reporter for his behavior. If you think about the meaning of that criticism. The meaning of that criticism is that there is something scared about tears, you don’t go and explain real tears; you explain real tears, you cheapen them. If I am sitting here talking to you about your feelings, let me cry in peace and have my own little world. But it’s so scared and you are trying to make it into a sound bite that can be on the evening news. It’s not something you talk about, it’s something you cry about.
There are certain kind of events, events that are surpassing events in human life that are not the things that you talk about. They are the things that you laugh about, that you cry about, they are the things that you sing about. And to do anything other than that, is to not wrap your mind around the event; ideas aren’t really good enough, words aren’t really good enough, to communicate what’s going on. And once you translate it down into words, you lose something in the translation. You lose essential in the translation. It’s just a direct communication, it’s above words. Things like death, this like loss, on the sad side, but also things like redemption, and things like the coming back of captive on the happy side; these are things that you laugh about, things that you sing about, but you can’t really talk about them; once you talk about them, it’s a different level.
Let’s go back to the mizmor. I am going to turn away from you and see it on the screen. Shir HaMaalot b’shuv Hashem et shivat tziyon hayinu kecholmim. Look at that first sentence, “we will be like dreamers.” What do you think it means, that when God returns the captives, “We will be like dreamers”? What does that mean? Exactly! It will be an unbelievable experience. Now the word ‘unbelievable experience’ is one of those words that are over used. We use the phrase ‘unbelievable experience’ for all kinds of evidently believable experiences. But if you think about truly unbelievable experiences, the word ‘unbelievable’ literally means ‘something so astounding that it’s just not to be believed’. Which is, by the way, the sensation of dreaming. When you are dreaming, do you think it’s real? You’re not quite sure. Sort of, kind of, you think it’s real, but when unbelievable things happen to you, your experience is that you are not if maybe you’re dreaming. Is this real? There is a sense of overwhelming reality when there is something happens to you that bowls you over and you aren’t even quite sure if it’s real which leads to the next things.
Az yimale s’chok pinu – Our reaction to salvation, to the captives finally coming back, to the redemption is, “then, our mouths will be filled with song”, right, “will be filled with laughter, our tongues with songs”. Notice that these are the non-verbal way of using your mouth. You aren’t speaking about it. Why aren’t you speaking about it? Because it is so unreal that I cannot translate it cognitively. I don’t have that ability to engage my mind at that level the only thing I can try to do to process this event that seems real, but it’s pinch me when it’s real is to laugh about it, to sing about it; that’s a feeling. Az yomru vagoyim higdil Hashem laasot im eleh. Now let’s come back to our question, “why are we talking about the goyim in a Jewish mizmor? Why are we talking about Gentiles in our own private events? Isn’t this our own private events that we should experience ourselves? Why are we bringing in all these reporters from NBC? What are they doing?” What do you think “Az yomru vagoyim higdil Hashem laasot…” – “Then the nations will say, wow! Look how great God is that he has done that.” Why does that come before our saying “higdil Hashem laasot imanu?”
Audience: Maybe it’s showing the difference between our own reaction and the goyim’s reaction.
Rabbi: Good. What’s the difference?
Audience: The goyim are having a cognitive reaction by speaking about it. But for us, it is so amazing that we can’t speak about it.
Rabbi: Exactly. I think that’s exactly the case. The difference between us and the goyim is that it’s happening to us, it’s not happening to them. They are viewing it from the outside. So viewing it from the outside, you can talk about it, the first people who can talk about it is not us, because we are still in cloud nine, we’re still singing, we are still dancing, we can’t talk. At that moment, we still don’t even know if it’s real; it’s “pinch me, I feel like I am in a dream”. How do you know it’s real? When do you know it’s real? When you are not sure whether something is a dream, at what point do you know it’s a dream, you know that it’s not a figment of your imagination; that it’s actually real? When someone else starts talking to you about it. “Oh, I guess I t’s not a dream. It’s not something I am thinking in my own head. They see it too. This must be real.”
