What Does It Mean To Plant With Tears?
Shir HaMa'alot: What Will The Return To Zion Look Like?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
How do we observe Tisha B'Av today? We sit on the ground. Sing elegies written centuries ago. Mourn the deaths of people we don’t know. And mourn the loss of a Temple we have never seen. In essence, we grieve. But there’s a problem with grief – it lessens over time. Two thousand years have passed since the Romans laid waste to Jerusalem. How come we still mourn, year after year?
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he asks two pivotal questions relating to Tisha B’Av: How do we deal with grief? And how can we understand modern redemption? You'll never think of grief on this tragic day the same way again.
We sit on the ground, surrounded sometimes by candles. We sing elegies written centuries ago. We mourn the deaths of people we could never have known. We mourn the loss of a Temple we have never seen.
Why Do We Mourn the Ancient Tragedy of Tisha B'av?You know, mourning is a very specialized thing, as Judaism defines it. It's a way we deal with grief. But here's the thing about grief: It lessens over time.
Think about personal grief. Someone dies. It's terrible. You're shocked, you're sad, you feel you can't go on. But that feeling lessens over time, and the halacha reflects the natural ebb of our feelings. There's shiva, the seven day period of mourning, there's shloshim, a 30-day period of mourning. There's a 12-month period of mourning. In each, the intensity of grief fades. And gradually, you assume normal life again.
To be sure, we never forget. Every year, on the anniversary of a death, we observe yahrtzeit. But yahrtzeit isn't a day of mourning so much as it is a day of remembrance.
Somehow, when it comes to mourning for exile and for the loss of the Temple and Jerusalem, it's different. On this anniversary of the Roman and Babylonian conquests of the Temple, we don't just devote our time to reacquainting ourselves with the Temple and its meaning. We mourn again. We take off our shoes, we sit on the floor, and we cry.
Why do we do things this way? Why is the grief that we, as a nation, try to feel for the loss of the Temple so very different from almost all other kinds of grief that we come across? Two thousand years have passed since the Romans laid waste to Jerusalem. How come we still mourn, year after year?
Tisha B'av and the Return from Exile: Grief... and Hope?And here's a second question. As it happens, Tisha B'Av is also a day of hope. Hope that one day, the pain and sorrow that has been our lot will cease for good; that one day, exile shall end, Jerusalem shall be rebuilt and the presence of God shall return to its precincts. But this hope for redemption is every bit as confusing as the mourning aspect of Tisha B'av. Because it feels like this process of redemption – the process of national rehabilitation for which generations of Jews have pined for – at least in some ways, has already begun to happen.
Yes, the Temple isn't rebuilt, the borders of the land are still in flux; yes, national security is still very much an issue – but the Land of Israel is once more in Jewish hands. A state has been established. It feels like that process of redemption has begun to get started.
And here's what's so confusing about that. The way this process has maybe started is not the way you would have predicted it would have started.
Has the Jewish Return to Israel Already Started?If you were living at any point during this long, 2,000 year exile and someone asked you: "So, I see you say in your prayers that you hope Israel will once again take possession of its land; that Jerusalem will rebuilt; that God will return to Zion – how, pray tell, do you see that happening?" What would you answer?
Well, you might say, I'm not really sure, but it will all really happen when the Messiah comes. You might talk about flying on wings of eagles, headed back to Israel, called back by a humble but pious man, a leader from the Biblical House of David, who rides through the Gates of Old Jerusalem on a donkey, and transforms our world with signs and miracles to boot. It will be astounding, you'd say! You'll see.
And yet, if in fact what we've seen in our day and age is at least the beginning of Israel's long awaited redemption, it's all happened...without all of this. Not saying the man with the donkey will never show up – but look at what we've seen thus far. If you stand back and look at it, it is just so … unexpected.
What has happened? After a show trial of a Jewish artillery captain in France, a man gets inspired and begins to dream of a Jewish state. He's not traditionally observant in any way, he wouldn't recognize a Siddur if it hit him in the head. He had a dream. And it begins to catch on.
People start moving to the land of Israel, seeking to build it – but who are these people? Still no pious people with donkeys. Still no righteous king from the House of David. These guys are Labor Zionists, atheists, many of them. They are refugees. Refugees from the Russian Pogroms of 1882. Refugees from the Holocaust. They are, many of them, disillusioned with God. Maybe that's too kind a word: They are, many of them, angry at God.
They are searching for something – but they aren't searching for religious enlightenment or religious Nirvana or to re-establish the lost House of David or any of that – they are searching to build a homeland for their people, plain and simple.
