Covenant and Conversation - The refusal to be comforted
Britain's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Vayishlach - 25th Kislev 5767
The deception has taken place. Joseph has been sold into slavery. His brothers have dipped his coat in blood. They bring it back to their father, saying: “Look what we have found. Do you recognise it? Is this your son’s robe or not?” Jacob recognised it and replied, “It is my son’s robe. A wild beast has devoured him. Joseph has been torn to pieces.” We then read:
Jacob rent his clothes, put on sackcloth, and mourned his son for a long time. His sons and daughters tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. He said, “I will go down to the grave mourning for my son.” (37: 34-35)
Why did Jacob refuse to be comforted? There are laws in Judaism about the limits of grief – shiva, sheloshim, a year. There is no such thing as a bereavement for which grief is endless. The Gemara (Moed Katan 27b) says that G-d says to one who weeps beyond the appointed time, “You are not more compassionate than I.”
A midrash gives a remarkable answer. “One can be comforted for one who is dead, but not for one who is still living.” Jacob refused to be comforted because he had not yet given up hope that Joseph was still alive. That, tragically, is the fate of those who have lost members of their family (the parents of soldiers missing in action, for example), but have as yet no proof that they are dead. They cannot go through the normal stages of mourning because they cannot abandon the possibility that the missing person is still capable of being rescued. Their continuing anguish is a form of loyalty; to give up, to mourn, to be reconciled to loss is a kind of betrayal. In such cases, grief lacks closure. To refuse to be comforted is to refuse to give up hope.
On what basis did Jacob continue to hope? Surely he had recognized Joseph’s blood-stained coat and said, explicitly, “A wild beast had devoured him. Joseph has been torn to pieces”? Do these words not mean that he had accepted that Joseph was dead?
The late David Daube made a suggestion that I find convincing. The words the sons say to Jacob – haker na, “do you recognise this?” – have a quasi-legal connotation. Daube relates this passage to another, with which it has close linguistic parallels:
If a man gives a donkey, an ox, a sheep or any other animal to his neighbour for safekeeping and it dies or is injured or is taken away while no one is looking, the issue between them will be settled by the taking of an oath before the Lord that the neighbour did not lay hands on the other person’s property . . . If it was torn to pieces by a wild animal, he shall bring the remains as evidence and he will not be required to pay for the torn animal. (Shemot 22: 10-13)
The issue at stake is the extent of responsibility borne by a guardian (shomer). If the animal is lost through negligence, the guardian is at fault and must make good the loss. If there is no negligence, merely force majeure, an unavoidable, unforeseeable accident, the guardian is exempt from blame. One such case is where the loss has been caused by a wild animal. The wording in the law – tarof yitaref, “torn to pieces” – exactly parallels Jacob’s judgment in the case of Joseph: tarof toraf Yosef, “Joseph has been torn to pieces.”
We know that some such law existed prior to the giving of the Torah. Jacob himself says to Laban, whose flocks and herds have been placed in his charge, “I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself” (31: 39). This implies that guardians even then were exempt from responsibility for the damage caused by wild animals. We also know that an elder brother carried a similar responsibility for the fate of a younger brother placed in his charge (i.e. when the two were alone together). That is the significance of Cain’s denial when confronted by G-d as to the fate of Abel: “Am I my brother’s guardian ?”
We now understand a series of nuances in the encounter between Jacob and his sons, when they return without Joseph. Normally they would be held responsible for their younger brother’s disappearance. To avoid this, as in the case of later biblical law, they “bring the remains as evidence.” If those remains show signs of an attack by a wild animal, they must – by virtue of the law then operative – be held innocent. Their request to Jacob, haker na, must be construed as a legal request, meaning, “Examine the evidence.” Jacob has no alternative but to do so, and in virtue of what he has seen, acquit them. A judge, however, may be forced to acquit someone accused of the crime because the evidence is insufficient to justify a conviction, yet he may hold lingering private doubts. So Jacob was forced to find his sons innocent, without necessarily believing what they said. Jacob did not believe it, and his refusal to be comforted shows that he was unconvinced. He continued to hope that Joseph was still alive. That hope was eventually justified. Joseph was still alive, and eventually father and son were re-united.
The refusal to be comforted sounded more than once in Jewish history. The prophet Jeremiah heard it in a later age:
This is what the Lord says:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
Mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
And refusing to be comforted,
Because her children are no more.”
This is what the Lord says:
“Restrain your voice from weeping,
And your eyes from tears,
For your work will be rewarded,” says the Lord.
“They will return from the land of the enemy.
