An Ambiguous Antecedent by Jonathan Karp


In this week’s Parashah, Yaakov and Yosef are reunited after 22 years of separation, as the Pasuk states, “VaYesor Yosef Merkavto VaYa’al Likrat Yisrael Aviv Goshnah VaYira Eilav VaYipol Al Tzavarav VaYeivk Al Tzavaro Od,” “Yosef harnessed his chariot and went up to meet Yisrael his father in Goshen. He appeared before him, fell on his neck, and wept on his neck excessively” (BeReishit 46:29). It is clear from the singular form of the word ‘VaYeivk’ that either Yaakov or Yosef weeps, but it is unclear to whom the word refers.

According to Rashi, Yosef weeps on Yaakov’s neck while Yaakov says Shema. Ramban, on the other hand, believes that Yaakov is the one who cries. He explains that an old father who has been mourning for years and now finds his lost son alive is more likely to cry than a young son who rules a country. The word “Od” does not mean that he cries a lot; rather, it means that he cries more. This implies that the one who weeps had wept before, and thus it refers to Yaakov. Rashi, however, believes that “Od” does mean that he cries excessively and therefore does not indicate who is crying.

The dispute between Rashi and Ramban depends on who the subject of the sentence is. Rashi believes that Yosef is the subject of the entire Pasuk. This seems logical based on the next Pasuk, which begins “VaYomer Yisrael El Yosef,” “Then Yisrael said to Yosef” (BeReishit 46:30). The fact that the Torah specifies Yaakov as the subject of this Pasuk indicates that Yosef is the subject of the previous Pasuk. Ramban, on the other hand, believes that Yaakov is the subject. He says we cannot conclude anything from the next Pasuk because the Torah often specifies a subject that is already recognized.

The Be’eir Yitzchak, a commentary on Rashi, elaborates on Rashi’s interpretation. He contends that when Yaakov sees Yosef, he is completely enveloped with love and joy. Yaakov then realizes that such absolute love must be directed only at Hashem, so he says Shema instead of crying.

Nechama Leibowitz quotes a Pasuk from earlier in the Perek to defend Ramban’s position. When Yaakov travels down to Egypt, Hashem states, “Al Tira MeiRidah Mitzaymah,” “Have no fear of descending to Egypt” (46:3). Many commentators ask what Yaakov is afraid of. He is about to meet his long lost son, for whom he continually mourned for the past twenty years. He would not be in danger in Egypt, as he would be under the protection of Yosef. Chizkuni, along with other classical commentators, explains that Yaakov is afraid that Bnei Yisrael will not leave Egypt. He is afraid that they will get too comfortable there and never want to leave.

Perhaps this explanation can be employed to explain Ramban’s opinion. When Yaakov meets Yosef, he does not only have feelings of joy. He also has feelings of concern for the future of the nation of Bnei Yisrael. As Jews today, we can learn from Yaakov’s concerns. Since we constantly meet and are involved with the Goyei HaOlam, we must always be concerned about assimilation and ensure that while we integrate ourselves into society, we also separate ourselves adequately.

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