Elli Schwarcz – Yosef and Binyamin: Each Other’s Necks

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This week’s Torah reading opens with Yehudah confronting the Egyptian viceroy, who was now about to detain Binyamin as a slave. After Yehudah promised to fight for his younger brother’s freedom, the Egyptian leader finally revealed that he was actually Yosef. The story then continues with Yosef reconciling with his stunned brothers, and sending for Yaakov to join him in Egypt. Yosef kisses the brothers who had sold him as a slave all those years ago, and finally meets his full brother Binyamin. The two hug and cried…

And he fell on the neck of Binyamin, his brother, and he cried. And Binyamin cried on his neck.
-Vayigash, 45:14
There is a grammatical difficulty with this verse. ‘Neck’ in Hebrew is tzavar, and ‘his neck’ is tzavaro– yet these are not the exact words chosen here. Rather, the Torah uses the plural forms of these words (tzavarei Binyamin for “Binyamin’s neck,” and tzavarav for “his neck”), so that the passage literally reads:
And he fell on the necks of Binyamin… and Binyamin cried on his necks.
What is this all about?

Our Rabbis teach (Gemara Megillah 16b) that the brothers cried about much more than Yosef’s difficulties and reunification with his family; they actually cried about each other’s ‘necks’. As the Talmud explains, the Temple, or Beit Hamikdash (and the Mishkan) is compared to a neck; just as the head, with the brain and with its critical organs, is bridged to the body via the neck, so is the Beit Hamikdash a tool through which we can connect to Hashem and the spiritual and material blessing He wants to send us. In other words, in the same way that the body is dependent on the head for survival, so is the Beit Hamikdash essential to us.

The tribe of Yosef would one day host the Mishkan in its portion of Israel, in the city of Shiloh. Binyamin (together with Yehudah) would later have the Batei Mikdash themselves in its territory. Yosef and Binyamin now mourned the future destruction of these Temples; Yosef thus cried about the ‘necks’ of Binyamin, while Binyamin did the same over the Mishkan Shiloh that Yosef would lose*.

The Rebbe of Kuzmir (Rav Yechiel Tauber, passed away in 1856), asked two simple questions: why did the brothers choose specifically this moment of tremendous joy to mourn future tragedy, and why did each cry about the other’s loss, rather than about his own?

The Rebbe answered with a similarly simple- but incisive- answer. We know that the Batei Mikdash were destroyed as a punishment for hatred, as B’nei Israel disrespected one another. When Yosef and Binyamin met each other now, seeing what Yosef’s brothers’ hatred of him had brought about, they immediately were able to envision the future destruction that would result from the same mistakes- and so they cried now over a sin that would reverberate hundreds of years later.

By the same token, the way to rectify this sin is to love one’s fellow Jew. We must not only be kind to one another, but must also learn to empathize with each other, actually feeling the other person’s happiness or pain. Yosef and Binyamin truly felt each other’s suffering, and even mourned each other’s tragedy more than he did his own.

During these trying times, we may understandably have a lot on our minds. It is natural- and even logical- that we expend our energy in caring for our immediate circle while looking out for our own wellbeing. However, we must try to fine-tune our instincts and broaden our perspectives. As much as possible- while maintaining our balance- let’s make sure that we are thinking about others.  True, we’ve already been extending ourselves in our charitable giving, and we have all put effort into assisting others. Let’s endeavor, though, to really put ourselves in the shoes of those experiencing any type of challenge, to empathize with people who may be suffering, and to reach out to help or encourage people in any form of need.
In the merit of our caring for each other, may we see the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash, speedily in our days.
 Have a great Shabbat! Elli Schwarcz


*Although Binyamin also cried over Yosef’s ‘necks’ in the plural form, we find only one destruction relating to Yosef being mourned. This is because Yosef’s sad story was already cause for mourning in its own right- and so was included as well in his ‘necks’.

Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.

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