Friday, December 25, 2015

The thwarted kiss between Joseph and Jacob – practical & conditional love Vayechi

The hearts of so many adults bear the scars of conditional parental love. Their parents were so fixated on what they wanted for or from their children that they failed to embrace their children as they were.  A related theme is the seemingly transactional and predominantly practical nature of relationships between some fathers and sons. I see these same dynamics in some of the commentary about the attitudes of our patriarch Jacob.

Around the time of Jacob’s death, as he prepared to bless Joseph’s children he asked who are they?[i]” The question is interpreted as questioning their suitability for blessing. ‘Was their father’s and mother’s union validated by a religious marriage contract (Ketubah)[ii]?’  Another practical consideration that is suggested is that Jacob knew that they were to have wicked descendants[iii]! In contrast Joseph was more present in the emotional dimension of the moment. He immediately prostrated himself on the ground before God, and begged for mercy that he not be humiliated[iv]”.  Tuning in to his practical oriented dad, Joseph also pleaded: they are my sons, they are righteous like me[v]!” It is only after this reassurance that Jacob asked that they be brought to him. He kissed and hugged them before he proceeded to bless them[vi].  

Similar commentary suggests that Jacob focused on merit at the very moment of his reunion with his son Joseph, after twenty-two years of separation and grief. Joseph was only seventeen when he went missing, reportedly killed by a wild animal. When father and son reunited, Joseph fell on his father’s neck and cried[vii]. According to commentary Joseph sought to kiss his father and be kissed by him but his father would not allow it. The reason given for this is that Joseph had been aroused by the seduction of his master’s wife, despite the fact that in the end he did not commit adultery[viii].  I am troubled by the view that technicalities and judgements would be in play at a time one would expect intense parental love. I also think this interpretation is implausible in light of the next verse, in which Jacob exclaims now I can die (happy) after seeing your face because you are still alive![ix]” 

The Torah does not tell us about another word being spoken between Jacob and Joseph for the next almost seventeen years. The next conversation was practical and short. Jacob requested that his son Joseph bury him in Canaan rather than Egypt and Joseph agreed to do so[xi].  Finally, in one of the last chapters on Jacob’s life did he talk to his son in a reflective way about how he had been blessed and about the death of his first love, Joseph’s mother, Rachel[xii]. According to commentary, Jacob told Joseph that he knew that Joseph felt resentful about his mother being buried on the side of the road, so he explained the decision [xiii]

As a son I feel challenged by all of this. I reflect about my own relationship with my father—how often do we talk about matters of the heart? It is easier to talk shop, getting advice about working in non-profit leadership, or to talk about Torah. Like Joseph, I am tuned in to the emotional side of life. Talking about feelings with my dad might be really useful., I suspect this  might be true for many fathers and sons. On the other hand a commitment to a relationship includes respect between both parties to allow both to determine the nature and content of the relationship.

[i] Genesis 48:8
[ii] Masechet Kalah, chapter 3, 15a, or Were they born out of a holy pregnancy? Manuscript Midrash Habiur, cited in Torah Shlaima p.1751 note 60
[iii] Pesikta Rabbati 3,
[iv] Midrash Tanchuma Vayechi 6, Manuscript Midrash Habiur, cited in Torah Shlaima p.1751 note 61
[v] Pesikta Rabbati 3
[vi] Genesis 46:29
[vii] Genesis 48:8
[viii] Masechet Kallah, 3, cited in Torah Shlaima, p 1697
[ix] Genesis 46:30, on the other hand even this expression of emotion is interpreted as being practical. Rashi suggests that Jacob was thinking that he would die twice, once in this world and a second time in the world to come because God would demand your death from me (that is to hold me liable for your death), but now that you are alive I will only die once”  and I would die twice
[x] Unkelus
[xi] Genesis 47:29-31
[xii] Genesis 48:7
[xiii] Rashi


  1. Shalom haRav,

    great post, and I thank you for providing the sources. It just confused me -without intending disrespect to Hazal- that Yaacov avinu would reject Yosef's hug for having had even the slight possibility of having committed adultery. How would he know? They weren't in Egypt when that happened, and Joseph was later forgiven. Isn't this a constant reminder of people's sins to saciety? The one who could be most obviously accused of adultery is Reuven, but there are some hakhamim who even have different versions for it, to understand it in a way that wouldn't be disrespectful.

    Really enjoyed reading, will continue wandering around :)

    shabbat shalom

    1. thank you for your interest. Yaakov/Jacob could only have known it through Ruach Hakodesh/the holy spirit or through prophetic means. There are various interpretations of that encounter and I was highlighting one approach and theme. I find this approach interesting and challenging, even confronting. The harsh treatment of Reuben during Jacob's deathbed final words to his sons would fit with this approach.