Comforted but Not Comfortable

A Thought for The Week: There was a custom – in the pre-translated Chumash days – that on Shabbat afternoon people who could barely read, and certainly understood no Hebrew, would gather in Shul to hear someone repeat (in Yiddish) the narrative of the events in the Torah reading that week. It is told that once, in the telling of the story of Joseph, as he begins the fateful journey “to seek his brothers” someone called out from the back, “Fool – why is he going? Doesn’t he remember what happened to him last year?”

There was a time when I related very well to that question. The story is so painful and the issues it raises are so difficult. I come to Shul for answers and each year it seems that this week I’m left with more questions. And then one year, listening to the Torah reading, I heard an answer. It wasn’t a word, a sentence, a concept, an insight – it was a musical note. A shalshelet. An unusual long, undulating, forward, backwards, high pitched, low pitched, sound – sung in the entire Torah a total of only four times.

It comes as Potiphar’s wife begins her unsuccessful attempt to seduce Joseph. “וימאן – and he refused”. The Talmud and Midrash (also quoted in Rashi) tell of a Joseph whose refusal was not without doubt. He was, in fact, on the cusp of submitting. And then his father’s image appeared in the window.

That image of his father gave him the ability to resist and flee. At that moment his וימאן , his refusal, became certain and absolute. He fled, knowing full well the likely consequences – but he had just seen his father.

How did that happen?  How did his father suddenly appear?  

I think that undulating shalshelet on וימאן gives us a hint. It’s as if the note is telling us “do you hear the word being said – you’ve heard that word once before”.

When Jacob is told that Yosef was (apparently) devoured, he mourns and is inconsolable. His family comes to comfort him – וַיְמָאֵן לְהִתְנַחֵם  he refuses to be comforted. Again that word – וַיְמָאֵן.

Why did he refuse? It would seem a better description would have been “and they were unable to comfort him”.

The loss of a child is like no other. The indescribable pain goes to the very core of ones being. Getting over it is like getting over an amputation. You don’t. You can never tell a parent who suffers that loss, “it’ll get better”; the best you can say is, “it’ll get easier”. But Yakov wouldn’t even accept that. וימאן – and he refused to be comforted.

For Jacob, his child’s dream of rising higher than the sun, the moon and the stars, was prophetic reality that he was determined to keep alive. Jacob refused to let that dream die. For him, despite the ongoing pain that refusing to let go causes, Joseph would remain alive.

In a very different world, torn from his family, a slave in a pagan and licentious culture, it appears that Joseph was about to let that dream go. To succumb to the blandishments of a society that says “live to enjoy now, even if it means you’ll never make an impression on the future.  And then from hundreds of miles away in space and eons removed in spirit – his father reaches down and says “Joseph – you’re destined to be a brilliant light forever – are you going to throw it away for this?”

That וימאן , that unyielding refusal to let go of that vision, is more powerful than we can possibly imagine.

It’s the story of Jacob and Joseph; it’s the story of Matisyahu and the Maccabees; it’s the story of the Nation of Israel. It is the greatest gift that those who came before us bequeathed to us.

It’s not comfortable, but it’s comforting.

Have a bright and happy Chanukah

About the Author
Yisrael Deren serves as Regional Director of Chabad Lubavitch in Connecticut and Senior Rabbi of Chabad of Stamford. Born in Davenport Iowa, raised in Pittsburgh, and educated under the Rebbe's supervision in Brooklyn and Israel, he, together with his wife Aviva, have been Shluchim of the Rebbe for close to 50 years.
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