The way that we come to start to understand, come down to earth that “oh my gosh! This is actually real. It’s part of life”, is once you hear the goyim start saying “wow! Look at the greatness of God that he actually did that.” At that point, after we hear the goyim say it, we can then say, “higdil Hashem laasot imanu”, then, it starts to become cognitive; we can actually talk about it. And then, something else happens, which is “hayinu smechim” – “Finally, we’re happy.” Were we happy before? Sort of, but not really. Because, what’s the first ‘hayinu’ in the story? The first ‘hayinu’ is hayinu kecholmim – “We were like dreamers”. Now, we are not like dreamers anymore, we are actually happy, because it’s part of real life; this has actually happened. We understand it. And now a new motion takes hold of what has happened to us.
The first part of this mizmor is about transition from ‘hayinu kecholmim’ to ‘hayinu smechim’. When this overwhelming event happens, what are the stages that you go through to actually come to grips with it, to actually make it real, to understand that it’s not a dream, that to actually be happy, these are the stages? First, it hits you and you are not sure that it’s real, then you start having these reactions, you laugh, you sing, we can laugh by the way when we are not even sure it’s real. Sometimes we laugh at the unreality because it seems so strange that we just laugh. And we sing, but we can’t even talk. We hear the goyim talking, finally we can talk and finally we feel happy. And this is the process of coming to grips with this overwhelming reality, which is important by the way because if you don’t go through this process, and this is true by the way for both good things and bad things, we won’t have time to get into it today, but there is another mizmor that we say before bentching. This is the mizmor that we say on Shabbat. The mizmor that you are supposed to say during the week, which none of us do unless we’re in camp is “al naharot Bavel”. If you think about it, “al naharot Bavel“ is exactly the flip side of Shir HaMaalot, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s also an overwhelming experience, except the experience is the experience of galut, the experience of losing everything. And that experience is something also you can’t talk about and is also something you have to process.
And the problem with overwhelming experience is, whether they are good experience, or they are bad experiences, is that it’s easy not to process them, and if you don’t process them and they remain at that level where you are not sure it’s real, they can sort of skip off of your consciousness and you can never sort of bring them into your life. So you need to have that process of making it real and finally being able to bring it into life and then yes, being able to talk about it in order to go on, whether it’s a good experience or whether it’s a terrible experience. And to some extent, Shir HaMaalot is the way we do that for sort of these opposite experiences.
Now, before we go on to the next part of the mizmor, the part where we then ask God to make this happen, let’s play a little game, let’s ask ourselves, does any of this remind us of anything in chumash?
Audience: [Unintelligible, 0:31:01] it’s a parallel
Rabbi: Okay. I hear you. Let me ask you this, I am looking for language parallels. Is there anything unique about the language here, which seems to remind you about some other episodes in chumash? The az? Okay. The az yomru? Oh that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of the az. Perhaps the az yomru, the az yashir. Look at the beginning of the mizmor, at the very first image that you have, and then look at the end of the mizmor and then put the two together. The very beginning is ‘hayinu kecholmim’ – “dreams”. The very last image is somebody carrying alumot –“sheaves of wheat”. Put those two together and what does it remind you of? It sure sounds a lot like Joseph. Only one person dreamt about sheaves of wheat. Is this mizmor talking about Joseph?
Just to buttress the possibility that it might, how many times in the Torah, do you think the word alumot actually appears? Only twice. The first time it ever appears is in the story of Joseph. The second time it ever appears is in tehillim kuf-chaf-vav, right here. This is the only other appearance of alumot. To such an extent, that in the story of Joseph, we wouldn’t even know what the word means because there is no other example of the word. So how will you know what the word means? So if you look at Rashi in the story of Joseph, guess where Rashi points you to try to explain what the word means? Right here! Rashi says, “oh, it must means sheaves of wheat because look at this pasuk.” Is this story, at some level, the story of Joseph?
