I haven’t looked at The Little Midrash Says for many years and don’t plan on starting, but an image from there pops out from my memory bank. From last week’s parashah, with the incredibly powerfully emotional meeting between the brothers and Yosef, and then Yosef and his father Yaakov, and the midrash about Yaakov saying Shema.
So you get answers like this from this interpretation of the Maharal that Yaakov and Yosef were in the middle of saying Shema but Yosef could interrupt out of fear of Yaakov. Hmmm…
Then there is this:
The Maharal explains that Yaakov felt a tremendous outpouring of love and wanted to direct it towards Hashem. He felt tremendous gratitude and love to Hashem for returning his son alive and therefore wanted to show it by being מקבל עול מלכות שמים.
The Netziv has a very different explanation. He explains as follows based on the Targum Yonasan. The Targum explains that Yosef wanted to fulfill his dream (that his father would bow down to him) and therefore he came to his father dressed in his royal garb so that his father would not recognize him and bow down to him. Yosef’s plan worked, however, Yaakov was annoyed with Yosef for forcing the dream to come true in that way and making him bow down. Therefore to stifle his annoyance he said Shema. Yosef, realized that he had made a mistake in making his father bow to him and therefore cried on Yaakov’s shoulders.
Much better, but something is still missing. Is it that Yaakov is aloof and concentrating on his relationship with Hashem? Or could it just be as simple as a prayer of thanks?
But I did find something online that is much deeper and much more satisfying, that combines the question of the Shema recitation of the sons at Yaakov’s deathbed (hurray for the Virtual Beit Midrash!). You should read the whole thing but I’m quoting what I find the most moving part:
We must realize that this is not simply a family reunion: it is also the moment in which Yaakov first treads upon Egyptian soil. I would like to suggest that for Yosef this is a reunion after two decades of separation from his beloved father, and hence Yosef encounters his father and weeps; but for Yaakov, this is a genuinely frightening moment. Yaakov is fully aware that he is leading his sons and his family into a centuries-long galut! He knows that in the slavery and persecution of exile, their faith will be sorely tested.
Yaakov recites the Shema when he meets his son as he accepts upon himself the yoke of the Egyptian exile. He knows that only with strong faith can a person or a nation endure galut. Now, on his deathbed, he passes on that message of faith: if we remain true to our belief in God, then we will survive the tribulations of exile.
But my original question was actually something else as well; was Yaakov covering his eyes when he said Shema, like I seem to recall from the illustrations? That would be my problem. And I think that image of covering eyes from life is iconic for how many people lead their lives as Jews today. If we accept what Rabbi Israel says above, then we cannot cover our eyes.
This is especially true today on Asarah B’Tevet, the fast that commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem.