Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1520-1572), in his gloss on the Shulchan Aruch 98:1, codifies a law relating to conduct in the synagogue. “It is forbidden to kiss one’s young children in synagogue, in order to establish in one’s heart that there is no love that equals the love of the Omnipresent.” The Vilna Gaon, in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch , points to a passage in the Zohar as a source for this law. The passage that he cites is actually referring to awe of the Almighty, and rules that one must not be in awe of anyone but God Himself. The Vilna Gaon evidently understands that Rabbi Isserles expands the concept expressed by the Zohar regarding awe of Heaven to love of Heaven as well, and showing affection to one’s children in synagogue inappropriately dilutes one’s love of the Almighty. A book called Nimukei Rashi, published in 1929 by Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857 – 1935) , the Rabbi of Hoboken, New Jersey in the 1920’s, offers a different explanation of this gloss, based on Jacob’s conduct at his reunion with his son Joseph.
The moment had finally arrived. After believing for so many long and sad years that his son Joseph was dead and then eventually receiving a report that he was in fact still alive, Jacob was finally close to the Egyptian border en route to reunite with his son. Joseph, in anticipation of his elderly and venerated father’s arrival, had personally prepared his royal carriage and then set out to greet him. When Joseph reached his father and his entourage and embraced him while crying uncontrollably, Jacob’s reaction (or, lack thereof) would teach him an unforgettable lesson that would also serve as an example to posterity.
Rashi points out, apparently motivated by his detection of the seemingly one-sided embrace in the verse (Bereishit 46:29), that Joseph was the only one to engage in the embrace – but Jacob did not reciprocate. Rashi explains, based on a Midrash, that Jacob neither embraced nor kissed his beloved, long-lost son Joseph because, as the sages explain, he was in the middle of reciting the Shema prayer. Embracing Joseph would have interfered with his devotion to God, and Jacob was not willing to detract from that devotion even at what was arguably the happiest moment in his entire life.
The Midrash Derech Eretz Zuta (Chapter 1), uses this incident as a prototype for a general rule of conduct. “Forgo the will of your friend and your own will, from before the will of Heaven; for that is what we find regarding Jacob, that he did not kiss Joseph.” Rabbi Hirschensohn suggests that this Midrash is the authentic source for the law codified by Rabbi Isserles forbidding showing affection to one’s children in the synagogue. He explains that affection for one’s children has a completely different nature than love of Heaven, and therefore can not interfere with it. The object of the law is actually as it’s expressed by Derech Eretz Zuta , that a person must prioritize their service of the Almighty and not be distracted by either personal or social needs and wants.
It is obvious that showing one’s children affection is a positive thing; the message of this law is that even this positive thing must not interfere with our focus at shul. There are many things in life that are in essence positive or harmless activities, but only if they don’t interfere with other important life activities. Because of my spending a few days this week away from home, I had little access to the Internet, including email and Google. It has made me realize how instinctive and habitual it has become to check my email or look up something online – with little regard for whatever else I may be doing, or its importance. Jacob vividly reminds us of the necessity to identify what is truly important in our lives, particularly in the area of spirituality, and – even when it is challenging – to give it the full attention that it deserves.