This week’s Parsha, Vayigash, features a massive family reunion, between Yosef, his brothers and father, and their families. This comes about after he finally reveals his identity to his brothers, in the midst of Yehudah’s pleas to be taken as a slave in the place of Binyamin, who was accused of stealing from Yosef. Upon hearing of his brothers’ compassion for Binyamin, and their elderly father, Yosef announces that he is their long lost brother. The brothers are struck with fear, but Yosef explains that he does not blame them, and that it was due to Divine providence that he ended up sold into slivery, and, eventually, appointed over the land of Mitzrayim.
What happens next is that the brothers return to Cannan with the good news, only to find that their father, Yaakov, does not believe them. We are taught that this is their punishment for lying about Yosef earlier, and claiming that a beast had devoured him; the punishment for liars is that even when they tell the truth, they are not believed. Eventually, though, Yaakov believes his sons, and his spirits are immediately lifted. He can hardly believe his luck, and, after not having seen his beloved son in 22 years, he arranges a family reunion. This reunion involves “seventy souls”, but when we count them, there are only sixty nine names mentioned in the Torah. The missing name is that of Yocheved, daughter of Levi.
The nature of the reunion itself teaches us an important lesson about emunah, and about Yaakov’s love for G-d. Upon encountering his favourite son, whom he had not seen in over two decades, we learn from Rashi that “Yaakov did not embrace Yosef and did not kiss him; our sages tell us that he was reading the Shema”. At first, this sounds extraordinary. Since his son was sold into slavery, Yaakov had been acting as if his neshomo had descended to the grave. Joy had disappeared from his life, and he spent more than twenty years as a mourner. So why did he read the Shema, rather than embracing his beloved son?
The Chassidic masters provide an insight into this extraordinary display of emunah. As Yaakov reunited with his son, feelings of chesed and pure love were stirred inside him. These feelings were so strong that he decided to channel them into an expression of faith and love for the Creator, and to serve Him with his emotions. And naturally, he saw no better way to do this than through the recitation of the Shema. Just like words, actions, or thoughts, we can use our emotions either for good or for evil; for Holiness or impurity. And although, in this case, embracing his son would not be wrong or impure, Yaakov managed to elevate his emotions even higher by saying the Shema.
Emotions rule our lives. Joy and sorrow, anger and guilt, even greed and envy; they dictate our actions towards ourselves and towards others. And sometimes, this is a good thing. Sometimes, our sorrow can cause us to repent, and ask G-d’s forgiveness, or to apologise to someone we’ve wronged. But other times, we can become entrenched in our sorrow, without using it to improve. Even seemingly ‘evil’ emotions, such as anger or greed, can be turned into a mark of positivity, when we overcome them; this kind of overcoming of the animal desire strengthens us and brings us closer to Hashem. And the same can be said for love. We can channel our love in a variety of ways; towards ourselves, towards others, or towards G-d. And as Yaakov demonstrated, it’s this last kind of love, that for our Creator, which is the Holiest.