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When his sons return to Jacob with the news that Joseph was alive, well, and directing the affairs of the Land of Egypt, the Torah records that he received the news with:
His heart rejected it, he did not believe them (45:25).
Only after they gave the details of Josephs words and indicated the wagons all set and prepared to take him down to Egypt:
The spirit of their father Jacob revived (45:26).
Indeed, the Torah does recount Jacob's receiving the news in meticulous detail.
Midrashic sources fit the details into the tradition that Serach the daughter of Asher (46:17) returned to Jacob in advance of the brothers and played the harp with a moving song that Joseph was still alive, and he blessed her for having made him a happier man. That was to put him in the right mood for the brothers' entry declaring that yes, Joseph was still alive. But Jacob did not believe them. Were Joseph still in this world, it would have shown that the brothers lied when his coat of many colors had been sent back soaked in blood. And those that lie were not to be believed in the future. But their details of Joseph's words struck the note of authenticity with Jacob, demonstrating that they could have come from nobody other than Joseph, and so "the spirit of their father Jacob revived".
The S'forno carefully examines the series of Jacob's reactions and brings knowledge of natural sciences and medicine to his unique explanation. Bear in mind that the S'forno studied at the University of Rome in the early years of the Renaissance, graduating in medicine in 1501.
When Jacob heard the news: "Joseph is still alive", his "heart rejected it". S'forno writes that his pulse dropped, and his heartbeat slowed as happens when a person faints. He was fainting even though he did not believe his sons. Thus the sequence of events is:
(a) "Joseph is still alive": the mere mention of his name was sufficient to reactivate his deep grief, putting his "heart" in a state of "reject", fainting. (b) "For he did not believe them" actually helped Jacob as it tempered what otherwise would have been extreme emotion. The S'forno notes that the shock of sudden joy as well as sudden grief can cause death. In doing so, he recognizes the fundamental relationship between the workings of the mind and the workings of the body. Medics would term the deceleration of the heart being tempered with acceleration as prophylactic.
(c) "They told him details of Joseph's words" included the information of the continuation of the famine "there will be another five years of neither plowing nor harvest" (45:6) which tempered the good news with some bad news. And thus:
(d) "The spirit of their father Jacob revived". What made that possible was his extreme joy being reduced by the suffering that would take place in the immediate years ahead.
Thus "the spirit of their father Jacob revived" means "he was healed from his (potentially fatal) fainting spell by gradually mixing the joy with worry".
Indeed, people should be aware of the need for showing due consideration to not only those who have suffered tragedy, but also extreme, sudden joy.
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
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