Excessive Mourning?

Vaye’maein l’hisnacheim (Bereishis 37:35)

Despite repeated and prolonged attempts by his children to comfort him, Yaakov was inconsolable over what he believed to be the loss of his beloved Yosef. Rashi explains that no matter how tragic a loss may be, Hashem created the world in such a way that after one year’s time, the loss is lessened and somewhat forgotten from the heart in order to allow the living to heal and go on. However, this is only the case regarding a person who actually died, but if a person falsely assumes that somebody has died, no such process will be set in motion. As a result, Yaakov was unable to forget the pain of his loss and be comforted.

Why wasn’t his inability to be comforted itself a proof to Yaakov that Yosef must be alive as, if he were dead as Yaakov feared, Yaakov should eventually have been able to properly mourn the loss and find consolation? The Megaleh Amukos even writes that in their attempts to comfort him, his children used this very proof in arguing that his inability to move on constituted evidence that Yosef must still be alive. Why didn’t Yaakov accept their argument and allow himself to be comforted?

Dayan Yisrael Yaakov Fisher answers with a brilliant insight. At any given point in time that Yaakov would attempt to convince himself that because a year had passed and he still hadn’t been comforted Yosef must still be alive, he could always counter that perhaps Yosef just died the day before, and he wouldn’t be able to know otherwise until 12 months had passed from that time and he still found himself in a state of mourning. However, in another year, Yaakov still wouldn’t have any conclusive evidence. Although at that point he would know that Yosef didn’t die on the day before he began counting, he would have a new fear that perhaps he died on the day before (i.e., 11 months and 29 days from the day that he began counting), a self-sustaining cycle which kept him mourning for 22 years.

Alternatively, the Maharshal answers with a deep insight into human psychology, which can help us understand and empathetically interact with ourselves and others in times of difficulty and suffering. He explains that when a person is suffering, he is never able to realize that the pain he is feeling is largely self-inflicted and not absolutely necessary. People naturally assume that whatever anguish they subject themselves to is actually quite small. Not realizing the true depth of suffering with which he was afflicting himself, Yaakov believed that he had been comforted and forgotten the pain. In turn, this perceived ability to be consoled proved to him that Yosef must have been killed, a process which once again rekindled and extended his suffering as it repeated itself for 22 years.

Parashah Q & A

Q: Who sold Yosef to the band of merchants that brought him and sold him into slavery in Egypt?

Q: Rashi quotes (38:25) the Gemara in Sotah (10b) which derives from Tamar’s willingness to be killed rather than publicly shame Yehudah that a person should give up his life rather than publicly embarrass another person. If the other person gives him advance permission to shame him, is he allowed to do so?

A: The verses seem contradictory, relating that the brothers intended to sell Yosef to a caravan of Yishmaelites who were approaching (37:27), then that the Midianites drew Yosef from the pit and sold him to the Yishmaelites (37:28), and finally that the Midianites sold him to Potiphar in Egypt (37:36). Rashi resolves this by explaining that Yosef was sold several times. His brothers removed him from the pit and sold him to the Yishmaelites, who sold him to the Midianites, who sold him in Egypt. The Rashbam, Rabbeinu Bachyei and Paanei’ach Razah understand that Yosef’s brothers did not sell him to the passing merchants. Rather, the Midianites pulled him from the pit and sold him to the Yishmaelites, who took him to Egypt. Yosef’s brothers were punished not for selling him but only for actions which directly led to his sale. In fact, the Chizkuni writes that when the brothers told Yaakov that a wild animal ate him, they weren’t lying; that was what they really thought had happened. This also explains why, during their numerous lengthy interactions with Yosef in Egypt, it never occurred to them that this might be their long-lost brother because they were so convinced that he had been killed years ago.

A: Harav Elchanan Wasserman maintains that the prohibition against disgracing another person is not merely an expression of respect for that individual, but for all of mankind who are created in Hashem’s image. As such, even if a person doesn’t mind being embarrassed and wants to give somebody permission to do so, he doesn’t have the right or ability to forgive the insult to other people which would come about through his humiliation.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.