Afraid to Hope

  • Rav Yair Kahn


Happy Chanuka! In honor of the matriarch of our family, Oma Ina,
May you continue to shine your light on us brightly!
From her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren
The Sondheim - Adler and Distenfeld Families.
In Honor of Avital Nehorah’a 1st Birthday, 30 Kislev
This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Shmuel Binyamin ben Ben-Zion HaLevi Lowinger z"l


Dedicated to the family of Zacharya Baumel, 
a talmid of the yeshiva missing in action since being captured in Lebanon in 1982 
for having the courage to hope 


1. Setting the Stage for Reunification

In this week’s parasha, the spotlight is on Yosef and his brothers. The brothers, with the exception of Binyamin, are sent to Egypt to buy grain. They don’t recognize Yosef and are at his mercy. Yosef, who rules Egypt, accuses the brothers of espionage and imprisons them. After three days, Yosef frees all his brothers, aside from Shimon, demanding that they return with Binyamin to verify their story. After they arrive with Binyamin, Shimon is freed. Yosef then sends his brothers back home with grain. However, he frames Binyamin and accuses him of theft. All the brothers return to the house of Yosef.  

As these events unfold, the brothers begin to confront their past. They view their misfortune as divine retribution for what they did to Yosef. They go through a penitential process. The culmination of this process occurs when Yehuda, who originally suggested selling Yosef into slavery, offers himself as a slave instead of Binyamin.

Yosef also goes through a process. He is also forced to confront his past. He recalls his dreams and remembers what his brothers did to him. As he observes his brothers and witnesses their remorse, brotherly compassion is rekindled. Yosef’s compassion brings him to tears. Initially, he still manages to control himself. But following Yehuda’s passionate plea, he loses his composure. “Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all that stood by him; and he cried, 'Remove every man from my presence’” (45:1). The penitence of the brothers led by Yehuda, coupled with the flame of brotherly love re-awakened in Yosef, sets the stage for reunification of the house of Yaakov.

What would Yosef have done had he not lost his composure? What was his next move? Was imprisoning Binyamin a way of forcing Yaakov to come to Egypt? We can only ponder the possibilities.

In the entire story, Yaakov appears only on the sidelines as the story of Yosef and the brothers unfolds. The brothers know that they have to bring Binyamin to meet the Egyptian ruler. When Yaakov refuses, they don’t even bother arguing with him. They ignore him, knowing that in the end he will succumb. Eventually, the inevitable occurs: “And it came about when they had finished eating the food they brought from Egypt, their father said to them, ‘Return and bring back some food’” (43:2). Rashi, based on a midrash, comments: “Yehuda said: ‘Wait for the old man until the bread will be finished.’” Yaakov is the old man, respected but irrelevant. He is unrealistic and he is forced to alter his plans when reality inevitably catches up with him.

Nevertheless, I would like to focus this shiur on Yaakov. What might have been going through his mind? Or perhaps, what thoughts did he not allow to go through his mind? All the Torah tells us is that Yaakov could not be consoled. According to Rashi, Yaakov continued to grieve the entire twenty two years of Yosef’s absence. Presumably, the death of Yosef, Yaakov’s favorite, was so terrible that he refused to accept words of comfort and consolation. However, I believe that a sensitive reading of the commentaries will yield two very different approaches.  

2. Rashi's Approach

When Yaakov sends his sons to return to Egypt, he blesses them as follows: “And may God Almighty give you mercy before the man, that he may release unto you your other brother and Binyamin” (43:14). The phrase “your other brother” is quite odd. Why didn’t Yaakov refer to Shimon by name? Rashi addresses this problem and comments: “‘Your brother’ - refers to Shimon. ‘The other’ - he was inspired by the Divine Spirit to include Yosef.” According to Rashi, the reference to Yosef was a result of ruach ha-kodesh - divine inspiration. Even though he didn’t intend to reference Yosef, he unknowingly used a phrase that had prophetic vibrations. Only in retrospect, when the mission to Egypt leads to the return of Yosef, do we appreciate the significance of that strange phrase and its divine origins.

We find that Rashi also offered a mystical explanation as to why Yaakov refused to be comforted. “‘But he refused to be consoled’ - A person cannot accept consolation for one who is alive, but is thought to be dead, because only for the dead was it decreed that he be forgotten, but not for the living” (37:35). According to Rashi, the ability to be consoled is a gift bestowed unto man by God. This gift was never awarded in a case where the person never actually died. Therefore, Yaakov could not be comforted for the mistaken assumption of Yosef’s death.

According to Rashi, Yaakov treated Yosef as if he were dead. After being shown the blood-covered multi-colored garment, there was no doubt whatsoever in Yaakov's mind. Therefore, his inability to be comforted and consoled cannot be explained rationally or psychologically. The only avenue open to Rashi is the mystical one - Yaakov was ineligible for the divine gift of consolation.

3. The Psychological Approach

An alternative to Rashi’s approach is presented by the Ramban. He quotes Rashi's comment that Yaakov referred to Yosef when he said "the other" and adds: "This is correct, for while praying, he intended to pray for the other as well - perhaps he is still alive." While the Ramban builds off Rashi's comment, his commentary is radically different. According to Rashi, the reference to Yosef was involuntary and unintended by Yaakov. It was a divinely inspired slip of tongue, meaningful only in retrospect. The Ramban, on the other hand, considered it an intentional ambiguity, designed to implicitly include Yosef in his prayer. Yaakov, according to the Ramban, still harbored the hope that Yosef was alive. True, he was shown Yosef's blood-covered coat, but he never saw the body. The spark of hope never faded. Maybe, Yaakov thought, Yosef somehow managed to survive.

