Parashat Miketz

Real Men Cry

Joseph's tears, public and private

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

In the 1970s, football star Roosevelt "Rosey" Grier sang "It's All Right to Cry" on the landmark record album "Free to Be You and Me," produced by Marlo Thomas. The former New York Giants defensive tackle told us, in the Carol Hall song, that "crying gets the sad out of you. It's all right to cry; it might make you feel better." Feminism had arrived in America, and men--including football stars with feminine nicknames--were permitted, even encouraged, to show their emotions and cry.

The Assassination of JFK

A decade earlier, on the cusp of the feminist era and of an era of turmoil in America, I saw my dad cry for the first time. He stood in front of the TV, tears streaming down his cheeks, as he watched the events of that afternoon in November, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Stunned by the horrific tragedy, I was also jolted by my father's open display of emotion. My dad was a caring and loving man, but as a child, I suppose I too was influenced by the norms of the day: Grown men didn't cry! It would take the Kennedy assassination, Marlo Thomas's recording and a whole series of events and social changes in American life to make a man's crying, even in the private confines of his home, socially acceptable. 

Joseph identified by his brothers. Painting by Charles Thévenin.

In this week's parashah, a man's tears play a central role as well. Joseph struggles with his tears, fighting them back, as he encounters his brothers again after so many years. When the brothers appear before him to procure food, Joseph recognizes them immediately. His first response is anger which is typically the first stage of grief. As the text tells us: "When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them" (Genesis 42:7).

This is not a surprising response given the pain and suffering his brothers had inflicted upon him. But Joseph is then moved to tears when he hears his brothers talk about the way they had mistreated him: "They did not know that Joseph understood, for there was an interpreter between him and them. He turned away from them and wept" (Genesis 42:23-4).

Seeing Benjamin

The second time Joseph sheds tears is when he finally beholds his full brother, Benjamin. Here the text tells us that Joseph "was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there" (Genesis 43:30). The Hebrew phrase used "vay'vakesh liv'kot," could be translated as "he wanted to cry" or even "he asked permission to cry." Joseph is caught in a bind. A public leader who has successfully kept his emotions hidden for so many years, Joseph now realizes that his model of leadership will no longer work.

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Shuly R Schwartz

Shuly Rubin Schwartz is the Irving Lehrman Research Associate Professor of American Jewish History and dean of the Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies of The Jewish Theological Seminary.