Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
PARSHAT VAYESHEVB'rayshit (Genesis) 37:1-40:23
Haftorah - Amos 2:6-3:8
Then Ya'acov (Jacob) rent his garments and placed sackcloth upon his loins, he mourned his son [Yosef] for many days" (B'rayshit 37:34)
Our tradition teaches us that the greatest pain a person can experience occurs when one buries his own child. Other forms of death are expected - we hope to outlive our parents. Even so, I still have trouble reconciling that Ya'acov, our father, who struggled with G-d and with man and prevailed could not overcome this agony.
Even though Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 1040 - 1105) explains this verse saying that the phrase "Yamim Rabim (for many days)" means that Ya'acov mourned for twenty two years, corresponding to the twenty two years that he was separated from his father. But it still leaves us with a difficulty. Why couldn't he overcome his agony?
The Ramban (an acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman [Nachmanides], Gerona, 1194 - 1270) adds another dimension to this question. He relates the loss of his son as a personal condemnation. The Ramban writes that until this time: "No child ever died in the Patriarchal household, for the offspring of the righteous were blessed. Because of this, Ya'acov mourned for his son for so long and refused to be comforted, for he considered Yosef's death to be a severe punishment for him."
The Midrash (B'rayshit Rabbah 84:21) asks, why was Yehudah (Judah) consoled over the death of his wife (B'rayshit 38:12) while Ya'acov refused to be comforted over the apparent death of Yosef (37:35)? The Bait Halevi (Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soliveitchik, Brisk, Lithuania, 1820 - 1892) gives us the answer.
Ya'acov knew prophetically that one of the Patriarchs would give birth to 12 sons who would establish 12 tribes that would become a great nation. Ya'acov grieved not only over the loss of his son, but because he thought that he could not be the progenitor of the twelve tribes, the foundation of the Jewish people. The Midrash elaborates:
"Ya'acov took twelve stones (when he departed from his home and dreamt that angels were ascending and descending a ladder), for Hashem had decreed that He would establish twelve tribes. Ya'acov said: ‘Neither Avraham nor Yitzchak bore them. But if these twelve stones shall become one, I will know that I will be the one to establish the twelve tribes." (B'rayshit Rabbah 68:11)Ya'acov devoted his life to building the House of Israel. For this, he labored in the house of Lavan and suffered at the hands of Eisav. So when Ya'acov believed that one of the twelve tribes had been destroyed, he felt that his life's work had been for nought. Therefore, he mourned Yosef for twenty-two years lamenting, "...I will descend mournfully to my son, to Sheol" (37:35).
Yet why couldn't Ya'acov remarry and father another son in Yosef's stead? B'rayshit 31:50 states that Lavan made him swear not to take any more wives. This is explained by Yalkut Shimoni 143 (the best known and most comprehensive Midrashic anthology, attributed to Rabbi Shimon HaDarshan, Frankfurt, Germany, 13th century):
"Ya'acov lamented: ‘The covenant of the tribes has been broken! How I struggled to establish twelve tribes, corresponding to the twelve signs of the zodiac, twelve hours of the day, twelve hours of the night, twelve months of the year, and twelve jewels of the Ephod. (a breast plate worn by the High Priest)!' Yet Ya'acov would not marry another woman and father another song because of his oath to Lavan."For twenty-two years, Ya'acov suffered the frustration of his hopes and dreams. He never released himself from his oath, lest he enrage Lavan and cause a Chilul Hashem (a desecration of Hashem's name). This must have been a tremendous trial, perhaps as great as the trial of the Akeidah (the test of Avraham, to sacrifice his son Yitzchak).
Ya'acov did not merely mourn that his favorite son died a premature and unnatural death. Nor did he become depressed that the body of his son was never found. Ya'acov, a prophet of Israel, knew that his life's struggles were necessary to establish a "chosen" nation that would eventually bring enlightenment to the world. That goal was now shattered. This caused the depression that consumed Ya'acov.
Rashi teaches us that prophets lose their ability to receive prophesy when depression sets in. During the 22 years that Ya'acov mourned he received no instruction, no communication, nor any divine consolation. He was unaware of why and so imagined that it was due to his disrespect of his parents by not contacting his father. The death of a patriarchal son had never happened before and he blamed himself.
We know that Yosef was not dead, and that he was paving the way for the 12 tribes to become a nation. He was fulfilling the covenant made between Hashem and his grandfather Avraham (15:13-16). Yosef's separation from his father for 22 years was an atonement for Ya'acov's separation from his parents. The road to recovery is set in motion by the very events that cause us so much pain.
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