Vayashev 5780 – Judaism’s Lesson: Don’t Despair!

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

“A minyan of Comfort” is the name of a widely used prayer book in houses of mourning. It is an especially popular book in Conservative Jewish congregations. We gather to comfort those who mourn. And they, in turn, accept our comfort.

But in today’s parashah, we read, “And Jacob refused to be comforted.” He had been shown a blood-stained tunic that belonged to Joseph. His sons told him that poor Joseph must have been devoured by some wild beast. And so in a somewhat cryptic phrase, we’re told that Jacob wouldn’t accept the typical mourning ritual that begins with accepting the comfort of loved ones. Maybe he held out hope that Joseph was still alive, or maybe he was simply too grief-stricken to accept comfort. Who knows? Commentators like the first possibility – it gives them much more grist for D’vars!

As I thought about the issue of accepting comfort, I realized that this topic of offering comfort doesn’t always have to refer to those in mourning. And when applied to these other issues, it has lessons for us that go beyond mourning.

As you know, I’ve been in my current office since 2011. When I was 60 years old, I wanted to take a bit more time off for vacations, some half-days during the week, etc. My partners sensed an opportunity. By insisting that I continue to pay a full share of overhead, they perhaps thought they could force an early retirement, thus inheriting all my patients into their practice. The COO of the company tried to comfort me, and told me that I had had a wonderful career, that this might be a good time to do some more volunteer stuff, some additional writing and teaching. But I refused to be comforted and, while staying in the company, I started out anew in a different locale, designing the practice and my schedule just the way I wanted it. It’s been great!

In any case, reading the parashah, we of course know the story will go on. we read how Joseph ends up in prison and at the end of the parashah, Joseph is left in despair. His buddy in prison forgets to recommend him for a commutation of his sentence when a dream interpretation gig comes up. You can read it as we do the Torah reading. All, it seems, is lost. Poor Jacob. Poor Joseph. Of course, as in a TV drama series, we know there’s more. After all, we have the whole Exodus story yet to come. How can Joseph’s story end here?

In both instances, unlike in a sporting event there is no whistle signaling that the game is over. Joseph’s story doesn’t end as it may have in a Greek tragedy. As in so many other instances, this is the Torah – decidedly NOT a Greek tragedy.

In Judaism, unlike in ancient Greek thought, fate has not been decreed. The Torah teaches that the human condition and an individual’s story are not inherently sad, nor must they be filled only with despair.  Heroes are note fated to fail or fall. Joseph is ultimately redeemed.

And here, stuck in the middle of the parashah comes a chapter about Tamar. Tamar is married to Er, Judah’s oldest son. Recall that Judah is one of Jacob’s sons, and one who had sold Joseph into slavery. Er’s life was, “Taken by the Lord,” for unspecified displeasing behavior. As was customary in those days, Er’s younger brother then marries Tamar, but his behavior also displeased Gd, so he, too, was struck down.

Judah wonders if maybe Tamar is the problem and keeps his third son away from her, lest he also be struck with an early death. Like so many other women of the Torah, Tamar is childless. I’m sure all her friends tried to comfort her. But she refuses to be comforted and concocts a plan. Dressing as a harlot, she seduces Judah, who accommodates her.

Finally, Tamar has her child. But when she is about to be revealed by Judah as being a sinful seductress, she pulls a rabbit out of her hat, producing the seal that Judah had given her as collateral, pending payment for services rendered. Judah knows that he had been had. He was the father of Tamar’s child. Tamar is spared. She has her child – twins, in fact. All is not lost, after all! And more than that, one of the kids fathers a line that leads to King David! how about that! Instead of being comforted for being childless and accepting her unfortunate fate, Tamar takes action.

Remember how when Moses first encounters Gd, before the Exodus, he asks Gd to see Gd’s face so that he might know Gd? And Gd answers what? That’s right – Gd tells Moses that he may only see Gd’s back – not Gd’s face. In other words and by one interpretation, he only sees Gd after Gd has passed. Metaphorically, this can be construed that we only know that Gd has acted when we see the results – not beforehand. Personally, I don’t believe that Gd manipulates events. I’m not one who would say that ‘”everything happens for a reason.” I do, though, believe, in accordance with the best of our tradition, that it’s up to us to react to events and to behave so as to make the best of a given situation.

So the lessons here of Joseph, Jacob and Tamar teach us that in Judaism, despair is never justified. Even in circumstances that appear bleak, there should always be hope, with its sidekick – a resolve to make things better.