Parshat Vayeshev: Refusing Comfort

“When it comes to feelings, there are few things in life more terrible than the death of a child”.[1] Thus it is unsurprising this week’s parsha tells us that, upon coming to the conclusion that his beloved son Yosef has been killed, Yaakov refused to be comforted – “וימאן להתנחם”.[2] Despite the Rambam, who rules that “אין בוכין על המת יתר משלושה ימים” the pasuk tells us Yaakov mourned the loss of his son for “ימים רבים”.[3] However, when codifying the halachot of mourning, the Shulchan Arach writes that “שלא להתקשות על המת וותר מדאי”; unlike the Rambam’s opinion that one should not mourn for more than thirty days, the Shulchan Arach holds one should not mourn more than necessary.[4] Yaakov cried over his son for more than thirty days because he “understood that the Halacha sets down the minimum requirement… a person who feels a need to mourn longer” is permitted to do so.[5]

The brothers never told Yaakov that Yosef had been killed, they presented him with Yosef’s bloodied coat and Yaakov concluded “חיה רעה אכלתהו טרף טרף יוסף”.[6] The infinitive absolute highlights the strength of Yaakov’s emotions upon seeing the garment. But he never sees a body. Experts assert that “all evidence suggests that seeing the body of the dead person is an important part of the adjustment process: it provides an opportunity to see… the realities of death”, an opportunity that Yaakov is never granted.[7] Thus he cannot be comforted because he hasn’t had the necessary closure, he cannot resign himself to the reality of his son being dead. This is something Rashi hints to in his commentary; quoting the Midrash Aggadah, he writes  “אין אדם מקבל תנחומין על החי”.[8] Without a body, without concrete proof of death, to be comforted becomes a sign of betrayal to a loved son; refusal to be comforted becomes a sign of loyalty, a sign of hope. So Yaakov continues to mourn, for twenty three years according to Rashi’s calculation.[9]

The poem Pearl, written by the Gawain poet, similarly deals with the theme of a bereaved parent (see summary here: http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.201108031003 12957). At the beginning of the poem, the narrator tells the reader “I slode upon a slepyng-slaghte” before he has a vision of his deceased daughter.[10] The fact the narrator dreams about his daughter suggests he is thinking about her; he too has not come to terms with his loss, with the “pitiless hand of fate (that) tore her away at the tenderest age.”[11]

The poem’s tight and intricate structure is suggestive of this iron hand of fate which controls the Dreamer’s life. “The verbal patterning of Pearl is closely linked to its geometry and numerology”; the poem is constructed of twenty cantos, with sixty lines each, and would have been perfectly complete with exactly 100 stanzas and 1200 lines, had the poet not added one extra stanza.[12] The extra stanza, bringing the poem’s length to 101 stanzas, suggests a repetition of a cycle. This theme is also highlighted in the poem by the Gawain poet’s use of concatenation, which links each stanza of the poem to those preceding and succeeding it and links the last stanza back to the first stanza through the repetition of key words. The circular structure and the motif of the spherical pearl at the heart of this poem perhaps allude to the concept of the “Wheel of Fortune”, a symbol of the capricious hand of fate as controlling life and death. Fate stole the Dreamer’s daughter.

However, the main narrative within the poem concerns itself with convincing the Dreamer, and the reader, that there is no need to mourn because his daughter is a queen in heaven, she has been elevated beyond earthly comprehension. By the end of the poem, the dreamer declares “so wel is me in thys doel-doungoun/That thou art to that Prynses pave”, a statement of acceptance. Although the presentation of the dreamer throughout the poem suggests these lines “are indicative more of self-pity than of acceptance of his fate”, they still evoke some sense of closure at the poem’s end because, even if he cannot accept or understand it, the Dreamer has been made aware that his daughter is content and this is comforting.[13]

In contrast, Yaakov receives no comfort. Yet his refusal to be comforted has paradoxically positive overtones. Contrary to the belief in blind fate, Jews “believe that God is with us as we travel through time”.[14] Because Yosef is still alive, Yaakov’s loyalty to his beloved son is not in vain and his unspoken hope eventually becomes reality. Yaakov’s refusing to be comforted, therefore, represents breaking out of the cyclical nature of the “Wheel of Fortune”; it tells of hope clung to and realised. We are not caught in an unbreakable cycle of fate. Because, ultimately, although there is death and hardship, exemplified by Yosef’s disappearance bringing his family down to Egypt and subsequently being exiled there, there is redemption too. Yaakov hoped and received redemption; the Jews in Egypt cried out to Hashem in their suffering with the hope He would answer and received redemption; when the Jewish people hope, we receive redemption.