It all seems so confusing. This isn't how we imagined it would all start. How could people for whom religion is not even an afterthought be the de facto leaders of the greatest religiously significant event in the history of Jewry over the last 2,000 years?
So these are the two questions I want to consider with you. They are, in a way, two questions that modernity has thrust upon us: How do we, in modern times, relate to an ancient loss? Why do we relate to it with a grief that never withers away? And, how do we understand a hope for redemption that, in modern times, has begun to be realized in a way that is utterly unexpected?
To begin to come to grips with these things, I want to go back to an ancient source indeed.
Shir HaMa'alot: Uncovering a Hidden Meaning in Psalm 126I want to go back to the Book of Psalms and read with you a chapter, a Psalm, that envisions a turning point – a moment in time at which perpetual mourning yields to the giddy exuberance of redemption. That Psalm is known as Shir HaMa'alot. Fascinatingly, Israel, at its birth, considered using Shir HaMa'alot as its national anthem, in the place of Hatikvah.
What is this song about? By tradition, we sing it before Grace After Meals, every Shabbat and holiday. Many of us know the words by heart. But it is one thing to know the words, and it is another to really understand them.
I want to go and look at this Psalm with you and cast away whatever preconceived notions we might have had about it – and really see it with you as if for the very first time. I want to discover with you the breathtaking depths that I think are there to be mined.
I think Shir HaMa'alot will teach us much about both the mourning and the hope of Tisha B'Av. Come with me, and let's begin to see what it has to tell us.
In Search of Answers in the Psalm of Shir HaMa'alotI presented two questions to you: why do we continue mourning, even thousands of years after a tragedy occurred, and what are we to make of the confusing aspects of how redemption, in our own day and age, might be starting to play out?
I suggested that Shir HaMa'alot, Psalm 126, contains powerful implications for each of these questions. So let's try to begin to get a handle on this Psalm.
Shir HaMa'alot portrays a moment of redemption – a time when exile ends and we, the captives of Zion, return to the land of our ancestors. It is written from our perspective – from those in exile, fantasizing about the day in which we will be redeemed. And here is that vision: Shir HaMa'alot, beshuv Hashem et shivat tzion hayinu kicholmim – when God finally returns us from exile to Zion, it will feel...like a dream. We'll be so overwhelmed, so dazed, unable even to process emotion. And then? It will settle in a bit – Az Yimaleh Schok Pinu Ulshoneinu Rinah – our mouths will be filled with laughter; we'll begin to sing. We may still be unable to talk about it – we'll be too overwhelmed – but we can laugh, we can sing.
Now others, they can talk about it: Az yomri bagoyim higdil Hashem la'asot im eleh – the nations of the world will be impressed; they'll say: Wow! Look at the greatness God has done with Israel! And then, it's like they are giving us words…words to comprehend what's happening...words which we then echo. It's like it hits us with a ton of bricks – higdil Hashem la'asot imanu – yes, God has done such incredible things for us. And then: Hayinu simeichim, that's what joy looks like, we can't help but rejoice.
Then, the Psalm changes perspective. So far, it has been describing our emotional reaction to a grand redemption. But now, the Psalmist begins to pray, to enter a plea: Shuva Hashem et sheviteinu, please, God, make that moment happen. Please, God, return our captives. Let us actually experience that dream, in actuality.
Let's look a little more closely at that second half of the Psalm.
A Closer Study of Shir HaMa'alotIt gives us some very vivid and mysterious metaphors. The first metaphor, shuva Hashem et sheviteinu, please, God, return our captives ka'afikim ba'Negev, like flash floods in the desert. When it rains in the desert and the earth is so parched that it doesn't soak up any of the moisture, you have these flash floods that just seem to come out of nowhere. That will be something like the way redemption will happen. So God, please allow our captives to come back like flash floods in the desert.
Then that notion of a flood just rushing sort of turns into tears in the very next verse. Hazor'im b'dim'ah, those who plant with tears b'rina yiktzoru, will eventually reap in joy. Now a more vivid image of what that might look like. Haloch yeilech uvacho, there's a man walking around and he's crying, he's weeping, but he's holding something – nosei meshech hazara.
Now, it's not really clear exactly what he's holding. If you look at some English translations, they'll say he's holding a pouch of seeds. Except meshech doesn't necessarily mean pouch. As a matter of fact, we don't really know what it means. It's a unique word in the Hebrew Bible. Until this point, it's never ever been used. So if you had to sort of put on your Sherlock Holmes hat, you could perhaps suggest that meshech is a noun form of the verb limshoch, which is to pull, except it doesn't seem to work in context. So we could put a big question mark over here.
