Wednesday, November 20, 2013

But His Rod And His Staff They Comfort Me (The Grateful Dead "And We Bid You Goodnight")

Our children had an opportunity to spend some time with their grandparents. We had dinner together. Their grandfather seized the rare opportunity of dinner with his son, his daughter in law and three of his grandchildren and turned it into an American History lecture and discussion.  The lesson began with a question aimed at the grandchildren. “Do you know what famous speech was given 150 years ago this week?” I closed my eyes and smiled. My kids looked around and asked if this had to do with American History. Grandpa smiled and nodded yes. A chorus of “Well we haven’t learned any American History since we moved to Canada” erupted. Grandpa calmly smiled and replied “well we have an opportunity to learn some American History right now.” Then he repeated the question, “what famous speech was given 150 years ago this week?” It was Abraham Lincoln’s “The Gettysburg Address”.  For the next 45 minutes, his three grandchildren listened to their grandfather talk about the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, the speech, and the importance of taking the time remember those who gave their lives for a noble idea called freedom. A couple of days later, my son and I watched the speech on YouTube. During the video, they showed the battlefield, the death, and all the graves. My son looked and me and stunned me with his insight when he heard that 50,000 were killed in three days of fighting. “There must have been lots of mothers and fathers who were so sad. Did the President’s speech comfort those parents whose sons died at Gettysburg; did the speech make those parents feel any better?”  

This morning we read from Parshah Vayeishev. The focus of the narrative now shifts from Yaakov (aka. Israel) to his most beloved son Yosef. Contextually, Yaakov is at a point in his life where he has finished his spiritual and personal struggles. He now is at a calm and settled point in his life, hence the name of the Parshah: Vayeishevand he settled. We learn that Yaakov, like his parents, played favorites. He showered Yosef, Rachel’s son, with a beautiful Kutonet PasimCoat of Many Colors. Yosef was a bit arrogant. This was manifested in his dreams that portrayed his greatness and the subjugated his brothers and his parents to his power. Needless to say, no one appreciated his dreams, neither his brothers who wanted to kill him but instead threw him into an empty pit, nor his father who sent Yosef back to his brothers knowing that they were angry with him (Gen. 37:10-14). Yosef is then removed from the pit, sold as a slave and worked in home of one of Pharaoh’s courtiers. As a slave, Yosef proved invaluable to the welfare of the Courtier’s business dealings. Yosef managed everything and the courtier profited greatly. The courtier’s wife however was a bit bored and made a pass at Yosef. Yosef put her off and then was accused of sexual harassment. Yosef was sent to prison. While in prison, Yosef helped the warden manage the prison, and the warden did well. Yosef became known for an ability to interpret dreams.

While there were no actual deaths of sons in this week’s Parshah, as far as Jacob was concerned; his favorite son – Yosef had died in the pit. After having sold Yosef into slavery, the brothers conspire to convince their father that Yosef was dead.  They bring Yosef’s Coat of Many Colors as evidence.  Jacob identifies the Yosef’s tunic and then he mourns: VaYiKRa Yaakov Simlotav VYaSem Sak BMaTNav VYitABeiL Al B’No Yamim Rabim – Then Yaakov tore his garments and placed sackcloth on his loins; he mourned for his son many days. In reality, Yaakov was inconsolable   VaYakumu Chol Banav v’Chol B’NotavAll his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him, VaYaMaEin LaHitNaCheM – but he refused to comfort himself and said: “ For I will go down to the grave mourning for my son” (Gen. 37:33-36). Clearly Yaakov’s children offered no source of comfort. Yaakov was unable to find any source of comfort to deal with the apparent death of Yaakov.  It seemed that Yosef had died in vain. It seemed that there was no purpose in Yosef’s death. Yaakov was completely bereft; the Torah tells us that he mourned for Yamim Rabim. – Many days.  However anyone who has ever lost a parent has “mourned for many days”: 7 days of Shiva, another 3 weeks and 2 days combined with Shiva makes Shloshim (30 days), and then another 10 months of saying Mourners Kaddish, then another month without mourners Kaddish being said at each daily service, up to the anniversary of the burial constitutes a year of mourning. Yet the Torah, by telling us Yamim Rabim, suggests that Yakov, aveilus (mourning) is even longer. Rashi clarifies and quantifies Yaakov’s deeps sense of grief and loss by citing the Talmud in Megilla 17a which explained that Yaakov mourned for 22 years, until he was re-united with Joseph down in Egypt.

As I thought about my son’s statement regarding the Gettysburg Address, I thought about Yaakov’s Avinu’s mourning for “many days” and unable to “comfort himself”. I answered my son’s questions. For Yaakov, Yosef‘s apparent death seemed utterly in vain, purposeless. Yosef did not die for some noble cause, nor could Yaakov find anything meaningful in his son’s death. As a result, Yaakov was unable to comfort himself.  Sometimes there is comfort in knowing that there was a noble cause worth dying for. When my son heard and understood Lincoln’s words “we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain” he understood that sometimes comfort can be found in the reason for death.

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