In Parashat VaYigash, Ya’akov and Yosef are reunited, seeing each other for the first time in 22 years. The Pasuk states, “VaYeivk Al Tzavarav Od,”“And he wept on his neck excessively” (BeReishit 46:29). According to Rashi (ad loc. s.v. VaYeivk Al Tzavarav Od), this is referring to Yosef weeping on his father’s neck, but the Torah says nothing about Ya’akov’s emotional response. Why doesn’t Ya’akov respond to Yosef’s weeping? Rashi answers with a Midrash that states that Ya’akov was reciting Keriyat Shema at this time.
Many challenges are raised in connection with this idea. Some ask why Yosef was not saying Keriyat Shema along with his father. And if there was time to say Keriyat Shema later, why couldn’t Ya’akov wait until after the emotional hug? The most famous answer to these difficulties is presented by the Siftei Chachamim, who articulates that it was time for Keriyat Shema, but Yosef was exempt from the Mitzvah because he was doing the Mitzvah of Kibbud Av, honoring his father. He didn’t want to abandon one Mitzvah to do another.
The Steipler Ga’on challenges this idea based on a Gemara (Kiddushin 32a). The Gemara discusses a case where a father requests something of his son when the son is about to do a Mitzvah. The Gemara states that the son should do the Mitzvah first, and then do what he was told by his father afterwards. Thus, we see that the Mitzvah of Kibbud Av cannot replace saying Keriyat Shema. Yosef should have first said Keriyat Shema, and only after performed the Mitzvah of Kibbud Av.
The Steipler quotes the Ran to resolve the problem. The Gemara teaches that you can do the Mitzvah instead of Kibbud Av only if you have not started the Mitzvah of Kibbud Av yet. But if one already started Kibbud Av, then he is exempt from doing the other Mitzvah. A second solution that the Steipler offers is that Ya’akov recited Keriyat Shema at the earliest possible time because of the rule “Zerizim Makdimim LeMitzvot,” that the passionate ones hurry to do Mitzvot early. However, since Yosef was performing Kibbud Av, he would delay his Keriyat Shema until afterwards.
Maharal cites a very different explanation of this Midrash. He states that when Ya’akov and Yosef met, it wasn’t yet time for Keriyat Shema. However, since Ya’akov was such a righteous person, the joy of seeing his son again moved him to a spiritual high. Therefore, Ya’akov thanked Hashem for being able to see his son again by saying Shema to demonstrate his love and gratitude. Yosef would have done the same had it not been for his obligation of Kibbud Av. The idea of saying Keriyat Shema at such a time is a Midat Chasidut, which doesn't take precedence over a Mitzvah. Attaining a spiritual level as great as Ya’akov or Yosef is not easy, yet there is a lesson here for all of us.
There was once a man who often visited the home of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky to share his problems that he was facing in his life. One time, in the middle of his discussion, Rav Kamenetsky said, “Everyone comes to me with their problems. I wish people would let me know when they have Simchas as well.” When the man left his home, he promised himself that whenever there was a Simcha in his family, he would let Rav Kamenetsky know. We can learn from this that it’s great to have someone to share all of your problems with, but it’s even greater to not forget to share the good things as well. This is just like our connection to Hashem. It’s easy in difficult times to recite Tehilim and Daven to Hashem, but we should never forget to thank Hashem when times are good.
Ya’akov was not only able to identify when times were bad and look for Hashem’s guidance; he was also able to praise Hashem for giving him these wonderful occasions. Therefore, “Ma’aseh Avot Siman LeBanim,” we should learn from Ya’akov to thank Hashem for all the good He gives us in this world. This approach to life is a step towards reaching the level of understanding that everything Hashem does is for the ultimate good. Furthermore, we should appreciate everything we have and everything Hashem gives us so that we can live a life of Samei’ach BeChelko and Ahavat Hashem.
This article was adapted from yutorah.org