The Yosef-Ya’akov Encounter and the Transmission of Mesorah by Rabbi Daniel Fridman


In what is unquestionably one of the Torah’s most dramatic moments, Yosef and Ya’akov are reunited after a separation of over two decades. Yosef’s movements and response are tracked closely by the Torah, from his noteworthy preparation of his own chariot, “ויאסר יוסף מרכבתו,[1]” to his traveling in the direction of his father, “ויעל לקראת ישראל אביו,” to the actual visualization, “וירא אליו,” to Yosef’s collapse into his father’s arms, “ויפל על צואריו ויבך על צואריו עוד.” Noting Ya’akov’s sheer silence, or inaction, throughout the dramatic encounter, Rashi[2] cites the rabbinic tradition that Ya’akov Avinu was reciting the Shema.

In attempting to discern the meaning of this Midrash, it is perhaps the most straightforward approach to note that Ya’akov thought that he was truly about to die from this heightened emotional state, and thus, he recited the Shema in the context of his anticipated demise. After all, in the very next verse, Ya’akov indeed does say that he will not die, “אמותה הפעם אחרי ראותי את פניך.[3]” While Ya’akov may simply have been saying something to the effect that he may not die in peace, that he has seen his beloved Yosef, it is entirely possible that the Midrash read Ya’akov’s words with more of a literal interpretation. In further support of this particular interpretation of the Midrash, when Ya’akov first learns that Yosef is alive, he makes direct reference to the fact that he may soon die, “רב עוד יוסף בני חי אלכה ואראנו בטרם אמות.[4]”

The Rav, however, opted for an entirely different reading of this Midrash[5]. Noting that the first paragraph of קריאת שמע is not merely a statement of faith in Divine unity, the mandate to love God, but also to study the Torah with one’s children, “ושננתם לבניך,” the Rav argued that Ya’akov was engaged in a moment of profound recognition that he would be able to resume this sacred endeavor with Yosef. After all, the first seventeen years of Yosef’s life were marked by, according to the rabbinic tradition, immersive study with Ya’akov, as father poured into his extremely talented and gifted son[6] all of the Mesorah which he had absorbed[7].

In the brief space which follows, I would like to try to develop the Rav’s approach to the Yosef-Ya’akov encounter further, and explore some of its implications. First and foremost, something tantalizing about this reunion emerges according to the Rav’s reading. As is well known, the Midrash[8] relates that Ya’akov was only convinced that Yosef was actually alive when he saw the royal wagons which Yosef had sent to transport him back to Egypt, “וירא את העגלות אשר שלח יוסף לשאת אותו ותחי רוח יעקב אביהם.[9]” The Talmud explains that Ya’akov understood that it in fact had to be Yosef, and no one else, who sent these, as only Yosef could have known that the final Sugya which they had studied together was the topic of the עגלה ערופה.

According to the Rav’s approach, however, it is not merely that Yosef was sending Ya’akov an ironclad proof that he was still alive, but communicating to his father something of far greater import. Yosef was suggesting to Ya’akov that he was, in effect, ready to pick up from the same Sugya, the same line. Life may have cast him into the role of the ruler of Egypt, but, as far as Yosef was concerned, he never ceased being his father’s devoted Talmid. It was this very self-understanding as his father’s son and Talmid which carried Yosef through the most challenging moments of his exile in Egypt, “נראתה לו דמות דיוקנו של אביו בחלון.[10]” Ya’akov’s response to Yosef’s message takes on an entirely new significance in light of this approach: “רב עוד יוסף בני חי.[11]” It is not merely that Yosef is alive, but Yosef “my son,” my partner in the transmission of the Mesorah, is alive – “ושננתם לבניך.”

Yet, according to the Rav’s approach, one must ask a basic question: is it indeed the case that Ya’akov and Yosef resumed their Talmud Torah? It seems, from the simple reading of the Torah, that the answer is no. Yosef continued to execute the government from the capital of מצרים, while Ya’akov was insulated with the family in the friendly confines of Goshen[12]. Yosef is deeply devoted to Ya’akov, provides sustenance for him and his brothers, and rushes to his father’s side when he hears Ya’akov is not well. Yet, one does not get the impression that there was a great deal of daily interaction. Did Ya’akov actually resume the project of “ושננתם לבניך” with Yosef? In the direct sense, it seems that he did not.