Just to buttress the possibility that it is, let’s look at the middle of the mizmor; we’ve look at the end, we’ve looked at the beginning, is there something in the middle that reminds you of Joseph? There is a strange word here, “afikim banegev”, what an interesting metaphor; “like these flash floods in the desert”. Now, the word “afikim” never actually appears in chumash at all. But, afikim is a noun. There is a verb form of afikim that actually does appear in chumash once. Where is the only verb form of afikim that ever appears in chumash? Afikim as a verb. In the story of Joseph. “Lehitapek”. Remember that? Lo yachol Yosef lehitapek - Joseph could not hold himself back. So what did he do? He cried. He cried. He sobbed. What were his sobs like? If you think about it, until now, if you were Judah, or the other brothers, look how surprised you would have been at those other sobs.
Here was Joseph, they didn’t even know he was Joseph, he was this mean Egyptian official, he was stony hearted. Now, we the reader know that Joseph has been crying all along in the room, right, but the Jews don’t know that he is crying, that he is a stony hearted guy, and then all of a sudden, something happens and he just starts sobbing. It’s kind of like afikim banegev. It’s kind of like, ‘flash floods in the desert’. What’s a flash flood? A flash flood is there is never any water, there is never any water at all in a million years. All of a sudden, what is just coming because the water in the desert, the desert is so dry, so when it rains, the ground doesn’t soak in the moisture, so all the moisture stays at the top and that’s what creates this flash flood. So here is this man who never, ever cries and then he breaks down sobbing and he can’t stop crying. It’s Joseph, right? What is going on in this mizmor? What does this mizmor means?
It turns out that I think there are two things that are going on here. The mizmor is going to do two things for you. It’s going to explain the pshat in the Joseph story. It’s going to help you understand the meaning of the Joseph story, but it’s not just going to help you understand what happens in the Joseph story, it’s also going to help you understand the spiritual import of what happened. What it was like from the inside. What does tears were really like? So read the mizmor one more time and try to figure that out. Actually, before we do, I want to go back to the Joseph story. I want to analyze the tears of Joseph, and let’s try to figure this out.
There is a basic problem in the Joseph story which I suggest this mizmor is dealing with. The basic problem is, “what was Joseph up to before he cried?” You all know those tears. Those are the tears of the beginning of Parshat Vayikash when he finally breaks down when Judah confronts him. But before that, Joseph seems like he is on a mission, he’s got a plan. He is carefully dealing with his brothers, he is not revealing himself to his brothers, and he is putting them through all sorts of machinations – he pretends he is not Joseph, he imprisons Simon, he sends them back to get Benjamin, when Benjamin finally shows up, he pretends to send them back with food, but then has everybody arrested, frame Benjamin by putting s silver goblet in his sack; why is he doing all this? What’s up with Joseph? He must have a plan. What is his plan?
Now conventionally, there are two possible approaches that you can take to Joseph’s plan but both of those approaches have problems with them. Let’s talk about those approaches. Give me approach number one, what might Joseph be doing? Anybody?
Audience: [Unintelligible, 0:37:31]
Rabbi: One possibility is that Joseph is on a mission to get the brothers to do tshuvah or to see whether the brothers have done teshuvah. He is craftily creating a situation that mimics mechirat Yosef where is going to be another child of Rachel, namely Benjamin, that is now perhaps is going to be taken as a slave. He wants to see whether or not the brothers are going to do it a second time. Are they going to sell another child of Joseph down the river, or have they learned their lesson? That’s one possible explanation of Joseph’s behavior. Give me another possible explanation of Joseph’s behavior.
Audience: It seems to be that he is extremely angry with them and wants to get back at them but then decides against it at the end.
Rabbi: Okay. So it could just be that he is angry at them and he is trying to get back at them. Except that, if he is angry with them, why was he getting back at them in this particular way? If I was angry with them, maybe I would just say, “Guys, the heck with you! Just go home. None of you will have any food.” He doesn’t use that way. He has another way of tormenting them, why is he tormenting them this way? So it’s possible he’s angry, but we would still have to explain why is he exactly doing this. Okay, that’s an interesting possibility; sheer anger. Any other possibility? There is another possibility that comes to mind which some of the meforshim bring up, it’s the possibility that maybe he is trying to actualize his dreams. He had dreams. The dreams are that everyone is going to bow to him. So far, everyone has bowed to him except for Benjamin, he needs to get Benjamin to bow to him and even Benjamin is not enough, he as to have Jacob bow to him, because that’s what in his dreams. So he is trying to get Jacob back and this is the only way to get Jacob back.