There's this person, he's walking around crying. He's holding maybe a pouch of seeds, maybe pulled seeds; something he's holding. Bo yavo b'rina, in the end he's going to come in song, nosei alumotav, holding his alumot, holding his sheaves of wheat.
What are alumot? That's another very, very unusual word. The word alumot, it actually does appears in the Hebrew Bible elsewhere, but it appears only once. And that one other appearance may well be a touchstone for uncovering a magnificent layer of meaning in this Psalm. It was way back in the Book of Genesis. It was in Joseph's dream.
Connections to Shir HaMa'alot in the BibleLook at the very first metaphor in Psalm 126. Isn't it fascinating, hayinu kecholmim, we were dreaming. Look at the last metaphor, a man carrying his sheaves of wheat. We put the first metaphor together with the last metaphor.
Are you looking at Joseph's dream? Remember Joseph, way back when he was 17 years old, he had been dreaming about these stalks of wheat. His bundle of wheat stood up in the fields and all the other brothers, they had bundles of wheat, too. Those bundles of wheat were bowing down to Joseph. It was a dream that got Joseph in a lot of trouble. It got him thrown in a pit. It's a mysterious dream. What did it even mean? Is that dream showing up surreptitiously in our Psalm?
It might seem kind of fanciful, except look not just at the beginning of the Psalm and not just the end of it, but the middle of it, too. Shuva Hashem et sheviteinu ka'afikim ba'Negev, return our captives like flash floods in the desert.
Flash floods, that's another unusual word. It actually never appears in the Five Books of Moses. Except it sort of does appear, because afikim is a noun. If you take that noun and turn it into a verb, the verb does appear in the Five Books of Moses. Wouldn't you know it, in the Joseph story. It's the only appearance of that verb in the Five Books of Moses. Lo yachol Yosef, when Joseph could not hold himself back from crying, lo yachol Yosef lehitapek.
It really seems like we're looking at veiled allusions to the Joseph story. To his dream with the sheaves of wheat, to his ultimate revelation of who he was to his brothers, but why? Why would we be looking at veiled allusions to the Joseph story, of all things, in a Psalm that has to do with a redemption of captives of Zion?
That is a fascinating question indeed.
Joseph and Israel's Redemption from Babylonian ExileOkay, so now the question is why? Why would Psalm 126 be reaching back into the Joseph story, of all things, when it's talking about the redemption of Babylonian exiles? Unless... the redemption of exiles, people coming home when you never thought it was ever going to happen... Who was the first captive of Zion who came home when you never thought it was going to happen, who was reunited with family once again when it seemed impossible? That was Joseph.
Maybe the Psalmist sees in the story of Joseph a kind of touchstone for a redemption that won't just affect one captive of Zion, but hundreds of thousands. Our national redemption will somehow echo the experience of Joseph. It will be just like that in some kind of way.
Now the question is, in what kind of way? Because if you look at the Joseph story, it's very particular. There's a guy, he gets thrown in a pit and then gets sold down into Egypt. There he goes into this house of Potiphar, he gets seduced by his wife, he gets thrown back into prison, he gets taken out of prison after he meets a baker and a butler and he interprets some dreams of Pharaoh. It's all so particular.
That stuff doesn't happen in the Babylonian exile. There's no Pharaoh with his dream. There's no Potiphar. There's no pit, there's no baker and there's no butler. So in what way would the Joseph story really be a touchstone for what might happen later on a national scale? What would that really mean?
The answer, in a word, is tears.
Connecting Tears in the BibleLook at the second half of the Psalm. It's really all about tears, isn't it? Shuva Hashem et sheviteinu ka'afikim ba'Negev, God, please return our captives like flash floods in the desert. Now, flash floods in the desert doesn't seem to have to do with tears. It's these torrents of water, right, but go back to the Joseph story where afikim seems to have its origin.
Remember, afikim is the noun, but the noun never ever appears in the Five Books of Moses. A version of it does appear as a verb, though. Lo yachol Yosef lehitapek, Joseph couldn't hold himself back. Back from what? From sobbing, from crying.
Think what it must have felt like to witness that. If you were one of the brothers of Joseph, what would it have looked like, if not torrents of water cascading through the Negev desert? Joseph really was like the Negev, parched and dry. You looked at him and he never had any emotion. He was just this emotionless, cold Egyptian official, the last person you would think would ever cry. He seems completely impervious to your plight.
You need things from him, this person who represents your sustenance, your source of food, everything that you need. He won't listen to you, he won't understand. He thinks you're spies, he accuses you of things. He imprisoned Simon, he sends you home, forces you to come back with Benjamin. All of a sudden you're arrested and you're getting ready to be taken as slaves. It's the worst thing in the world. The whole way through it, he just seems to have no understanding for what you're going through.
