Does reconciling always mean total forgiveness? Can we reconcile with someone whom we don’t fully forgive? There are several instances of reconciliation in Bereshit, Genesis. One was when Jacob and Esau reconciled in Chapter 33:4 “And Esau ran toward him [Jacob] and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him.” They hadn’t seen each other in twenty years, and when last together,Esau was out to kill his brother for having deceived him and stolen his birthright the eldest son’s blessing.
In this week’s parasha, Vayigash, Joseph and his brothers meet after twenty years, and they reconcile too. There are two verses that describe this reconciliation, and what’s different between them says a lot.
Jacob has just revealed that he is the long-lost brother that they had, at first, thrown in a pit to die and only later, were convinced by eldest brother Reuben to sell Jacob into slavery. It’s a very emotional scene. Jacob had told the brothers they could go home with all the food they needed, but had to leave Benjamin, his only full brother, with him. Judah makes a heartfelt plea that doing so would kill their father (Jacob) if they came home without Benjamin, that their father was still mourning the loss of his son Joseph. Finally, Joseph can’t bear it any more, and he tells his brothers who he is. They don’t believe him, “His brothers were unable to answer him – they recoiled in fear of him,” (Gen 45:3)
Joseph called them closer and told them again he was their long-lost brother, that it wasn’t their terrible treatment of him as a child that brought him to Egypt, but God’s will. “He [Joseph] then fell weeping upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and Benjamin wept on his neck.” (Gen 45:14) It’s the same language as when Jacob and Esau met again.
The next verse is, “He [Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept with them; only after this could his brothers respond to him.” (Gen 45:15)
Do you see the difference? Every word is important in Torah, the extra ones we see, and the ones we don’t see. Joseph wept on Benjamin’s neck, but for the rest of his brothers, he only kissed and wept with them. There’s no “neck” there, like there was between Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and Benjamin. Weeping on someone’s neck is about as close as one can get, reconciling fully. But Joseph and his brothers don’t – they weep with each other, but don’t get as close as Joseph and Benjamin got.
Benjamin was the youngest brother, and the only full brother Joseph had. Their mother died giving birth to Benjamin. Theirs was a bond much stronger than with the others. Maybe Benjamin knew about what had happened to his big brother, maybe he didn’t. It’s easy to imagine that Joseph was still hurt by what his brothers did to him, and was still angry. He wept at seeing them again, of course, but he didn’t bring them in as close, weeping on their necks.
Joseph wept a lot in his story, and it was for different reasons each time. In this moment, he was glad to be with his brothers again, but he had been betrayed, treated horribly. He wept for those lost years, the loneliness and pain of being left alone, to survive on his own. And he wept for knowing he could never be truly reconciled with his whole family. There was a future for them all together, and he would get to see his father again, but like a word in a Torah verse, there would always be something missing.