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The Importance of Necks

Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

by Rabbi Zvi Belovski

Two separate incidents in our Torah portion prompt unusual comments from Rashi:

And [Yosef] fell on the necks of his brother Binyamin and wept... (Bereishis 45:14)

And he fell on the necks of his brother Binyamin and wept - over the batei mikdash, [the Holy Temples] which in the future would be built in the portion of Binyamin and would ultimately be destroyed. (Rashi loc. cit.)

Yosef prepared his chariot to meet Yisrael, his father, toward Goshen. And he appeared to him and fell on his neck and also cried on his neck. (Bereishis 46:29)

But Yaakov did not fall upon Yosef's neck and didn't cry, for our Rabbis tell us that Yaakov was saying Shema. (Rashi loc. cit.)

Let us examine each of these meetings in turn and try to understand a little of the hidden depth behind these obscure comments.

* * *


We will begin with the meeting of Yosef and Binyamin. Rashi obviously comments on the strange plural form necks. But it is far from clear why the Beis HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, is referred to as a neck. This usage actually follows the verses in Song of Songs. Shlomo HaMelech exclaims:

Your neck is like the tower of David, built with turrets... (Shir HaShirim 4:4)

Your neck is like a tower of ivory... (Ibid. 7:5)

We understand now that Rashi is using the neck metaphor based on these verses, but why exactly is the Beis HaMikdash a neck?

My holy father explained that there is a distinct similarity between the physiological function of the neck and the purpose of the Beis HaMikdash. The neck is, quite simply, the link between the head and the body - between the physical and intellectual-spiritual components of man. This is exactly the purpose of the Beis HaMikdash - it is a link. It links God and His spirituality to the physical world, a conduit of spiritual flux through which two unlike realms can meet.

The Arizal, in another context, expands the concept of the neck a little further. There are three primary organs in the neck: the gullet, the windpipe, and the jugulars. Each of these has not just a physical purpose, but a distinct spiritual one, too. The windpipe produces the sounds of prayer and Torah study. The gullet ingests food, which will be separated into its components - the good parts used for kedushah, holiness, to strengthen the body for its holy function, and the waste eliminated. The good parts eventually vitalize the blood, which is transported from the heart to the brain via the jugulars, strengthening the intellectual faculties.

Continuing our explanation, we should be able to detect each of these three functions not only in the physical neck, but also in the spiritual neck, the Beis HaMikdash. Indeed, we can see that the Beis HaMikdash acted as a conduit for all prayers, as our Sages tell us:

One should direct his heart [during prayer] toward the Kodesh HaKodashim [the Holy of Holies]. (Berachos 30a)

Every prayer is elevated to God via the Beis HaMikdash, the place where heaven and earth meet. There were also songs of praise sung with every offering brought in the Beis HaMikdash, which ascended via the same route. These correspond to the role of the windpipe in the physical version of the neck. The offerings themselves, which were consumed on the mizbei'ach (altar) are akin to the physical swallowing performed by the gullet. Finally, the confessions and regret for past deeds which were a prerequisite for a successful offering correspond to the jugulars.

Confession is an activity which, like the jugulars, link man's intellectual and physical components. The penitent realizes his error and confesses, subjugating his emotions and actions to his new way of life. This link between the brain and the body is akin to the flow of nourishing blood which the jugulars transfer between them.

We can now appreciate why the Beis HaMikdash is described as a neck. At the moment when Yosef met Binyamin, they embraced, and each wept on the other's neck. This meeting, laden with meaning, embodied all their hopes and disappointments for their lives and those of their descendants: the construction of the Beis HaMikdash, the focus of Jewish life, and its ultimate destruction.

* * *


Let us turn now to the meeting between Yosef and Yaakov. The midrash which describes Yaakov's actions is difficult to understand. Yaakov did not kiss his son because he was saying the Shema. Surely if it was time for this mitzvah, Yosef should also have been performing it! The Maharal, in his super-commentary to Rashi, offers a resolution to this difficulty:

When Yaakov saw Yosef his son as king, his heart was filled with love and fear of God, noticing how His means of dealing with the world are good and perfect and how He rewards those who fear Him. This is the practice of chassidim - when good things happen to them, they cleave to God because of the good and faithful acts that He has done for them. This is represented by saying the Shema, in which the unity of the Kingdom of Heaven is mentioned, as well as the love that we must have for it. It was appropriate for him to say the Shema when Yosef came to him; after all the trouble that he had had because of his son, now that he saw him as king, he loved God Who had done this for him. So he accepted upon himself His kingship and His love and fear. (Gur Aryeh on Rashi, Bereishis 46:29)

It was not the time for saying Shema, as on every morning and evening, but instead a spontaneous gesture of love for God which was particularly pertinent to Yaakov's circumstances.

* * *


We may suggest a slightly different way of understanding this episode. Yaakov's journey to Egypt marked the beginning of a dark period in Jewish history: the Egyptian exile. The Ramban explains:

For when Yaakov came to go down to Egypt, he perceived that the exile was beginning for him and his descendants. He was frightened of this and so offered sacrifices to the God of his father, Yitzchak, so that the rule of strict justice would not be stretched out before him. (Ramban, Bereishis 46:10)

At the moment of entry to Egypt, as the exile was beginning, Yaakov took action to ameliorate the strict din. This he achieved by saying the Shema. By accepting the unity of God and pledging his love to Him, Yaakov was able to reach beyond the din and invoke the mercy of God for his descendants. The lesson of this is clear: the beginning of every activity is crucial; the success of the whole enterprise will depend on the quality of the start. Yaakov wanted to ensure that the Egyptian exile commenced with a declaration of faith in the unity of God and in Yaakov's love for Him. This would ensure that this leitmotif would characterize the whole exile. Yaakov hoped and prayed that throughout his descendants' travails in Egypt, their predominant experience would be one of Divine mercy quashing harsh judgment.

When Yaakov met Yosef at the border of Canaan and Egypt, Yaakov's feelings of love for his son were intensely aroused. Yaakov Avinu expressed these feelings not to his son, but instead redirected them to the Source of all love, toward God. So began the Egyptian exile, just as Yaakov wanted - with an expression of intense love for God.

This explains why Yosef did not say Shema when he met his father. We can be certain that Yosef was overjoyed to see Yaakov after so many years and doubtless turned his feelings of love and gratitude heavenward, as did his father. There was, however, a crucial difference. Yosef was already in exile; the opening moments of his exilic experience were long past. He had lived in Egypt for years and, as such, was not starting anything new or spectacular at the moment when he met Yaakov. As it was not a beginning, saying Shema could not fulfill the same function for Yosef as it could for Yaakov. We now understand why, while Yosef wept to see his father again, Yaakov remained aloof, choosing instead to say Shema and to connect to the Divine.

Excerpted from Shem MiShmuel by the Sochatchover Rebbe, rendered into English by Rabbi Zvi Belovski, published by Targum Press. Click here to order.


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