Now, let’s analyze these two main approaches, the possibility that Joseph is trying to actualize his dreams, or the possibility that Joseph is trying to get the people to do teshuvah. Let’s start with the dreams. How does that make you feel about Joseph? Joseph was trying to make sure that his dreams came through so that’s why he did all this. Raise your hands if that makes you feel wonderful about Joseph. Doesn’t make anybody feel wonderful about Joseph. If this is really what Joseph was doing, and Joseph was now in court in shamayim and you were appointed the heavenly prosecutor, what would you say in prosecution of Joseph if this was his prosecution? What would you say? Come on! Anybody! You have thirty seconds to make your argument.
Audience: [Unintelligible, 0:40:26]
Rabbi: Yes! That you do not get to do that. That is not your job. You have over stepped your boundaries for your employment contract. That is not part of your job. It’s all very nice for the job to be fulfilled but whose job is it to fulfill dreams?
Audience: God’s job.
Rabbi: It’s God’s job to fulfill dreams; it’s not your job. So you’re going to think, “Oh, the dreams aren’t fulfilled!” Alright! God is a big boy. He will figure out how to fulfill his dreams, that’s not your job, your job is to be nice to people, your job is not to torment people so that you can get your job fulfilled. That is one criticism that we might apply to Joseph. And by the way, it’s exactly the same criticism for the second possibility. Let’s take the second possibility. Joseph is trying to get his brothers to do teshuvah. Joseph trying to see whether his brothers have changed. Again, you are the heavenly prosecutor, what would you say? Very nice, but that’s not your job. Who elected you vice angel in charge of repentance in the world? Nobody gave you that job. Whether people do teshuvah is a private thing on their own. Who elected you, the one in charge of your brother’s teshuvah? Not only that, but as Rabbi Joel Ben Nun argues in a series of interesting exchanges in the journal Megadim, where it’s an argument between him and Rabbi Yaakov Medan, the problem is this, it wasn’t even fair. Let’s say it was a test of teshuvah, are you going to tell me this is a fair test? Do you think this test is fair? Here is what you do. You are Joseph, you frame Benjamin. Now, here is Judah, Judah does not know that Benjamin has the cup. Judah goes and says, “This is outrageous that one of us has the cup. The person that has the cup will die!” Now you’re Joseph, what is Joseph’s response? “No, no, no. I don’t think I am going to kill him actually. I am being very, very nice about this. But if I find the cup in somebody’s basket over there, I am just going to take him as a slave.” They find the cup, Judah’s crestfallen. Judah says, “I can’t believe it. Let’s all be your slaves.” Joseph’s response, “No, you just can all go home. I really just want the thief as my slave. I really should kill him, because I do have a right to kill him but, I fear God, I wouldn’t do a thing like that. I am going to be nice. I am not even going to take you guys as slaves, which I really should do also. You guys can all go home. I am only going to take the thief. Deal?”
Now exactly how much bargaining power does Judah have right now? No bargaining power. If we are playing the television game, ‘Deal or No Deal’, “do you take this deal?” What if you don’t take the deal? If you don’t take the deal, probably he kills Benjamin. So do you take the deal? Probably you take the deal.
