Vayashev 5782 – Jacob, Joseph, Tamar and . . . Vladka. Their message: Do Not Despair!!

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

In today’s parashah, we read about 3 figures who go through great struggle, and who may well have succumbed to despair. They could have lost  hope.  They could have lost the will to make things better— but they didn’t.

First, Jacob is told about the apparent death of his son Joseph, but we read that 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? But Jacob goes on with his life, brings his people to Egypt and, well, you know the rest of the story. So in this instance, the concept of accepting comfort remains a bit murky.

We also read this week of how Joseph ends up in prison and at the end of the parashah, Joseph is still there.  His buddy in prison forgets to recommend him for a commutation of his sentence when a dream interpretation gig comes up. You can read about it as we go through 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? Stay tuned. Joseph will have another act.

In both instances, unlike in a sporting event the story is not over until the participant says it’s over. And neither Jacob nor Joseph were ready to throw in the towel. Their greatest feats were still to play out. Joseph’s story doesn’t end as it may have in a Greek tragedy, with falsely accused Joseph wasting away in jail. As in so many other instances, though, this is the Torah – decidedly NOT a Greek tragedy. In this instance, Joseph continued to hold out hope that somehow, a better fate awaited him.

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 sorow.

Finally, we read about Tamar. Tamar is married to Er, Judah’s oldest son. Recall that Judah is one of Jacob’s sons, and 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 lose hope of having a child 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 her children fathers a line that leads to King David! how about that! Instead of being comforted for being childless and accepting her unfortunate fate, Tamar took action.

So in these examples, all in today’s parashah, we find different ways of how to handle really bad news and circumstances. So now I have a more current example of not despairing – of not losing hope or will – – – and of taking action.

Vladka Meed, born Feigele Peltel was a Polish woman who was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto when she was 20 years old. Her entire family – her parents and her sister –  were killed, victims of one of the Nazi roundups that sent them all to Treblinka. Vladka happened to be out of the apartment at the time, so her life was arbitrarily spared.

She became a member of an active underground movement, helping to formulate and implement plans of how to repel the Nazis, and was able to be smuggled by the underground, out of the ghetto. Her role then was to pass as an Aryan, get a job, join forces with others in the underground on the Aryan side of the ghetto wall, and smuggle back into the ghetto arms and explosives, and smuggle out . . . children, who were painfully given up by their parents, who faced certain death, and placing them with wary Christian families. In harrowing detail, her book was first written in Yiddish and published in 1948, when memories were still fresh in her mind. It’s called, “On Both Sides of the Wall.”

After an endless series of narrow escapes, she sadly watched the heroic Warsaw Ghetto uprising hold off the Nazi army for 4 weeks before members of the resistance and then almost all residents of the ghetto were killed, the ghetto ultimately reduced to smoldering rubble.  Yet through this and despite all of the sadness she witnesses and describes in all its  grotesque details, Vladka does not despair. She did not lose determination and hope. She ultimately survived the war and made her way to America, on one of the first transit boats. Hers is a truly remarkable story of courage, moral clarity and perseverance.

It is possible to accept the comfort of loved ones for the inevitable sadnesses of life, while responding n a positive way. Tamar, Joseph and Jacob all respond to the circumstances of their lives in different ways, but what they had in common was that they did not retreat into an acceptance and hopelessness. Vladka Mead as well as others who resisted the Nazis have been added to that list.

For me Vlaka’s tale is an inspiration. When we think we have it tough, we just have to remember how Vladka and so many others have responded.