Vayeishev: Prey

On Thursday when my stepfather was released from the hospital, my mother was handed information about hospice care. As soon as she told me this over the phone, I pictured my stepfather’s name being erased from the book of life.

Every year, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, Jews pray that God will inscribe their names in the book of life. The ancient Jewish tradition says that anyone whose name is omitted from the list will die sometime during the year. Jews greet each other during those holy days by saying: Leshanah tovah tikateivu! (May you be inscribed for a good year!)

In another part of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy, we acknowledge that we do not know when or how a person will die. The liturgy asks “Who by fire and who by water? Who by sword and who by wild beast?” The list of possible ways to die continues, and then broadens into the recognition that we do not even know what will happen to those who live. “Who will rest and who will wander? Who will be undisturbed and who yitareif?

yitareif = will be like prey torn to pieces by wild animals

Who will die by cancer this year? Who will feel torn to pieces, like my mother?

If you are a subscriber to this blog and you notice that I miss a week or two, you will know I am helping my mother during the next stage of my stepfather’s exit from this world. On other weeks, I hope I will be able to carry on with my own life, including researching, writing, and posting this blog. But I do not know.

As for this week, the Torah portion is Vayeishev (And he settled), the first part of the story of Joseph. This year, I am struck by how quickly Jacob assumes that his favorite son, Joseph, is dead. In fact, his ten older brothers throw him into a pit far from home. They consider murdering him, but they sell him into slavery instead. Now that they have disposed of the brother they hate, what will they tell their father when they return home without him?

They took Joseph’s tunic and they slaughtered a he-goat kid, and they dipped the tunic in the blood. Then they sent the fancy tunic and had it brought it to their father. And they said: We found this. Recognize, please; is it the tunic of your son, or not? And he recognized it, and he said: The tunic of my son! An evil wild beast devoured him! Joseph is definitely toraf! (Genesis/Bereishit 37:31-33)

toraf = prey torn to pieces by a wild animal (a different form of the word yitareif above)

And Jacob ripped his cloak and he put sak around his hips and he put himself into mourning over his son for many, many days. All his sons (and grandsons) and his daughters (and granddaughters) rose up to console him, but he refused to console himself. And he said: For I will do down to my son in mourning, sheolah. And his father wailed for him. (Genesis 37:34-35)

sak = sack-cloth; crude material made of goat hair

sheolah = to Sheol, to the underworld, to the grave; to ask it, to wish for it

Why does Jacob refuse to be consoled for Joseph’s death, and continue wailing and wearing sackcloth for such a long time? We do not expect him to forget the (supposed) death of his favorite son, but the Torah implies that his mourning is excessive. I think Jacob feels responsible for Joseph’s death, and his guilt prevents him from turning back toward life.

Jacob is clearly responsible for the initial jealousy of Joseph’s ten older brothers.

…[Jacob] made him a fancy tunic. And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, so they hated him, and they were not able to speak to him in peace. (Genesis 37:3-4)

The brothers’ resentment increases when the 17-year-old Joseph tells them his two prophetic dreams, in which his brothers are symbolically bowing down to him. Jacob hears about the dreams, and he knows that his older sons cannot speak to Joseph in peace. Nevertheless, he sends Joseph far away from home to check up on how his brothers are pasturing the flocks, and report back.

Jacob must realize, on some level, that he is sending his favorite son into danger. Subconsciously he must be afraid that he has sent Joseph to his death. When he sees the bloody tunic, he asks no questions, but jumps to the conclusion that Joseph has been killed. When he says, “Joseph is definitely prey torn to pieces by a wild animal!” he might mean it literally. But he might also mean that Joseph is the prey of his brothers, who are like wild, murderous beasts. Jacob has not forgotten how his ten older sons once tricked the entire male population of the city of Shechem and then exterminated them.

Even Jacob’s use of the word Sheol is ambiguous. I do not know why Sheol, the word for the place where dead bodies go, has the same root as the verb “to ask” or “to wish for”. But here, both meanings of the word apply. Jacob is so overwhelmed by guilt, he wishes to die like his son Joseph. If Joseph is dead, Jacob can never make amends, never set things right.

Jacob’s inconsolable mourning demonstrates what happens when you carry a burden of guilt. It is easier, in the short run, to act without thinking about whether your action will hurt someone. It is easier, in the short run, to avoid making amends when you are guilty over a past mistake. But I know that in the long run, guilt catches up with you. And you never know when it will suddenly be too late to set things right.

I believe that if we think ahead, dedicate ourselves to doing no harm, and address our mistakes as soon as we realize them, then we will not suffer like Jacob. We will be able to accept the reality of death, and also rejoice in the reality of living.

But I know this belief of mine will be tested again. We are all tested. Every year, some people are left out of the book of life.

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