Parashat Vayyigash 5778

Rabbi Janet Burden – 22 December 2017

It is hard to imagine what it might have felt like for Jacob to learn that his beloved son, Joseph, was alive after so many years spent mourning his loss. Jacob would have battled against denial much of that time, as parents who have lost a child habitually do. And now – 22 years later – he learns that he had been ‘wrong’ to accept the apparent fact of Joseph’s death.

No wonder Jacob is in such need of reassurance that he is sent a heavenly dream, as it says, “God addressed Israel in a night vision, saying, ‘Jacob, Jacob!’ And he said, ‘Here I am!’ [God] said, ‘I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great people there. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will most surely bring you back up as well; and Joseph will lay his hand upon your eyes'” (Genesis 46:2-4).

The message of the dream might strike you, as it did me, as a bit odd. Let’s set aside for the moment that this part of the text may well have been added by some later hand, striving to knit together the Torah narrative through foreshadowing. Taking the words at face value, of what might Jacob be afraid, when he has had such good news, news of which he has proclaimed himself convinced? Joseph is not only alive, but in a position to help the rest of his family, who are in danger of starving.

Some commentators have suggested that Jacob is afraid for the future of his family if they settle in Egypt. Will they lose their identity? Adopt Egyptian ways? This is a reasonable speculation based on a close reading of the text. God is at pains to reassure Jacob that his family will become a great nation in Egypt, but will ultimately return to the land. In other words, the Biblical writer puts into God’s mouth the promise that the Jewish people AS A PEOPLE will survive.

Thus the message that a simple close reading yields fits well with concerns we might feel this time of year. Many of us will be asking ourselves for the umpteenth time just how much Christmas we can allow into our consciousness and still maintain Jewish integrity. But what might another reading, one which considers the psychology of characters and situations, yield for us? There are other possible answers to the question of what Jacob fears.

Essentially, Jacob has been put in a position where he must radically revise the story he has been telling himself of his life. If he was wrong to accept Joseph’s death, of what else has he been wrong? If you cannot trust your own self-understanding, the world is a very scary place. Moreover, Jacob has to accept the earlier perfidy of his other sons, upon whom he has learned to rely in the intervening years. What might they be scheming behind his back?

So far, so obvious. But I also believe that Jacob has been living in a very particular kind of fear ever since his eyes saw Joseph’s bloodied coat. It is a fear that often goes unrecognised, as it is hard to put it into words and may last for years. Roland Barthes comes closest with his suggestion that the hardest fear to endure is the fear of what has already happened.

As far as I know, ‘fear’ has never featured in any permutation of ‘the five stages of grief,’ through which we strive to understand the mourning process. Nonetheless, several people I know who have been bereaved in traumatic circumstances have used this word to describe part of what they are feeling. Much as they might crave the promise of restoration that Jacob appears to be given here, it is not in our hands to give it.

What we can do, however, is to shift the focus as much as possible by our ongoing presence in their lives. Prolonged grief (which sometimes cannot be healed) usually drives people away, Isolation adds to the misery of the traumatically bereaved.

If we can find a way simply to be with those who continue to suffer from past bereavement, it might be possible to take away just a little of their pain.

Our sages believed that if you can lift even one-sixtieth of someone’s suffering, you will have performed a mitzvah. During this difficult time of the year for so many, I hope that a few of us will find the necessary courage to make that call or visit.

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