Parshas Vayigash:
What was Jacob Doing?

By Mordechai Raizman

In chapter 46 verse 29, the Torah tells us that when Jacob and Joseph were reunited after 22 years, Joseph fell on Jacob's neck and cried excessively. Rashi comments that only Joseph did this. Jacob did not. Our sages tell us that the reason for this is because Jacob was reciting the Shema.

The question arises: if it was indeed the time to recite the shema, why didn't Joseph do as his father did?

One answer for this question is that because Joseph was involved with doing a mitzvah (honoring his father), the rule of Kol HaOseik B'mitzvah Patur min HaMitzvah applies. This rule states that when one is doing any mitzvah, even if another mitzvah comes up which might be greater in one's eyes, he is exempt from that Mitzvah.

There is a problem with this answer. The Talmud in tractate Kiddushin (32b) states that if one has two mitzvos before him, one to honor his father, and one that both he and his father are obligated to do, he should perform the latter. Concerning the obligation to read the Shema, both Jacob and Joseph were obligated. Therefore, Joseph could not be exempt because of his involvement in another mitzvah.

The Maharal has a different opinion here. There was no actual obligation to recite the shema at that time. If so, what was Jacob doing?

There is a custom among righteous and pious people that at a time of great joy or salvation, when one feels gratitude towards G-d for the goodness bestowed upon him, one recites the shema proclamation of the oneness of G-d and accepting His kingship over the universe. One must bear in mind that He is truly King in orchestrating this particular event as well as many others in our daily lives.

Now we can understand why Joseph did not act the same way as his father. Joseph had an obligation (mitzvah) to honor his father by embracing him. Reciting shema which was merely a custom in such a situation does not take precedence over a mitzva. Jacob, who had no other obligation, took this chance to fulfill the righteous custom of showing appreciation to G-d and recognizing His hand in this reunion.

When good things are bestowed upon us in our daily lives, for example a new child born, a job promotion etc., our initial reaction is to celebrate. This story teaches us that when we do celebrate, we must find a place for G-d.



This essay was written by Mordechai Raizman. If you have any questions or comments about this week's Parsha Encounters please email him.



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