Yet, in a larger sense, he certainly did. In next week’s Sedra, Rashi quotes the rabbinic tradition that it was Ephraim who informed Yosef that Ya’akov was sick, “אפרים היה רגיל לפני יעקב בתלמוד.[13]” The seventeen years during which Ya’akov poured the Mesorah of Avraham, Yitzchak, Shem and Ever into Yosef were matched year for year by the seventeen years which Ya’akov had with Ephraim in Egypt.

While one might argue – due to the disparate nature of the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah with one’s child as opposed to one’s grandchild – that Ya’akov’s learning with Ephraim is considered a different Mitzvah than his learning with Yosef, it seems to me that Rambam considers them part of the same קיום in the Mitzvah of תלמוד תורה:


קטן אביו חייב ללמדו תורה שנאמר ולמדתם אותם את בניכם לדבר בם... כשם שחייב אדם ללמד את בנו כך הוא חייב ללמד את בן בנו שנאמר והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך (רמב”ם הלכות תלמות תורה א:א-ב)


Rambam’s use of the telltale terms “כשם” and “כך” clearly indicate that Rambam’s view is not merely that one is obligated to learn with one’s grandchild[14], just as one is obligated to learn with one’s own son, in the sense of two distinct obligations. Rather, on the basis of the Gemara in Kiddushin[15], Rambam uniquely read the Gemara as teaching that the Mitzvah to learn with one’s grandchild is both an intrinsic element of learning with one’s son and a natural extension of the father-son learning commitment. In light of this Rambam, then, the Rav’s approach takes on new vitality. While Ya’akov may not have resumed his learning directly with Yosef, he certainly merited reactivating that very same קיום, which would be actualized through his learning with Ephraim.

In that moment of dramatic encounter between father and son, after twenty-two years, Ya’akov recited the Shema, internalizing the reactivation of his role as בעל המסורה. Ya’akov’s raison d’etrein Egypt would be to ensure that the truths of his father and grandfather would be conveyed forward to the next generation and the generation which would follow. In his twilight years, Ya’akov succeeded in bridging the world of אברהם and יצחק with those of his Egyptian-born grandchildren – “המלאך הגואל אתי מכל רע יברך את הנערים ויקרא בנם שמי ושם אבתי אברהם ויצחק.[16]” In so doing, Ya’akov demonstrated the eternal nature of the Mesorah, its capacity to inform, illuminate, and inspire in every context, geographic location, and surrounding cultural milieu.

[1] בראשית מו:כט

[2] פרש׳י בשם מדרש אגדה (שם)

[3] בראשית מו:ל

[4] בראשית מה:כח

[5] The Rav’s approach was relayed to me by our Rosh HaYeshivah, Rabbi Yosef Adler.

[6] עיין תרגום אונקלוס ופרש׳י לבראשית לז:ג

[7] עיין רש׳י שם

[8] בראשית רבה (וילנא) צד:ג

[9] בראשית מה:כז

[10] תלמוד בבלי סוטה לו:

[11] בראשית מה:כח

[12] בראשית מה:י, מז:ו, מז:כז

[13] פרש׳י בראשית מח:א

[14] עיין השגות הרמב׳ן על ספר המצוות לרמבם שכחת הלאוין ב׳ שמגדיר לימוד עם הנכדים כלימוד אמונת התורה. מאידך, הוא משוה את זה ללימוד התורה עצמה.

[15] עיין שם תלמוד בבלי מסכת קידושין ל., ״הוא דאמר כי האי תנא; דתניא: ולמדתם אותם את בניכם - אין לי אלא בניכם, בני בניכם מנין? ת"ל:והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך; א"כ, מה ת"ל בניכם? בניכם - ולא בנותיכם.״

[16] בראשית מח:טז

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