Now, Judah’s greatness is, that Judah doesn’t take the deal. Judah says, “No! I promised that I would bring back this boy home to my father.” And he goes and he lays it all on the line and he tells Joseph the truth, he goes and he tells him the whole story. He say, you know what, my father, his soul is entwined with Benjamin. He loves Benjamin because he loves his mother, he loves his mother more than my mother. And there was a time when I sold, essentially, this is what he’s saying, there was a time when we sold a child of Rachel into slavery because we couldn’t deal with the fact that father loved another child more than me, because father loved another mother more than my mother. But now he is not going to make that same mistake again. He says, “I know that my father would want Benjamin more than he wants me because he loves his mother more than he loves my mother. So therefore, his soul is bound up with that child, so take me. My father would want it that way. Let Benjamin go.” That’s real heroism; it’s real guts. It’s true that Judah passes the best, but was that a fair test? If Judah did not pass that test, if Judah had gone home with his tail between his legs, and said to Jacob “What could I have done? They were going to kill him. Who told him to steal the cup? We’re lucky that he is alive. Count your blessings that he is alive in Egypt.” Would that have proved that Judah had not done teshuvah? That’s not fair! These are the problems in understanding Joseph’s behavior, it doesn’t seem fair, it doesn’t seem right; you seem like you are wrong if you are doing this. What is Joseph thinking? This mizmor tehillim tells you what Joseph was thinking, I think.
Here is what I think it tells you. There is an illusion that we all live in in the Joseph story. It’s one of the lullaby illusions. The lullaby illusion comes from the fact that you know the story too well. And because you know the story too well, you start to think that all the details that God share with you as the narrator in the story, all the other characters were privy to also but they weren’t. You know more than any character does in the story. In particular, there is one detail that you know, that Joseph as no way of knowing that changes everything, that if Joseph would have known it, it would have changed everything, and that is what happened after Joseph was loaded unto the cart, on the camels, and sent to Egypt; the very next thing that happened. Joseph could not have known about it because he wasn’t there anymore. What do you that happened right after Joseph is loaded unto the camel and sent down to Egypt? Back at the pit, what do the brothers do?
Audience: [Unintelligible, 0:46:55]
Rabbi: They take the coat, they dipped in the blood of the goat, and they bring it to their father, and they said, “we found this”, recognize the coat and at that point, what does Jacob thinks? Jacob thinks Joseph is dead.
Now remember, Joseph doesn’t know that. So let’s replay the story from Joseph’s perspective, from what Joseph know, not what we know. What does Joseph know? Here is what Joseph knows. Joseph knows: “I was seventeen years old, I was in charge of the household; everything was great, I would constantly report back to my father about my brothers, we had a great relationship; everything was wonderful. Then I started having these dreams and the dreams kind of rock the boat. First I had my first dream, I told it to my brothers, and they didn’t really take to it very well. Then I had a second dream about the sun and the moon and the stars, and the sun, the moon the stars actually sees to refer to my father bowing to me, so I told him about it too and I guess that wasn’t such a really good idea, because my father was really mad at me, “vayigar bo aviv”and for the first time, my father rebuked me publicly in front of everyone. He says, “havo navo ani ve’imcha ve’achecha lehishtachavot lecha artzah” –“so you think we are all going to come bowing to you in front of all.”
For the first time, there was this rift between me and my father, he was angry at me. And then something happened. All of a sudden, out of the blue, my father says to me that he has a mission for me. He wants to send me to Shechem to check on the “shlom acheycha ve-et shlom hatzon” – “on how my brothers are doing, on their shalom. Didn’t my father realize “lo yachlo dabro leshalom” – “that we can’t even speak in peace to each other anymore, and he is sending me to check on the piece of my brothers and the peace of the sheep, this big peace mission; it is not going to go very well. And where is he sending me? So far away from home without anybody to protect me, to my brothers who hate me, and he knows hates me because it’s all out in the open isn’t it? Because he said this before everyone. He was trying to tamp down the tensions, he understood the tensions in the family and he is sending me all alone. And where is he sending me? To Shechem. What’s been happening in Shechem lately? Bad stuff’s been happening in Shechem. Bloods have been spilled in Shechem, courtesy of Simeon and Levi avenging the honor of a daughter of Leah.