According to the Ramban, Yaakov's inability to be consoled need not be explained mystically. There is a solid psychological reason to explain why he can find no solace. How can Yaakov be comforted for Yosef's death while still hoping that he is alive? How can Yaakov's soul find peace while Yosef may be in danger, desperately trying to come home? The possibility to mourn and to eventually achieve consolation is predicated on accepting tragedy as fact. One who does not accept the facts cannot mourn. One who denies that the tragedy occurred will never find solace.

4. I could not bring myself to pray that I would see your face

There is a verse which appears to contradict the Ramban's approach. After Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, they inform Yaakov that Yosef is still alive. "And they told him, saying: 'Yosef is yet alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.' Va-yafag libo, for he believed them not" (45:26). According to Rashi, the phrase va-yafag libo is no more than an expression of disbelief. It reflects a cognitive reaction. Yaakov averted his heart from believing that Yosef was alive. According to Rashi, we understand why Yaakov found it difficult to believe after assuming that Yosef was dead for twenty-two years.

The Ramban explains that the term va-yafag means ceased. He writes: “The movement of the heart stopped and he was as if dead.” In other words, Yaakov had a seizure and fainted. Va-yafag is indicative of emotional shock. However, according to the Ramban, Yaakov never lost hope that Yosef might return. It wasn't long ago that Yaakov implicitly prayed for the safe return of Yosef! Why was the news that Yosef was alive so shocking to Yaakov that his heart failed?

Years later, when Yosef was told that Yaakov was very ill, he took his two children, Menasheh and Efrayim, and went to see his father. Upon seeing Menasheh and Efrayim, Yaakov exclaimed, "I could not bring myself to pray that I would see your face; and, behold, God has let me see your seed as well" (48: 11). One might interpret this statement as referring to Yosef's current visit. Yaakov, who was on his deathbed, didn't expect to see Yosef again before he died. On the other hand, Yaakov might be reflecting back on those twenty-two years of darkness. Yaakov never imagined that he would see Yosef again. He was sure that he was dead, torn to pieces by an evil beast. How, then, can the Ramban claim that in reality, Yaakov never lost hope that Yosef would return? How can the Ramban claim that Yosef actually did include the return of Yosef in his prayers?

In order to explain this point, I ask for your indulgence. I would like to present a somewhat fictional scenario that will help us understand Yaakov's reaction. Yaakov is acutely aware that all the known data points to one conclusion - Yosef is dead. But Yaakov never saw the body. Somewhere deep inside, he still harbors the hope that maybe, somehow, Yosef survived. In his waking hours, when he is governed by rationality, he tells himself, “Silly old man! You know he’s dead!” But late at night, when overcome by exhaustion, when his subconscious is able to express his innermost feelings, perhaps he has a dream. Maybe in the dream a vision appears, a vision which caught his fancy years ago. He sees the sun, moon, and eleven stars prostrating themselves before Yosef. Suddenly, Yaakov awakes and cries, “You silly old man!”

Yaakov knows that his dreams and hopes are ridiculous, but they don’t go away. Yaakov cannot be comforted because somewhere deep in the innermost recesses of his soul, a spark of hope remains. His tortured soul is restless as he swings like a pendulum from hope to despair.

When Hezbollah released Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev as part of a prisoner swap; when instead of walking out of the car, they were carried out in coffins; when the collective heart of the nation joined their families in empathy and support - I thought of Yaakov. The tragedy of the families was great, all hope was destroyed, but finally the bodies of their loved ones were returned. There would be a grave to visit; a place to cry, a day to recite Kaddish. Closure was now a possibility and with it some form of solace.

The point of the above is as follows; we normally consider hope positive. However, in certain situations, when our hope is a futile one, it is not hope but rather kilyon einayim (see Devarim 28:65). Kilyon einayim, literally extinction of the eyes, refers to endless yearning for something that will never come. Hope is a source of comfort, but kilyon einayim leads to agitation.

I would like to suggest that according to the Ramban, the possibility that Yosef was still alive was buried in the innermost recesses of Yaakov’s heart. Yaakov was aware how ridiculous it was. He was also aware of how any thoughts of Yosef’s survival tortured his restless soul. Yaakov therefore tried to suppress any suggestion that he would see Yosef again. His claim that he couldn’t bring himself to pray that he would see Yosef once again was true - Yaakov could not utter such a prayer explicitly. However, in the ambiguous phrase “your other brother,” Yaakov’s innermost wishes and dreams expressed themselves. 

How does Yaakov react when informed that Yaakov is alive? How does he respond when the source of twenty-two years of suffering is reinforced? Will his initial reaction be one of joy and relief? Or perhaps Yaakov will react with shock and dread? Does the shock at being informed that Yosef is alive prove that Yaakov was absolutely convinced that Yosef was dead? Or might not the cessation of Yaakov’s heart be caused by twenty-two years of kilyon einayim?

The kilyon einayim of Yaakov eventually ended. Yosef was alive and Yaakov went to Mitzrayim to see him. May Hashem end the kilyon einayim of the families of all the prisoners of war and MIA’s.