Now, of course, that's not really true. We as readers know that Joseph is crying the whole time – but that's not what the brothers would have seen. The brothers saw him as stone cold and parched, then Judah makes his speech and this high Egyptian official just breaks down in tears. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, he's sobbing like a baby, he's crying. It's like afikim ba'Negev, it's like this torrent of water when you would least expect it. Like flash floods in the desert. That's the first metaphor of tears in the psalm, but it's not the last. Let's keep on reading.
Hazor'im b'dim'ah, those who plant with tears, b'rina yiktzoru, will reap in song, will reap in joy. There are tears again, someone planting in tears. Who is that someone?
Let's listen carefully. Haloch yeilech uvacho, that someone is walking around crying, nosei meshech hazara, as he's holding this bag of seeds or something like that, this pulled out little seedling. Bo yavo b'rina nosei alumotav, he will ultimately come in happiness, holding his bundles of sheaves. Who is this person who's walking around crying?
It's a very different kind of tears than the Joseph tears that were flash floods in the desert. A flash flood is it's dry, it's dry, it's dry, day after day and week after week, month after month and all of a sudden this huge torrent of water, or in Joseph's case, of tears.
Joseph is one kind of crying. Is there another person who cries in the Joseph story, in a very different way? Day after day, week after week, haloch yeilech uvacho, he's walking around crying. Who would that be in the Joseph story?
That person would have to be Jacob. We hear about Jacob's tears, those tears that would never stop. The brothers present the bloody coat to him, vayevk oto aviv, and his father cried for him. Vayakumu kol banav v'chol benotav lenachemo, his children, Jacob's children got up to try to comfort him. Vayima'ein lehitnachem, I will never be comforted, ki eired el beni avel she'ola, I will go down to my grave mourning Joseph.
It's like it's not normal. Everybody gets over loss, but not Jacob. He intuits that he will never get over it. It's true, he never gets over it.
Years go by and he's still crying for Joseph, haloch yeilech uvacho, he truly is the man who's just walking around crying all the time. Why does he never get over Joseph's loss? Mourning always ends. At some point you always sort of kind of get over it. at least a little bit. But not for Jacob.
Inconsolable Grief, and a Sheaf of JoyRashi explains why. Rashi tells us, ein adam mekabel tanchumin al hachai v'savur shemeit, the problem was Joseph wasn't really dead. God gives the gift of forgetting only to those who mourn someone who's really gone. If they're not really gone, you can never close the door on the loss. Even if you don't know it, even if your conscious mind doesn't know it.
For Jacob there's always a part of him that, through crying, is hanging on to the shred of Joseph. I never saw a body. There's a subconscious part of him that expresses his hanging on to his lost child, through tears that will never end.
But there's a moment of joy for this man too – bo yavo b'rina nosei alumotav, there's this moment of joy, of song, rapture for this man, for Jacob.
When is he so happy? Well, Shir HaMa'alot says: it's when he is holding his sheaves of wheat. So, what would that seem to mean? It seems to be right at the end of the story, its climax.
Because, as it happens, wheat is something Jacob has been searching for. It has been preoccupying him. It is why he had sent his children down to Egypt – to find the life-saving wheat that can provide sustenance for his family. So, when he finally gets the wheat, when Joseph provides it for him at the very end of the story, that's when Jacob gets what he's been searching for.
So that's when he's happy, right? That would be when he comes in song, holding his wheat, as Shir HaMa'alot would have it.
But there's something unsatisfying about this, wouldn't you say? Because, ask yourself: At that moment at the end of the story, why is Jacob really happy? It's the moment he is being reunited with his long lost son. It is the moment he has Joseph in his life once again. Surely, his happiness with that one fact dwarfs his happiness over the wheat that is in his life.
So why would Shir HaMa'alot focus just on the wheat that Jacob now has, and not the child? Wheat allows Jacob to live. But having Joseph in his life? That's what makes life worth living.
Unless… unless somehow, that word alumot signifies both things Jacob has been searching for: The wheat on the one hand, and Joseph on the other. You see, overtly, Jacob is just searching for wheat. He doesn't know he's searching for more than that in Egypt because he thinks Joseph is dead; that he can't be found. But on the other hand Jacob had been crying, he's continuously mourning his son – he hasn't let go of Joseph, and so, on some level, even without consciously knowing it, there is a part of him that had been searching for Joseph, too, in Egypt all along.
Deeper Parallels to Shir HaMa'alot in the BibleInterestingly, that word alumot that Shir HaMa'alot uses, this wouldn't be the first time in Tanach that the word meant more than one thing. You know, back in Joseph's dream, that's only other time in Tanach the word is ever used – and what did alumot mean there? Didn't it also mean two things?
