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What’s With the Weeping on Necks?

When Joseph reunifies with his brothers, the text tells us that he and Benjamin wept on the other’s necks.

With that he fell on his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.

But Joseph does not weep on the necks of the other brothers!

He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him.

Why? What possible difference does the addition of “neck” add to the meaning of crying on Benjamin?

To answer this, we first must distinguish between different Torah words for neck. There is oref, used to describe stiff-necked behavior, and tzavah, which is the neck upon which one weeps.

But it is not found there first! Instead, the word tzavah, neck, is first used when Isaac tells Esau that Esau will eventually break the subservient connection to Jacob:

Yet by your sword you shall live, And you shall serve your brother; But when you grow restive, You shall break his yoke from your neck (tzavah).

Aha! The tzavah refers to a connection, a relationship, perhaps even one of a power imbalanced. The yoke around the neck shows which person is enslaved by the other.

Indeed, the same word for neck, tzavah,, is found when Pharoah appoints Joseph his #2!

And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck (tzavah).

The yoke may be golden, but it is still around the neck, yoking Joseph into service nevertheless. The neck is a place of connection, of enduring obligations and even inequal power relationships.

The word also appears much later in the text, in a curse:

You shall have to serve—in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything—the enemies whom G-d will let loose against you. [G-d] will put an iron yoke upon your neck (tzavah) until you are wiped out.

Which then answers our initial question: Joseph weeps on Benjamin’s neck (and it is reciprocated) because they are reconnecting. The tears form a means of deep bonding.

So we see this elsewhere in the text as well:

Joseph hitched his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel; he presented himself to him and, embracing him around the neck, he wept on his neck a good while.

Joseph and his father reconnect as well. But note that while Joseph weeps over his other brothers, he does not do so on their necks. He never succeeds in fully rebuilding trust between them, as subsequent events show. Similarly, when Jacob and Esau reunite, the verse is highly ambiguous. Esau runs to greet Jacob. He embraces him, he falls on his neck – but there is an extra word “and he kissed him”  — and he wept. It seems that Esau is trying to reconnect properly, but Jacob does not reciprocate. And the word for “kissed” interrupts the flow of the sequence. The crying is aborted; it does not reach Jacob’s neck, and the relationship, as we see, is being amicably severed instead of being rebuilt.

Weeping, by itself, is in the text usually about marking a loss or expressing regrets. But when paired with another person’s neck, it is a positive act of reconciliation and reunification, reinstating a severed relationship.

Comments are welcome!

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