So you have children of Leah all riled up about the honor of Leah, and then here I am, a child of Rachel, having these dreams of grandeur and they are upset with me, and I have to go to Shechem, and meet them all myself in Shechem in that place where there was a blood bath? That’s what he wants? Look, my father asked me to do it so I did it. I said hineni. What does hineni remind you of in Sefer Bereshit? The Akeidah. What was the Akeidah about? Doom. Sacrifice. “I was willing to sacrifice myself if necessary. I said hineni just like Abram did. I was ready for a ‘come what may’, for my father sent me. It looked like a test. I thought it as a test. The Akeidah was a test. But when our heavenly father tested Abram with the Akeidah, it all worked out okay, and I had confidence that this too would work out okay. But it didn’t! I went to Shechem and they saw me and they stripped me and they threw me in the pit and the next thing I know, I am being sold as a slave and there was no happy ending to this story, and there was never any search party. For years, I’m languishing in Egypt, and no one ever comes to look.”
Now, if that’s what you know, and you don’t know about the bloody coat, you don’t know that the coat was brought back to father and the brothers lied and said “this is the bloody coat”, what do you think happened? What do you think? What could you think? You could think, you don’t know, but you could be excused for thinking, “was this a set up? Was my father in on it; either before or afterwards? Maybe it was all part of the plan to get me out of the family. It’s not like that has never happened before in our family. Abram had two children, it wasn’t the case that both of them got called Esau, one of them got sent away, Ishmael. Isaac had two children both of them didn’t become klal Yisrael. One of them failed, and that was Esau. Is the same thing happening now in this generation? The children of Rachel were all getting sent away one after another. Is this how it’s going to go down? Or maybe they convinced dad afterward, maybe they went back to dad and say “look, it was either him or us. He’s not going to bother us anymore. He is safe, but he is not here anymore. Trust us dad, it’s for the betterment of our family.” Maybe that’s what happened, he just doesn’t know. Which explains an interesting thing, doesn’t it? The question, “Why did Joseph never write a post card home?”
Here he is, in charge of everything in Egypt. He loves his father. If you love your father so much, why don’t you write a post card, send it by delivery, it will take three days, it will get there with your royal stewards, “Hey dad! Living here in Egypt. Everything is fine. Wishing you were here. Love Joseph.” How come we never get that post card? Didn’t he love his father? But maybe he thought he was expelled from the family. Maybe he thought he was out of the family, maybe he thought he was the next Ishmael. Yes?
Audience: [Unintelligible, 0:52:38]
Rabbi: He’s got to make sense of his situation. It doesn’t make sense for him to be kidnapped, does it? Again, your response is because you know that Jacob never set him up on that. So yes, I was the favorite son, everything was going fine until everything started falling apart with these dreams, and all of a sudden my father is angry at me. I am just saying, you don’t know, I have to make sense of the situation. It’s not necessarily the most logical thing to think that my father knows that I am dead and that’s why he never searched for me. “My father never searched for me, I don’t know, maybe I am being kicked out.” By the way, what’s interesting is that the brothers were trying to kick him out of the family. The only is that’s what the brothers were trying to do, but father wasn’t. But Joseph doesn’t know that, it just feels like I got kicked out of the family.
Okay, I don’t have a lot of time, so save question until the end and let me try to put this together with you. With that in mind, let’s go back to Shir HaMaalot for a moment, and let’s ask ourselves this question, “What was it that changed Joseph’s mind?” If this is what Joseph was thinking, what was his plan? You know what his plan was? His plan wasn’t to get the brothers to do teshuvah, his plan wasn’t even to actualize his dreams. He had only one goal which is: the moment he sees his brothers, and he remembers what happened to him, and it felt like he was getting kicked out of the family, like the children of Rachel no longer have a home in the family, and when he sees his brothers coming to him and he counts them, and he sees that there is one missing, what goes through his head at that moment? What did they do with Benjamin? If this is what they did to me, what did they do to him? Is he dead? Is he gone? Is he the black sheep of the family being tormented now? Is it only a matter of time before they kick him out of the family? Joseph says, “I am not interested in giving these guys food, but I am interested in one thing, I am interested in Benjamin. What happen with Benjamin? One of you is staying here as my prisoner until you come back with my little brother! I want to see my little brother!”