Think about it: Joseph, 17 years old, he says to his brothers: I had this dream, me and you, we were bundling sheaves of wheat in the field. And you know, just stop right there: What were the sheaves? They were regular sheaves, no different than any others. But then, something mysterious begins to happen: Joseph's sheaf starts to stand up straight and tall, and the other sheaves, they start bowing to it. At that moment, the sheaves are definitely not regular sheaves anymore. They seem to be standing in for people. So in the dream, then, alumot represent two things: It does represent wheat. But also children, the children of Jacob.
And, when all is said and done, the alumot of Shir HaMa'alot mean both these things, too. When Shir HaMa'alot suggests that, at the end of the story, Jacob is hugging his alumot, he's not just overjoyed because he has what he has, wheat, what he thinks he's been searching for; he's overjoyed because he is holding that which he never believed he could possibly search for: He's holding a long lost child, Joseph. In the end, he's holding all his alumot, all the children portrayed in that dream. He's hugging them once more.
Uncovering the Hidden Message of Psalm 126So we've made some progress in understanding Shir HaMa'alot, but we are not quite all the way there yet. Clearly, Shir HaMa'alot seems to be illuminating some aspects of the Joseph story – but we still need to ask ourselves: How does whatever the Psalmist is telling us about the Joseph story help us understand our own experience of redemption?
After all, that seems to be the point of the Psalm: When we are redeemed, it will somehow be like this. Joseph's tears and Jacob's tears: These are somehow touchstones for generations. Our own experience will resonate with those tears. But exactly how?
In order to see how, we need to go back and finish seeing the rest of the picture Shir HaMa'alot is helping to reveal about the Joseph story. For we're not quite done yet, seeing what the Psalmist wants us to see about Joseph, Jacob and the brothers. There is more hidden in this Psalm. Let's try and unearth it now.
Psalm 126: A Commentary on Joseph's Dream?The argument I've made to you is that Shir Hama'alot poetically portrays the final joy of Yaakov, using an image borrowed from Joseph's dream: the Alumot. But I want to argue to you now that, in conjuring this image for us of a man holding his sheaves in joy, Shir HaMa'alot is not just adding a beautiful, or quaint, poetic gloss to the story of Joseph. It's actually doing something more serious than that.
Isn't it peculiar? Joseph's dream, it appears right at the very beginning of the Joseph story. But Shir HaMa'alot's talk of Jacob holding these alumot – that seems to portray a moment that Jacob and Joseph and the entire family reunite – that's right at the very end of the Joseph story. So why would Shir HaMa'alot use imagery from Joseph's dream to paint that moment? The timeline doesn't fit. Isn't that imagery out of place?
It's not out of place, because the author of Shir HaMa'alot believed that the dream's meaning projected itself forward in time. The author of Shir HaMa'alot is making an astounding argument: that Joseph's dream doesn't mean what you and I – or, for that matter, Joseph's own family – thought it meant.
Because what did everyone think it meant? All these sheaves, bowing to Joseph's sheaf. The meaning seemed kind of self evident at the time. Hamaloch Timloch Aleinu, the family says, Hamashol Timshol Banu? 'Are you really going to rule over us?' If you were there, you'd probably have said the same. Joseph, the kid who delights in bringing back bad reports about his brothers, he's got these dreams of grandeur: He wants to be in charge of us all!
But what if the dream was never speaking of the present, but was speaking of a future – a future so different from the present that no one at the time could have possibly imagined it?
Think about it: What's with all of this wheat imagery? The brothers and Joseph, they weren't wheat farmers; they were sheep herders and cattle ranchers. Well – was there any moment, later in time, when wheat would play a prominent role in the lives of Joseph and his brothers?
Yes, there was. Years later, when famine strikes, Joseph will find himself in control of all of the wheat in the civilized world. The day will come, the dream portends, when Joseph will sit atop all of the wheat in the civilized world, and his brothers will be desperate for wheat: Hence, their sheaves are portrayed as bowing to his. And that will create an opportunity for Joseph – an opportunity for him to help them.
All in all, the dream wasn't about a 17-year-old Joseph ruling over his brothers. It was about a mature, world-weary Joseph, the highly-seated Egyptian official, who would have the opportunity to use his power to save his brothers, the opportunity to feed them and assure their survival.
The dream wasn't portraying the present; it was portraying a future no one could yet imagine. When Joseph does feed them, and eventually when he reveals himself to the family, that's the moment when Jacob really has all his sheaves in hand, to quote Shir HaMa'alot. Grasping the wheat in one hand and hugging his children with the other, he truly holds high all his alumot.
