Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Vayechi 5776
Love and Loss
In the words of the great poet Alfred Tennyson,
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Almost any person who lives long enough will experience and suffer loss; it is an inescapable fact of the human condition. Modern scholarship recognizes five distinct stages of loss and mourning: Denial, anger, bargaining, and depression must be experienced before acceptance is a possibility. And yet, though the process may be universal, the individual’s response to loss is far less uniform: So many factors come into play, and so many different types of loss may be experienced at different stages of a person’s life, generating very different responses.
Our Patriarch Yaakov suffered and endured a great deal of loss. First, he lost the comfort and tranquility of his childhood home when he was forced to flee his brother’s murderous fury. In retrospect, this loss paled in comparison to the death of loved ones that Yaakov subsequently endured: He lost the love of his life, Rachel, when she died in childbirth. He mourned the loss of his son Yosef, the son of Rachel, for decades. Both of these losses were devastating, cruel, swift: He was unprepared for the death of his young wife and of his seventeen-year-old son.
How did Yaakov cope with these catastrophes? Others might have crumbled under the weight of these tragedies. Indeed, when Pharaoh asks Yaakov his age, Yaakov responds:
'My journey through life has lasted 130 years,' replied Yaakov. 'The days of my life have been few and hard. I did not live as long as my fathers did during their pilgrimage through life.' (Bereishit 47:7)
In Yaakov’s words, first to his sons, then to Pharaoh, and, eventually directly to Yosef, we hear the pain that he has lived through and the loss he has endured. His beloved wife had died suddenly; from the moment he had met her, all Yaakov ever really wanted was to marry Rachel and to live out their days together. His son Yosef, who replaced Rachel in Yaakov’s heart, was wrested from him, leaving Yaakov bereft and emotionally alone. And yet, as traumatic as these devastating losses were, they may not have been what Yaakov had in mind when he described to Pharaoh the misery he had experienced. These losses are not unknown in this world; they are, in a sense, a cruel but not unusual part of life. Hard as it was for Yaakov to bear, the loss of his loved ones was not what shook him to his very core. Yaakov had loved and lost; he could cling to the memories of Rachel and Yosef, take comfort in Binyamin, enjoy the company of his other wives, children and grandchildren. He could focus on the time he had spent with Rachel and of his special relationship with Yosef; more generally, he could take pride in what he had achieved, rather than focusing on what was lacking in his life.
Even Tennyson, the poet who grappled with the sudden loss of someone so dear to him and so central to his life, was able to draw solace from this aspect of love lost. From the depths of his own mourning, Tennyson chose to change his focus, and to cherish the time he had shared with his friend Arthur Hallam rather than succumb to the raw, biting pain of loss.
Yaakov had experienced an additional type of loss, and it was this other pain that tormented his days, his nights, his years: Yaakov had experienced estrangement from God Himself. When Yaakov ran away from Esav, when he lost his home, his property, his entire family, God had been with him. God spoke to him, reassured him, promised not to abandon him. Years later, when Yaakov extricated himself from the house of Lavan and started to make his way back home, God spoke to him, guided him and shored up his courage. Yaakov had an intimate relationship with God; he spoke to Him in his hour of darkness and fear as he prepared to confront Esav, and brought Him offerings of thanksgiving after the ordeal was over. And yet, when Yaakov’s life was torn asunder by the disappearance of Yosef, God was silent. For decades, Yaakov was left to face his grief alone, without God’s words of reassurance or comfort that he so sorely craved. When Yosef exits the stage, God ceases to communicate with Yaakov. For Yaakov, the loss of his son is compounded by God’s silence; this loss, unlike the other pain that he had experienced, was unnatural, impossible to understand. It was a sense of loss that reflected something so profoundly wrong that Yaakov was inconsolable.
The loss of a loved one is painful, but to suffer God’s silence is a completely different experience. The loved one is gone, yet God continues to exist; He chooses not to communicate. Can we say to a person who has experienced intimacy with God such as Yaakov did, that it is better to have been a prophet and lose the ability to prophesize than never to have heard the voice of God at all? Can a prophet take solace in the fact that he knows with certainty that God exists and communicates with man, that He is involved in human history and takes a personal interest in each and every aspect of our lives – and not be anything less than devastated when prophecy is suddenly, inexplicably denied? Is the loss of this gift of intimacy too spiritually devastating for any man or woman to bear?
When Yaakov is informed that Yosef is, in fact, alive, his prophetic ability returns; Yaakov comes to life once again. His spiritual world is rehabilitated. The intimacy with God is restored. Only then is Yaakov able to make sense of what has happened. He is granted the insight that is only possible from God’s perspective of history – insight that Yosef was granted all along. Yosef lives, and God speaks; Yaakov’s world, which had been upended, is set right.
And then, once again, Yaakov is thrust into darkness. On his deathbed, Yaakov intends to share this Divine perspective with his children, to draw a line from the past, through the present, to the future. He is eager to include them in the intimacy with God that he has regained, but this intimacy is suddenly denied. Yaakov once again must endure the loss of Divine communication, and God’s silence terrifies him. He searches the faces of his children with fear: Could they, perhaps, be unworthy of sharing Divine intimacy?
Rabbinic tradition teaches us that in this moment of fear and dread, Yaakov’s children cry out in unison: “Shma Yisrael - Hashem Elokeinu Hashshem Echad – Hear oh Israel (our father): God is our Lord, God is One.” Yaakov now gains a new type of understanding, a more human sort of insight: This time, God’s silence is not a punishment but an act of tenderness and consideration. God is silent, not because Yaakov’s children are unworthy of prophecy, but because they are worthy of God’s kindness: Sometimes, we are better off not knowing exactly what the future holds, and yet, despite this, when – and even more importantly, when our children say the Shma – we know that God is with us.
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