So there is hope for your future,” declares the Lord,
“Your children will return to their own land.” (Jeremiah 31: 15-17)
Why was Jeremiah sure that Jews would return? Because they refused to be comforted – meaning, they refused to give up hope.
So it was during the Babylonian exile, in one of the great expressions of all time of the refusal to be comforted:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept,
As we remembered Zion . . .
How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget ,
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you,
If I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. (Psalm 137: 1-6)
It is said that Napoleon, passing a synagogue on Tisha B’Av, heard the sounds of lamentation. “What are the Jews crying for?” he asked one of his officers. “For Jerusalem,” he replied. “How long ago did they lose it?” “More than 1,700 hundred years ago.” “A people who can mourn for Jerusalem so long, will one day have it restored to them,” he is reputed to have replied.
Jews are the people who refused to be comforted because they never gave up hope. Jacob did eventually see Joseph again. Rachel’s children did return to the land. Jerusalem is once again the Jewish home. All the evidence may suggest otherwise: it may seem to signify irretrievable loss, a decree of history that cannot be overturned, a fate that must be accepted. Jews never believed the evidence because they had something else to set against it – a faith, a trust, an unbreakable hope that proved stronger than historical inevitability. It is not too much to say that Jewish survival was sustained in that hope. Where did it come from? From a simple – or perhaps not so simply – phrase in the life of Jacob. He refused to be comforted. And so – while we live in a world still scarred by violence, poverty and injustice—must we.
One of the turning points in Jewish history came in the struggle against the Greeks that we celebrate in the festival of Hannukah.
Israel had become a pawn in the struggle between the two great dynasties that followed Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria. In 175 BCE Antiochus IV came to the throne in Syria, determined to turn Israel into part of its empire, not just militarily but culturally too. In the Temple, he set up a statue of Zeus. Impure animals were offered up as sacrifices. The practise of Judaism was banned. Jews called it ‘the abomination of desolation’. In Modin an old priest called Mattathias rose in revolt. His sons, most famously Judah the Maccabee, continued the struggle. Eventually they took Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple.
The revolution, though, might have died almost before it had begun. The book of Maccabees describes the moment when the rebels fled and hid in the desert. Antiochus’ army pursued them. The day they found them was a Shabbat. Mattathias’ supporters, all of them deeply pious Jews, refused to wage war on the day of rest. They were massacred. They died as religious heroes, but they died none the less.
Those who remained faced a fateful dilemma. Was it better to die or fight back?
When Mattityahu and his friends heard the news they mourned greatly. But they said to one another: ‘If we all do as our brothers did, and if we do not fight for our lives and teachings, we will be destroyed from the face of the earth.’ That day they discussed and decided: ‘If someone makes war against us on the Sabbath day, we will fight back, and let us not all die as our brothers died in their hiding place.’
That decision to resist and fight back ended in victory. Without it Israel may have remained a Greek province, its religion extinguished. There would have been no Judaism, indeed no Christianity.
Almost the same sequence of events occurred more than two thousand years later. The year was 1943, and the place the Warsaw ghetto. There Jews were herded by the Nazis, seven to a room. More than eighty thousand died of hunger and sickness. Hundreds of thousands were taken in trains to the concentration camps. Once again the fateful question was asked: to die or fight back?
For eighteen hundred years Jews had become used to martyrdom. They had died, as they did at Auschwitz, for Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of G-d’s name. But in the Warsaw ghetto a religious leader, Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum, made a remarkable speech. ‘This is the time’, he said, ‘for the sanctification of life, not the sanctification of martyrdom. In the past, our enemies sought Jewish souls. But now the enemies demand the Jew’s body, so he must defend his body and preserve his life.’
It was a turning point as great as that of Mattathias. The Jews of the Warsaw ghetto rose up to defend themselves. From 19 April to 16 May, weak, few in number, poorly armed and surrounded, they held off the German army. Eventually they were defeated, but they had won a great moral victory. Since then – most notably in the State of Israel – Jewish character has been transformed. After the Holocaust, the religion of martyrdom has acquired an ethic of defence.
Jews hate wars. Perhaps no other people prays so often and so passionately for peace. But sanctifying life may mean defending life. In an unredeemed world, one may sometimes have to take up arms to save life itself. It took two extraordinary crises to provoke the Jewish people into resistance, the one in Modin, the other in the Warsaw ghetto. For there is only one thing Judaism values above peace – and that is life itself.
(From ‘Faith in the Future’ Published by Darton, Longman and Todd 1995 – pages 190-192)