Proving the Shir HaMa'alot and Joseph ThesisNow, this interpretation may sound very nice, but you might say to yourself, that's Fohrman's interpretation of Joseph's dream. How wonderful and creative. Or maybe, that's Shir Hama'alot's interpretation of Joseph's dream – how very amazing and inspiring. But what I want to show you that it is Joseph himself who eventually comes to believe this.
The proof of the pudding lies in the language the Torah uses when Joseph finally chooses to reveal himself to his brothers. This would be the moment when, assuring the brothers he will provide for them, Joseph actualizes the opportunity that the dream was speaking about. Let's listen in on how the Torah describes this to us.
Genesis 45, v'lo yachol Yosef l'hit'apek. This is the moment that Shir Ha'Maalot had been talking about with its afikim ba'Negev, those flash floods in the desert. Joseph could not hold himself back anymore. He sobbed. But in front of whom did he cry? At the time, there were all these Egyptian attendants around. He says, hotzi'u kol ish mei'alai, get them all away.
Look at the language that the Torah uses to describe those Egyptian attendants. Lo yachol Yosef l'hit'apek lechol hanitzavim alav, he wasn't able to hold himself back in front of all of those who were attending him. Except the Hebrew for attending him just happens to be kol hanitzavim alav. Does that remind you of anything?
Well, if you know the Hebrew for the dream, it just so happens that in the dream, the one with all of those sheaves, Joseph's sheave, when it stood up straight, kama alumati v'gam nitzava. That language of standing up straight just happens to be nitzav, the same language that's borrowed now to describe these Egyptian attendants that Joseph dismisses.
Is it a coincidence, this oblique reference to the dream? Well, as it turns out, it's not the only reference to the dream. Let's keep on reading.
Joseph, he then reveals himself to his brothers. The first thing he does is he assures them that it was all part of God's plan, that lo atem shlachtem oti heina, it wasn't really you who sent me here. It was really God, ki im Elokim. Then he tells them, go tell my father that I'm alive and tell him that I am a ruler over all of Egypt.
That's what the brothers do. They say "od Yosef chai", he's alive, Joseph your son, v'chi hu moshel b'chol Eretz Mitzrayim, and he is ruling over all of Egypt. As you read that, those words too seem to resonate with the dream. They resonate with the brothers' reaction to the dream.
What had the brothers said when Joseph had told them about the bowing sheaves? They said, hamashol timshol banu? Are you really going to rule over us? We completely misinterpreted this dream back when I was 17 years old. You all thought it meant that I was going to rule over you, that it was these narcissistic flights of fancy of some 17-year-old kid, but that wasn't the dream.
The dream was larger than you or I or any of us could have imagined. I'm not ruling over you. I rule over the world's greatest power. I have all this wheat, and I can take care of you – and I will.
I just want to point out that now that you see this, it sort of makes sense what Joseph tells his brothers right after he reveals himself to them. What he tells them is, it wasn't really you who sent me here. It was God. It was all providential, ki l'michyah shelachani Elokim lifneichem, it was for sustenance that God sent me here before you, so I could take care of you.
This is the moment that the meaning of the dream comes alive for Joseph and becomes apparent to the brothers. God was saying something to me, that there would come a time when I could take care of you and my challenge in life would be to respond positively to that moment. I'm doing that now. I will take care of you. This was all part of God's plan.
But what does it teach us about our own redemption?
How Does This Relate to Israel's Redemption from Exile?How do the tears of Jacob and the tears of Joseph teach us about our own tears? The answer to that may lie in the final metaphor that we haven't yet touched upon in the Psalm – hazor'im b'dim'ah, planting with tears.
This man, the one who with joy holds his sheaves, he was planting ones, planting with tears. What does the Psalm mean by that? How was Jacob planting? That's the final thing we need to figure out.
So the man who has been walking around crying at the end of Shir HaMa'alot, we identified him as Jacob, but what does it mean that he's planting with tears? Does Jacob ever plant? What could that possibly mean?
The Final Clue to Unraveling the Meaning of Psalm 126We're in a position now to understand it and, I think, the key comes from the next few oblique words in Shir HaMa'alot. This man who is planting with tears, haloch yeilech u'vachoh, he's walking and crying and as he's walking and crying, nosei meshech hazara, he's holding on to this meshech hazara.
Meshech, in Hebrew, is usually a verb. When it's a verb it means pull – nosei, he's holding high or holding, meshech hazara, that which was pulled out the seed.
Look for meshech in the Joseph story – it turns out that the word meshech, limshoch, to pull, does appear in the Joseph story. Where? At the most critical, crucial moment of the story. When Joseph is pulled out of the pit.
