This week’s parshah is the completion of the drama of Yosef when he finally reveals his true identity to his brothers. For Yaakov, this was an impossible dream come true. His beloved son was still alive! It’s hard to imagine what such a reunion must have been like, but lucky for us, the Torah documents the entire scene.
In Perek 46, Pasuk 29, right at the beginning of Shishi, the pasuk says, “…וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוָּארָיו וַיֵּבְךְּ עַל צַוָּארָיו עוֹד” “…And he (Yaakov) appeared to him (Yosef) and he (Yosef) fell on his neck, and he (Yosef) wept on his (Yaakov’s) neck for a long time.” This translation follows Rashi’s explanation which leads into a famous question, how come Yosef fell on Yaakov’s neck and cried while Yaakov seemingly has no reaction whatsoever? Not exactly the reaction we were expecting!
Rashi brings a very famous Midrash which explains that Yaakov was saying Shema when Yosef came. Since he couldn’t stop in the middle, Yosef was left to cry by himself. The very next pasuk shows Yaakov’s true reaction, “וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל יוֹסֵף אָמוּתָה הַפָּעַם אַחֲרֵי רְאוֹתִי אֶת פָּנֶיךָ כִּי עוֹדְךָ חָי” “And Yisrael said to Yosef, ‘Now I can die since I have seen your face and you are still alive.”(46:30). Yaakov also had a very emotional reunion, however, his reaction was a little delayed since he was in the middle of saying Shema.
The Sifsei Chachamim has a problem with this Midrash. If it was now the time to say Shema, how come Yosef wasn’t saying Shema along with Yaakov? He also has an obligation to say Shema at a certain time, so how come he was not saying it at this time as well? The first answer is that Yosef was in the middle of the mitzvah of כיבוד אב, honoring his father. We have a rule that if you are in the middle of preforming one mitzvah, you are not obligated to fulfill another mitzvah in the meantime. Since Yosef was in the middle of כיבוד אב, he did not have to say Shema at that time, while Yaakov had no such mitzvah and therefore was not excused from saying Shema.
A second answer he brings is based on a gemarah in Brachos (13b). The gemarah explains that if someone is טרוד, meaning that they are completely involved in whatever they are doing, they are excused from reading the entire Shema and fulfill their obligation with just the first verse of שמע ישראל ה' אלוהינו ה' אחד. For example, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, also known as Rebbi, the author of Mishnayos, never said more than the first verse of Shema since he was constantly involved with teaching his students. So too by Yosef, he was completely involved with running Egypt and now was involved in כיבוד אב, so he did not have time to say more than the first verse. Therefore, he finished Shema long before Yaakov did, and started crying while Yaakov was still finishing up.
Still, it is a little strange that Yaakov decided to start saying Shema right now. His beloved son, whom he has not seen in over twenty years, is on the way to see him! How can he all of a sudden decide to say Shema now? He’ll still have time to say it afterwards! There are a few different answers, however, I would like to take one from an explanation of the Ramban. In order to answer a separate question on this pasuk, the Ramban brings up a point from last week’s parshah that the brothers did not recognize Yosef since they had not seen him for 22 years. Yaakov, with his bad eyesight (he was 130 years old!), couldn’t recognize Yosef either! I would like to take this point for this question as well. Yaakov did not recognize that Yosef was there, so he decided to start saying Shema. In the meantime, Yosef arrives and immediately embraces him.
We can maybe learn another reason why Yaakov said Shema here by understanding what Shema is. Shema is our proclamation to Hashem that he is our one and only G-d who runs the entire world, that we accept on ourselves the yoke of Torah and Mitzvos, that our entire lives are in his control. It can be said to thank Him or to exalt Him. By saying it, we show a complete acceptance and understanding of the events in our lives. And from it we can receive inspiration for the other parts of our day.
Knowing this, we can understand why Yaakov said Shema at this point. Yaakov never thought he was ever going to see Yosef again. His probably didn’t even know how to react, so he did the one thing that he knew would allow him to see the whole event from its’ proper perspective, he said Shema. He was able to freeze this moment in time and understand how this unbelievable event came from Hashem.
Through saying Shema, he was able to take this event and use it to inspire himself in other aspects in his life. Seeing this impossible dream come true, Yaakov was inspired and saw more clearly than before how Hashem runs everything in this world.
I think this a good question to ask ourselves going into Shabbos, where does our inspiration come from? How do we inspire ourselves in our daily routines? The secret is to step back and recognize how everything comes from Hashem. Maybe then we too can use the secret of Shema to inspire ourselves.
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