Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 9 December 2017 / 21 Kislev 5778

Parshat Vayeshev

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Sympathetic Agony

Yosef’s brothers have sold him into slavery, and have returned home to their father Yaakov with Yosef’s blood-stained coat. Dipped in goat’s blood, this coat elicited the intended reaction from Yaakov: My son’s coat! A wild beast has devoured him! Yosef has been torn! Torn! Yaakov enters an abyss of grief, with no reprieve. His sons and daughters-in-law try unsuccessfully to console him — his final statement on the matter reveals inescapable sorrow: I shall go to my grave, mourning for my son. Seeing their father enslaved by sorrow would surely lead his children to agonizing remorse. Why didn’t any of them attempt to assuage his agony? Why didn’t they reveal to him that Yosef was still alive? Of the two options before them, this must have been the more compassionate choice. Either they reveal that Yosef is alive, that his brothers, out of hate and jealousy, have sold him into slavery, or they keep silent, allowing Yaakov to mourn the loss of his beloved son. The brothers understood that the physical loss of a cherished child is deeply painful. But they also understood that the wickedness of a child is pain far more difficult to bear. A child torn by wild beasts is never lost, but a child who is wicked is worse than lost. Had they told Yaakov then about the crime they committed, Yaakov would have felt as though he had lost not only one son, but ten sons at one time.

This preference — to bear the pain of death of a child over the pain of spiritual decay of a child — was imprinted on the Jewish conscience. This perhaps explains why, throughout the ages, our people were willing to allow their children to be killed rather than submit to forced conversion. A Jew’s choice between physical and spiritual loss of a child is no Sophie’s choice.

  • Source: Commentary, Bereishet 37:35

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