He sees Benjamin, but he doesn’t get a chance to talk to him privately. He doesn’t a chance, and it’s so tantalizing, he’s there again, in his head, “What is Benjamin going through? What is life like for Benjamin at home? It’s only a matter of time before they do to him what they did to me. If the children of Rachel, the children of Rachel are being kicked out of this family, if they are out of the family, then you know what, let them be out of the family on my terms. I’ll frame him. I will have them all arrested. And when they say, “we shall all be salves”, I’ll say, ”you know what you guys, it’s totally fine, you can all go home. I don’t need you, I only want one of you. I just want the thief.” What is his plan? He’s going to save Benjamin. It’s an Entebbe mission right, he will lie, cheat and steal, to rescue Benjamin from the fate that awaits him. He is going to do anything that he needs. He is going to set up, he is a good Jew, he’s just not part of the family. So he’s going to set up the ‘Confederate States of Rachel’ on the other side of the Nile, it’s just going to be me and Benjamin, we’re good; you guys can all leave now.” This is his plan. He never planned on revealing himself. All the other theories, yes, ‘once he sees them he reveals himself’ – he never planned on revealing himself. “Lo yachol Yosef lehitapek” doesn’t mean he was planning to reveal himself. It meant, that he couldn’t hold back at the end, his plan was shattered by Judah. He was planning to kidnap Benjamin and set up the ‘Confederate States of the Nile’, until Judah overtakes him and he just can’t contain his emotions anymore, and he sobs, ka’afikim banegev. Now let’s read the rest of the mizmor.
“Shuvah Hashem et shevitenu ka’afikim banegev” – “What happened? We got our captives back just like the mizmor is talking about, the captives from Zion, we got our captives back, in Joseph’s tears. Because when Joseph cried, Benjamin who was going to be arrested as a slave was not a slave anymore, we got him back, and not only do we get Benjamin back, we got Joseph back because he rejoined the family. These exciting tears which we never could have believe would have happened, which seems like parched tears in the Negev they are the tears that brought back our captives; the original captives, Benjamin, and yes, even Joseph. But you know what, these aren’t the only tears in the story. There is one more set of tears.
“Hazorim bedimah berinah yiktzoru” – there is also some other tears, planting with tears, those who plant with tears, will reap with joy. And then we explain in the next pasuk what we mean by that. You know what it means, “those who plant in tears will reap in joy”? You get this vivid image, “Haloch yelech uvachoh” – “There is a man who is walking around and he is crying, and he is always crying.” Now this is different than, “Shuvah Hashem et shevitenu ka’afikim banegev”, because the tears on ka’afikim banegev are tears where there is a man who is stony and never, never cries, and all of a sudden he sobs. But there is another man, a man who just walks around crying, year after year, after year, he never gets over it, he just walks around crying. Who is that man? Jacob. Joseph never knew about those tears but there is Jacob, walking around crying. “Haloch yelech uvachoh” – “he is walking around crying”, but you know what, “nose meshech hazara” – “As he is crying, he is holding a bag of seeds.” And here is the question, “What is the bag of seeds that Jacob is holding?” One day, those seeds will flower. “bo yavo verinah” – “One day he will come back in joy, holding his alumot”. When does Jacob comes back in joy, holding his alumot? Who were the alumot? Who was dreaming about alumot? Joseph was dreaming about them, all of their alumot were bowing to my alumot and now there will be the father in charge of all the alumot will be holding all of them. When does that happen? It happens after he gets Benjamin back, Simon back, and Joseph back. But there were seeds that planted those alumot. The seeds are the tears.
