INSIGHT

5767 - #11

THE EXISTENTIAL MOMENT

Bereishit 45:14 states that, upon seeing each other, after so many years apart, Yosef and Binyamin fell on each other’s shoulders and cried. T.B. Megilla 16b states that they cried over the future destruction of the two Temples that would be in the territory of Binyamin, and over the future destruction of the Mishkan in Shiloh that would be in the territory of Yosef. The commentators are bothered by this explanation; what in the text prompted this diversion from the simple reading of the text? The fact that Rashi presents this explanation only furthers the problem. Pursuant to the simple reading of the text, it would seem obvious why these two brothers fell on each other’s shoulders and cried. Would not any two brothers in a similar situation act in this manner? Why the need, even in the basic pshat presentation of Rashi, for this reference to the future?

            Many commentators, in attempting to answer this question, analyze the specific language of this verse and find grammatical and linguistic indications for the gemara’s explanation. These various explanations, though, do not satisfy me. The depth of this question cannot be limited to textual reasons for varying the understanding of the verse. The gemara’s explanation seems to change the very dynamics of the event and thus the theory and lesson behind the text. This reunion of Yosef and Binyamin must have been filled with intense emotion; is it not enough to describe this emotion in the context of the very event? The gemara effectively is directing us to view these emotions in a context outside this very event. They did not cry, perhaps with that strange mixture of joy and grief that would describe this event, over the personal happiness of seeing each other again after suffering (and over) the personal tragedy of separation that they just endured. They cried over the communal tragedies that were to be, in the future destructions of the Temple and the Mishkan. Significantly, at least on the surface, this type of explanation would seem to reflect the view that wishes to remove tzaddikim, the righteous, such as Yosef and Binyamin from the realm of the personal. The implication is that people of the great stature of Yosef and Binyamin would not cry over such personal matters. The gemara, in presenting this explanation of the event, indeed would seem to support this perspective. Yosef and Binyamin could not have been crying in response to the personal, as we would, for that would be beneath them. They must have been crying, and would only cry, over matters of broader significance – thus the gemara’s words.

            Yet, many sources, do also point to the personal in viewing the lives of these tzaddikim. This should be expected. In a machloket of this nature, whereby we find such a strong difference of opinion -- that extends to almost all of the commentators -- regarding the role of the personal (and the human) in the lives of tzaddikim, we would expect to find variant sources. In this very gemara,1 the question is raised regarding how Yosef could give special gifts to Binyamin after experiencing the pain caused by the jealousy created by the special gift given to him by his father. Such a question would seem to support the argument to include a personal dimension in the understanding of the lives of such tzaddikim.2 In fact, given the enormity of the sources that point in both directions, it truly is difficult to definitively state that one view is the correct one. The fact is that the underlying philosophic perspectives that support each view both have, not only their validity but value in their significance and importance in understanding these events, especially in their ability to instruct us. To simply apply the personal defines these stories as no more than human drama, ignores the depth and greatness of these tzaddikim, and lessens our ability to truly learn from these events and individuals. To ignore the personal, though, also lessens this ability as we define these events in a manner that removes them from our connection to them and also, albeit in a different way, ignores the depth and greatness of these tzaddikim. Were Yosef and Binyamin crying over the personal events of their lives or were they crying over the future tragedies that klal Yisrael would face? Perhaps, the answer is actually both. Perhaps, the personal and non-personal are intended to merge in our understanding of these tzaddikim. Perhaps, it is only through the ability to feel the human dimension of life that such tzaddikim are able to transcend the personal and experience the larger understanding.

            How do people usually respond to the events of their lives? Usually in the moment, perhaps with a consideration of what has transpired in the past. How often do we consider the future, not solely in some objective manner but truly in terms of seeing what the events of today will yield in the years ahead. The statement that Yosef and Binyamin cried over the future destructions has remarkably important significance in this context. It means that Yosef and Binyamin both recognized that what unfolded between the brothers reflected an ongoing dilemma that would continue to affect the nation into the future. They did not just cry over what happened to them. That is the realm of the purely personal. They cried with an understanding that what transpired between them would not only reflect the future but be re-experienced in the future in a much more global manner.3 It was the personal that gave them this ability to understand but the greatness of these two brothers lay in their ability to recognize that the true significance of what they were feeling was beyond them. This is the realm of the tzaddik.

Seeing beyond the moment to include in one’s experience, even in the moment, future, past and present, is referred to as the existential moment. It is still a world of the immediate present but it understands that the present never exists alone – there is always the past and future as well. To experience the moment and thereby gain its depth is part of the human experience. We sometimes wish to colour our tzaddikim in a way that downplays this, thereby removing them from the vagrancies of the human experience. What we do not recognize is that by doing so, even as we may believe that we thereby are highlighting their righteousness, we often are hiding their true greatness. It is not in the absence of the human dimension that they have reached this pinnacle. It is in the transformation of their humanity that they have reached this pinnacle. One such reflection of this dimension is the existential moment. The gemara is not informing us that Yosef and Binyamin ignored the moment. There is much evidence to support the assertion that they obviously felt the present and the past. The gemara is informing us that they also experienced the existential moment. They saw into the future and the consequences of what is – and they allowed the present and past to give more meaning to the future. This is a mark of their greatness. This is not the way of the average person. This is the realm of the tzaddik. This is a realm to which we should all aspire. This is the lesson that we can gain from the gemara’s description that Yosef and Binyamin thought of the future destructions.

. 4.

 

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Footnotes

1 Actually, T. B.  Megilla 16a.

2 Actually, the gemara can also be read to support the view not to include the personal in our understanding of the lives and actions of such individuals. The gemara’s answer indeed removes the event from the context of the personal. Yet the way the question is framed does seem to support the view to include the personal.

3 T.B. Tamid 36a states: “Who is the wise person? The one that can see what will emerge.” It is the perception into the future consequences that marks wisdom.

 

(c) Nishma, 2006.


 


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2006 NISHMA