Vayimshichu vaya'alu oto min habor, they pulled him out of the pit. Now, go back to Shir HaMa'alot. Nosei meshech hazara – if the word meshech might refer to Joseph then, nosei meshech hazara, there's someone carrying Joseph.
Who would be carrying him? It's the Ishmaelite traders. The ones who bring Joseph down to Egypt, nosim n'chot u'tzri valot, carrying all these spices down to Egypt and pretty soon they'll be carrying Joseph. Which brings us to one final question. If we have here a picture of Joseph being carried off down to Egypt then why is he being referred to as a meshech hazara?
Why is Joseph a seed? Oh, now we understand, don't we? What is Joseph, at the end of the story, according to the dream? He's a big proud sheaf of wheat. Well, sheaves of wheat come from somewhere, don't they? They come from seeds.
You see, when Joseph was being carried off to Egypt, on another level he was actually being taken to where he needed to go. He was being transplanted. It was like he was this little fragile seedling and he was being carried off so that he could be planted in more fertile soil, in Egypt – where he would grow into the proud stock and take care of all the world.
Think about it, if Joseph is a little fragile seedling being transplanted, then that means that he was once planted, doesn't it? Where? When? Where did Joseph begin his journey to Egypt? When the brothers cast him into a little hole in the ground. Where do you plant a seed? In a little hole in the ground.
That was it right there, the very beginning of the journey, when Joseph is cast into the pit. The brothers, they think they're doing something terrible to him and to Joseph it feels terrible, but on another level they're planting him.
They're beginning a journey. He can't ever get to Egypt to provide for them, to take care of the entire world, if they don't do what they do. He was being planted and ultimately he would flourish into a full-grown alumot just as his dream had predicted.
But as he was planted in that little hole in the ground, there was only one problem. Habor reik ein bo mayim, the pit was empty, there wasn't any water in it. You think, like, why do I need to know that? If that wasn't there who would really care? Like, were there vines in the pit? Could the sunlight reach the bottom of the pit? I mean, whatever, he was in a pit, but think about it.
When you plant a seed, in the ground, what does it need? It needs water. The pit was empty. There was no water in it. If you plant a seed and you don't water it, it shrivels up and dies.
So where did the water come from? Shir HaMa'alot explains it for you. The water came from Jacob. Hazorim b'dim'ah – at the moment of planting there were tears. It kept him nourished when he was thrown in the pit and it kept him nourished when he was loaded onto the Ishmaelite caravan, nosei meshech hazara, picked up that little seedling, taken off to Egypt. There were tears there, too. Haloch yeilech u'vachoh. His father was crying for him and those tears of father, they nurtured Joseph.
They kept him going. They made all the difference for him. Not because Joseph knew about those tears, he didn't, but when someone cries for you it changes things for you. It's not a psychological truth. It's not because you know that someone's crying for you. It's deeper than that. It's an existential truth. If someone is crying for you, you are being taken care of. You are nurtured.
There is someone who's connected to you even as you feel so isolated and therefore, Joseph is never broken. He was never destroyed by the trauma he went through. It's because someone was crying for him. It keeps him nourished. Jacob's tears did this all.
What does that even mean?
What Is the Bible Saying About Grief and Tears?The text seems to suggest that just as a seed dies if it's not watered while it's being planted, so would have Joseph. He would've shriveled up and just become a hollow shell of a person. Because think about what it's like to be thrown in a pit, to believe that your family has betrayed you. Most people don't recover from something like that. The trauma shatters them.
If Joseph is shattered, what happens when Potiphar looks upon him? He doesn't see somebody who can be second in charge of his household, someone that inspires that confidence. Joseph just remains a nameless servant in the household. But he's not. Because he's somehow being watered; he's somehow being nurtured.
Therefore, even when he is in prison after all of those years, he interprets the dream of the baker and the butler. He's not a recluse who keeps to himself. Somehow he's there, and he extends himself to others.
When Pharaoh pulls him out of the pit and looks upon him he sees somebody who he promotes to be second in charge of the entire kingdom. Somebody you can trust with the entire economy of Egypt.
Because there's something about Joseph. The text puts it in terms of that Joseph found chein (grace) in the eyes of all who saw him, a kind of intangible grace in the eyes of all who saw him. He wasn't a destroyed person. He was someone you wanted to connect with.
Where did this vibrancy, this freshness come from? He was nurtured. He was watered. The tears of Jacob did that.
How Does Shir HaMa'alot Help Us Mourn on Tisha B'Av?So I want to come back to us. Here we are living in a way through our own atchalta d'geulah, living through what seems like the beginnings of a kind of redemption.
