Joseph’s Tears and Toxic Masculinity

As the biblical story of Joseph comes to its climax in this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash, we note his tears.

The story in quick summation: Joseph is the favored child of his father Jacob, much to the chagrin of his 11 brothers. Plus, Joseph has dreams that indicate that he will rise above his siblings. At first the brothers seek to kill him, then decide to sell him into slavery in Egypt.

In Egypt Joseph falls out of favor with his master and winds up in prison with two other disgraced servants to Pharaoh. They both have dreams, Joseph correctly interprets them, and he is eventually summoned out of prison when Pharaoh has dreams he can not understand. Interpreting them for Pharaoh as meaning that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine, Joseph is installed as the second in command in Egypt to oversee a plan of food storage to weather the famine.

When the famine does hit, it affects Joseph’s family back in Canaan, who then head down to Egypt for food. Joseph recognizes the brothers, they do not recognize him, and so he gives them food but tests them by planting a goblet in their sacks and accusing them of stealing. They stick up for each other, Joseph believes them to have changed, and he then reveals himself to them. Jacob and the rest of the family then move down to Egypt and are reunited with Joseph.

There are some details left out here, but that is the overall gist of the story. There are two times during the telling of the story that the Torah relates Joseph crying: first when he initially sees his brother Benjamin, and later when he reveals himself to them. The nature and circumstance of the crying, however, are different.

The first instance comes after Joseph has tested his brothers. He actually tested them twice: first he demanded that they return and bring back their brother Benjamin who was left back in Canaan, the second time he plants the goblet in Benjamin’s sack of food. When Benjamin makes his first appearance in front of Joseph (Benjamin being his full brother while the other brothers are technically half brothers), the text says, “Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there. Then he washed his face, reappeared, and—now in control of himself—gave the order ‘serve the meal.’” (Gen. 43:31) It is then that he administers the goblet test.

The second time he cries is when he reveals his identity to his brothers after they defend Benjamin from the false accusation of theft. The text then says, “So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.” (Gen. 45:1-2)

The striking difference of these instances is the first is private—Joseph leaves the room and cries in secret—and the second is public—he cries so loud everyone hears. And perhaps we can tie what happened next to the nature of the crying. In the first instance, after the private crying the text says he put on a different face and then acted out of anger and revenge in testing the brothers. In the second instance after the public crying he was able to reconcile and act out of love.

Is there a direct connection? It is unclear. But the scenes are familiar. Too often the message is given to boys and men that they are not to show emotion, and if they do, it should be in private. In public they are meant to be composed, strong. Is it a surprise, then, that after Joseph hides his true feelings of pain and longing he lashes out in anger? Only later when he is able to demonstrate his feelings openly is he able to react differently.

We talk about toxic masculinity these days—definitions of maleness or masculinity that promote expressions of anger as preferred and “strong,” and expressions of other emotions or vulnerability is seen as “weak.” While normative culture has preferred the former, we also see that much violence in our society is perpetrated by men, and is rooted in this notion.

As we embrace a more fluid definition of gender, we know too that certain traits are not gender-bound but culturally constructed, and it is possible, indeed it is necessary, to promote a different definition of what it means to be a “man,” one that embraces vulnerability and emotional expression and challenges traditional roles. As we do so, we come to know that what we seek to define is less about what it means to be a good “man” or a “woman,” but rather what it means to be a good “person.” That strength comes not from power and aggression but from compassion and love.

And here in the Torah’s story of Joseph we see both an example of toxic masculinity and its opposite. Like today, Joseph at first demonstrates how the suppression of emotion is linked to violence. Later he transcends that way of being to bring about healing. The sequence is not by accident, for here we have an ancient message of how we can and must move from destructive behavior to constructive behavior by embracing vulnerability and openness of feeling.

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