What cause Joseph to change his mind? What caused Joseph to break down and give in on his plan? What caused Joseph to say, “Alright, I’ll be a part of the family”? It’s because tragically, there was something that Joseph never knew. If he had knew, it would have changed everything all along. He never knew that his father as crying for him all the time thinking he was dead. He had no idea that father thought he was dead. There was never any search party. Somehow I was gotten rid of, I was out of it, it didn’t make any sense. What does Judah reveals to him? Judah, when he tells the story to Joseph says, “Father’s soul is bound up with the soul of these people, he lost Joseph, he’s crying, he’s crying over the loss of Benjamin, he is crying over the loss of benei Rachel, it changes things, it destroys Joseph’s whole world. He says, “I’ve been wrong this whole time. My father never meant to kick me out of the family. Only a father can kick you out of the family, the brothers can’t. I was never kicked out of the family. My father was crying this whole time.” And the realization that father was crying the whole time makes Joseph cry a different kind of tears, not tears that accumulate over the years, but it’s like all of those tears that he has been holding back for all of those years, burst out like afikim banegev, like sobs, and he can’t stop crying all in one moment. Those tears that Jacob cried were seeds, they were the seeds of redemption; they are what brought redemption. The only reason why he’s nose alumotav, the only reason why he can hold all the sheaves, why he can have all the brothers at the end was because he was crying, because Joseph finally figured out that he was crying.
So here is the thing. Imagine what it’s like from the other side. From Judah’s side, what does it look like to see a Joseph with stony face and all of a sudden he breaks out crying. Where does that come from? You can’t see it, but there are seeds that have been planted that you never even know, and the seeds are other tears, and it doesn’t even make sense. Because if you went to Jacob, and Jacob was crying in year one and year two about the loss of Joseph and you put your arm around him, and you said “Jacob, don’t worry. Your tears make a difference, every little tears, it’s all seeds; your tears are going to bring back Joseph. You know what he would have thought? He would have thought you read too many Art Scroll books, that’s what he would have thought, too many Pesach Krohn books. It’s like that’s all very nice to state, the cliché, you know what I mean, “they are like tears, and they really count and God counts ever tear and it all matters and there is this storeroom full of tears and soon they are going to bring back Joseph”, “yes, but I lost Joseph. That’s not what I’m crying about. I’m crying because I lost him and it’s an irreparable loss and it means nothing.” But you know what, the cliché is true. The tears do make a difference and the bal hamizmor knows that even though that cliché is true, you don’t believe it either. When people say it to you about your tears, you would have the same reaction as Jacob. ”That’s ridiculous! My tears are going to matter and it’s going to be that which brings us to redemption? That’s ridiculous!” So the bal hamizmor says, “No! It’s true! Let me show you how it was true. This is what actually happens in the story. The tears really were seeds.”
In the beginning, Joseph was dreaming about alumot, he was dreaming about all these alumot but in the end, it wasn’t a dream anymore. In the end, the brothers needed food and Jacob went in search for the food, but he was even in search of something deeper than food. He was on a search for his long lost son, but he didn’t even know he was searching for him, because he didn’t even know where to look. And little did he know, all of those tears, on the other side, once the person holding himself back understood about those tears, he couldn’t hold himself back anymore, that’s what brought the salvation. So the bal hamizmor says, “That’s going to be the way it’s going to be for us too.”
The Joseph story is a model about how you get back your captives. This is how Jacob got back his captive children but now, in the galut, we’re all captive children. How are we going to get back our captive children from God? The answer is, tears can be seeds. The one who is holding back redemption, in this case God, would he ever hold back long enough with the accumulation of our tears? Our tears would matter, they too are seeds, and in the end, we will think there is a parched desert, we’ll see no possibility for hope, it will seem like nothing can ever break this, just like Judah say, that all of a sudden, there will be tears. The one holding back will cry in response to our crying; how could God not cry in response to our tears. That’s how redemption will come about, through the tears and the Negev. The Joseph story teach us how it will be for us, the same euphoric joy that Jacob felt when the planting seeds came about and he had his children and he came back home with all of them, is the joy that we will feel when our tears are counted and God cries in response to our tears and the ultimate salvation happens.
Thank you very much folks. Again, if you would like more of these kind of teaching, I encourage urge you to take a look at the website we’ve put together, it serves this line of teachers but lay audiences also. You can find it at alephbeta.org.