The tears of Joseph and the tears of Jacob, what do they mean for our own continued mourning on Tisha B'av? Well, the tears that never cease for us, for 2,000 years, and year after year we mourn – not just commemorate, but mourn the loss of the Temple. Sit on the floor, cry.
Doesn't our mourning share something with Jacob's mourning? It's the mourning that never ends. Those tears connect him to Joseph. And despite whatever Jacob himself believes, despite the fact that Joseph doesn't even know about those tears, Joseph gets nurtured through those tears.
Well maybe the same in some strange way is true for us. The loss of the Temple, the loss of God's presence with us, it's not something we are willing to let go of. On some subconscious level, the fact that we continue to mourn for that, is also a way of saying we're still connected to it. The Temple may be gone. God's presence may be in heaven, but we're not letting go.
You know, Judah comes and in an impassioned speech tells Joseph that father has been crying for him all along. Whatever he might suppose about what happened with that pit, father has never stopped mourning him, and when Joseph comes to understand that, he can't do anything else but reveal himself. Lo yachol Yoseph l'hitapek. Somehow the tears of Jacob, they catalyzed the tears of Joseph.
It wasn't just the fact that once upon a time Jacob cried for him. That he was mourning him when he saw the bloody coat. No, it's not just that. It's that he couldn't ever get over his loss. Jacob never stopped crying, and because of that Joseph can resume, can come back to the family. It's like you didn't move on. If you moved on, there would be no place for me anymore. But you didn't move on.
It's the same with us. It's been 2,000 years, but we never moved on from the loss of God's presence in our national life. Therefore, we can pick up where we left off, despite the incredible passage of time.
The Meaning of Shir HaMa'alotYou know, one last thing I want to leave you with. Shir HaMa'alot seems to hold out these tears of Jacob as a kind of paradigm for the tears that are somehow crucial for all future salvations.
To me, one of the most remarkable things about those tears of Jacob, about Jacob's search for Joseph, is that Jacob cries without knowing why he's crying, and he searches without knowing why he's searching. If you ask Jacob, why are you crying? He wouldn't know.
He doesn't even know there's a Joseph to search for in Egypt, and therefore he's not searching for him. He'd say, I'm searching for wheat. You would say, is that all? He would say yes, that's all. He's given up on Joseph.
Well, sometimes you cry and you don't know what you're crying for, and you search and you don't know what you're searching for. But somehow, that's enough.
Connecting Our Tears to the Return to ZionThink about our own day and age. If we are living through a kind of beginning of Redemption, finally after thousands of years we are once again sovereign in our own land. There's a nation of Israel that once again is living in its own land.
It might not be exactly the way we want it, but it's the beginning, isn't it? And yet, it's such a confusing beginning, spearheaded by people who considered themselves secular atheist socialist Zionists – how could that be the beginning of the greatest, most religiously significant event to occur for the Jewish people in the last 2,000 years? It seems so incongruous.
If you asked one of those secular Zionists, you're crying, what exactly are you crying for? You're searching. What exactly are you searching for? They would have said, I'm crying because anti-Semitism is terrible, it's the worst. The pogroms of 1882, the Holocaust, the Dreyfus trial, it's just awful. You'd say okay, so what are you searching for? They would say, I'm searching for land, I'm searching for security. Once we have that land, once we have that security, once we have the ability to have an economy of our own, everything will be fine. That's what I'm searching for.
The secular Zionists, you know they were offered Uganda, too. How come they didn't take Uganda? They specifically wanted the Land of Israel, the land of their fathers. How come the renaissance of a Jewish nation in Israel, if it's all such a secular thing, comes with the renaissance of the Hebrew language? Why don't you just speak German in the streets? That would have been fine for everybody. But that wasn't fine, it wasn't, because sometimes you're searching for what you don't know you're searching for, and you're crying for what you don't know you're crying for. Somehow, that's enough.
There's such a thing as a holy atheist, too, the atheist that gives up on God but somehow is still crying for Him, and still searching for Him and doesn't know what he's searching for.
Someone's hiding their face, just like it was in the Joseph story, but the one hiding their face this time around is God. Joseph, he revealed himself when the tears of someone who was searching for him and didn't know they were searching, finally moved him. In our case, isn't God somehow doing the same?
All of the tears and all of the search compounded over the generations, somehow God in heaven won't keep Himself veiled forever. Ultimately, those tears and that search, it makes a difference, it's holy, even though you don't know what you're searching and crying for.
So this year, as we mourn for the loss of a Temple that we have not seen and for a national closeness to God that we can't even imagine, let's understand what we're doing through that mourning – we're connecting. Connecting makes all the difference in the world.