The pasuk describing Yaakov’s refusal to be comforted is poignantly echoed by Yermiyahu, who prophesises in relation to the redemption of the Jewish people “כה אמר ה קול ברמה נשמע נהי בכי תמרורים רחל מבכה על בניה מאנה להנחם על בניה כי איננו”.[15] Fittingly, Yaakov’s wife and Yosef’s mother also refuses to be comforted when she sees her children in pain. As they are exiled from their land, as it appears the Jewish people are walking towards their deaths, as she sees the bloodied garments of her children, Rachel too refuses to be comforted, refuses to give up hope.

And Yermiyahu’s prophecy ends with a fitting message to the Jewish people “כה אמר ה מנעי קולך מבכי ועיניך מדמעה כי יש שכר לפעלתך…ויש תקוה…ושבו בנום לגבולם”.[16] The refusal to be comforted, the refusal to give up hope, means that hope still remains and can be fulfilled. “It is not too much to say that Jewish survival was sustained in that hope”, the hope of Yaakov who saw Yosef again, the hope of Rachel whose children did return home, the hope of the Jewish people who will, hopefully one day soon, see the final redemption.[17]

[1] Andrew Bennett & Nicholas Royle, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 5th edn (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), p. 94

[2] Bereishit 37: 35

[3] Rambam, Hilchot Aval, 13: 10; Bereishit 37: 34

[4] Shulchan Orach, Yoreh Deah, 394: 1

[5] Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, ‘And He Refused to be Comforted’, <https://www.etzion.org.il/en/%E2%80%9Cand-he-refused-be-comforted%E2%80%9D>, posted November 2011, accessed 28.11.18

[6] Bereishit, 37: 33

[7] Beverley Raphael, The Anatomy of Bereavement: A Handbook for the Caring Professions, (New York: Routledge, 1985), p.

[8] Rashi, Bereishit 37: 35

[9] Rashi, Bereishit 37: 34

[10] Gawain Poet, Pearl, ed. Sarah Stanbury < http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/stanbury-pearl> , 2001, accessed 28.11.18, l. 59

[11] William Henry Schofield, ‘The Nature and Fabric of The Pearl’, PMLA, 19.1 (1904), 154-215 (p. 156)

[12] Barbara Newman, ‘The Artifice of Eternity’, in Envisaging Heaven in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 189

[13] Gawain Poet, Pearl, ed. Sarah Stanbury < http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/stanbury-pearl> , 2001, accessed 28.11.18, ll. 1187 – 88; Susan Uelstead, ‘The Thematic Use of Biblical Allegory in the Poems of the MS. Cotton Nero A.X.4’, <https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/bitstream/11375/10054/1/fulltext.pdf>, December 1978, accessed 28.11.18

[14] Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, ‘Improbable Endings and the Defeat of Despair (Vayeshev 5778), <http://rabbisacks.org/improbable-endings-defeat-despair-vayeshev-5778>, posted 04.12.17, accessed 29.11.18

[15] Yermiyahu, 31: 15

[16] Yermiyahu, 31: 16-17

[17] Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, ‘Refusing Comfort, Keeping Hope (Vayeshev 5779), <http://rabbisacks.org/refusing-comfort-keeping-hope-vayeshev-5779/>, posted 26.11.18, accessed 29.11.18

About the Author
After being born and raised in London and then spending a year in Israel, I am currently studying for a degree in English Literature. I love finding connections between Torah and the texts that I'm reading for my course, discovering how ideas overlap and diverge in both content and presentation.
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