Parshat Vayeshev: Never Giving Up Hope
Rabbanit Sally Mayer is the Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Lindenbaum‘s Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program
Yaakov was inconsolable. He sent his favorite son Yosef to check on his brothers in Shechem, but Yosef never returned. Yosef’s brothers have sold him to slave traders on their way to Egypt, and they send their father Yosef’s special coat, dipped in goat blood, to deceive Yaakov into thinking that Yosef had been eaten by a wild animal. Using a goat to deceive their father as Yaakov had done to his father Yitzchak years before, their ruse succeeds, and Yaakov concludes that Yosef has died. The Torah relates that “All of his sons and all of his daughters got up to console him, but he refused to be comforted, saying, ‘I will go to the grave mourning my son’; and his father cried over him” (Breishit 37:35).
Why would Yaakov not accept comfort over the death of his son? Rashi cites the midrash that one cannot be comforted over the loss of someone who has not actually passed away, only over someone who is truly gone. This may be understood in a mystical sense, but perhaps also reflects a psychological truth – when there is closure, it is possible to grieve and then to continue on with the memory and legacy of those we have lost. Without the closure of actually finding and burying Yosef, Yaakov could not go through the stages of grief; a part of him still hoped that Yosef was alive, which indeed he was.
The phrase “וימאן להתנחם” – “He refused to be comforted” – appears in this combination only one other time in the entire Tanach, and that is in the famous verses in Yirmiyahu (31:14), “A voice is heard upon high, lamentation and bitter crying, Rachel is crying for her children, מאנה להנחם – she refuses to be comforted over her children, for they are gone.” Why are these exact words used again here, to describe Rachel’s weeping over her exiled children, so many generations later?
In Yirmiyahu, Rachel cries over her sons who have been exiled from Israel and suffer in captivity, just as her husband Yaakov cried over Yosef who is also in captivity in a strange land. Hashem responds to Rachel’s crying by telling her to “Refrain your voice from crying and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded, says Hashem, and they will return from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your future, says Hashem, and your children will return to their own border.” God is telling Rachel that you are right to refuse to be comforted – just as Yaakov could not accept consolation over Yosef because he was actually still alive, so too you refuse to be comforted because your children will indeed return to Israel and resettle the land.
Yosef ends his life with the message of hope to his brothers, passed down for generations until the Jews left Egypt – God will redeem you from Egypt and bring you back to Israel. We are the children of Yaakov and Rachel, for 2000 years refusing to be comforted over our exile, praying for and dreaming of returning home. Baruch Hashem, we are witnessing this long-awaited return to Israel that grows by the year, affirming Yaakov and Rachel’s refusal to be comforted over the children who are not really gone, still keeping the dream of the Jewish People in the Jewish homeland very much alive.