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Judah: A Perplexing Character?
Video 9 of 22
So Rashi has a theory and I want to share it with you. Rashi comments on these words; Vayema'ein lehitnachem - that Yaakov would not accept comfort, and here's what he says. Vayema'ein lehitnachem - Ein adam yachol lekabel tanchumin al hachai vesavor she'meis - a person cannot accept comfort for the loss of a living person thinking mistakenly that he's dead. She'al hameit nigzerah gezeira sheyishtachach min haleiv v'loh al hachai - because G-d grants the gift of forgetting, which is the salve that heals our wounds only for those who are truly dead and not for those who are alive; V'loh al hachai. In other words, the brothers' mistake ironically is that Yosef is still alive. On the one hand that lessens the gravity of their crime, they say, his blood won't be on our hands, but what they didn't realize is that when Yosef is still alive, you can't forget him, you can't close the book on his loss.
You see it in the Jewish laws of mourning themselves, here are a couple of them. According to traditional Jewish burial, have you ever noticed how traditional Jewish burials are different than the way others bury their dead? There's no viewing of the dead in a dressed-up state, there's no looking at them, making them look fine and nice and beautiful, in a gorgeous suit and never looked better in his life. There's none of that. There's no burial in a beautiful casket with a fine, linen pillow. No. It's just a plain pine box. The grave is not filled in with [unclear 2:07], the mourners traditionally shovel the dirt with their own shovels on the grave. There's nothing more final than the sound of dirt hitting a casket; it says, it's over. The law of tearing your shirt traditionally is not done with this little black ribbon, you tear your shirt in grief, it's irreparable loss.
Finally, just the Hebrew word for mourner itself. It's very interesting, a colleague of mine once pointed out that the phrase in Hebrew for mourner is Aval. You spell it over here; Aleph, Beit, Lamed. Avel actually, vowelized this way. But when you take these letters and vowelize it this way it means mourner, interestingly when you take these letters and vowelize it differently, you vowelize it like this, then what it means is nevertheless or but. Why? Why does it mean that? Because every mourner has a question, why did it happen to me? How could it happen? There is no answer to that question. The answer is nevertheless it happened. Mourning is the process of understanding that it did happen - but it happened and therefore I have to move on.
Comfort comes ironically from assimilating the pain of loss, the finality of loss, and then being able to move on knowing that it's final. But what happens when it's not final? That's when loss lingers. That's when loss really gets you. Because you can never close the book, you can never say goodbye to the pain. Some modern day examples of this. Why is it that POWs is the most painful thing for any nation? Not just those who were killed but those who were missing, that you just don't know where they are. America and the Vietnam War. Israel with Gilad Shalit, willing to trade thousands and thousands of people, willing to go to war for a kidnapped soldier. Not for the dead soldier but for the kidnapped soldier. Because the fate of the kidnapped soldier is a question mark, and the question mark is the most painful thing. Why is it that in the wake of 9/11 search parties and search parties and search parties looked for people you knew were dead but you didn't have any evidence that they were dead? You were just looking for a shred of some sort of DNA evidence, something you could give back to the family to say that it's over. If I don't get that evidence I can always say to myself maybe they're walking the streets somewhere? Maybe they checked into a hospital and had amnesia? Even though it's nonsensical, even though it's not rational, your mind holds onto that.
For Yaakov it was never final. Yaakov ripped his clothes, he mourned, but he kept on mourning, he could never close the book. He refused to accept comfort. He never saw a body. He thought his son was dead but he never absolutely knew for sure. The truth is, Yosef is still alive. What Rashi is saying, seemingly, is he's expressing that this idea about closing the book is not just a psychological truth, it's an existential truth. It's the way things are. It's not just psychologically I can't let go of someone if I know that he's still alive. It's even if I don't know he's alive, even if I'm convinced that he's dead, but he's in fact alive - Rashi says I still won't really be able to say goodbye. There will be a part of me that won't be able to stop mourning. That even though Yaakov thought Yosef was dead, there was this little part of him that couldn't let go, because as a matter of fact, even though he didn't know it, Yosef was still alive. So ironically the brothers sparing the life of Yosef, even though it's a kindness on one hand, leads to a certain kind of extra cruelty in their father's reaction. He can never let go.
Therefore, according to Rashi, it's when they realize this, when they see the abiding pain that it's never getting better, that over the time, over the days, over the months there's no assuaging father's pain, that's when they realize the plan was wrong. Shehoriduhu echov migedulato keshera'u betzarat avihem - the whole plan to sell him and to make things better - Yehuda's plan - they now come to the conclusion it was rotten at the core, it could never have worked. You failed us in their eyes. Amru - they said; Atah amarta lemochro, ilu amarta lehashivo hayinu shomim lecha - if you would have told us to return him we would have listened to you.
Let's examine this final premise. Is that just, you know, Monday-morning-quarterback? You know, very fine to say after the fact when you see things are bad, but at the time it's not really true, it's just their way of placing blame on him? Or is there any evidence that this too is correct, that they really would have listened? Let's now examine this final premise. The brothers would have listened to Yehuda had he told them to return Yosef to father, is that true? I think Rashi would argue that it is true. Here too I want to refer you to another comment of Rashi in the story of Yosef.
When Yehuda hatches his plan; Lechu venimkerenu layishma'elim - let's sell him to the Yishmaelim, let our hand not be upon him because after all; Achinu besareinu hu - he really is our brother, we can't really kill him, we can't do it. The brothers' reaction is given right here in the text; Vayishme'u echov - and the brothers listened. Rashi's comment on that over here; Vayishme'u echov, is to quote Onkelos. Onkelos is the very early Aramaic translation of the Torah. Why is he quoting Onkelos? Because Onkelos in two words gives his explanation of what Vayishme'u means. In Aramaic; Vekabilu minei. Vekabilu minei in Aramaic means, and they accepted what it is that Yehuda said. Even in English by the way, the word listen can have two connotations, it can mean physically to hear - even the word to hear, I hear what you're saying. It can mean physically to hear, or it can mean psychologically to accept. Even in English when we say I hear you, it doesn't just mean that physically the words went into my inner ear and my eardrum accepted them, transmitted them to my brain. It means I accept what you say, I hear you, I get it. Onkelos - the brothers got it, they accepted what he said; Vayishme'u echov - they listened to him, not just physically, psychologically. They accepted and they changed their mind because of what Yehuda said.
By the way, in this, lies Yehuda's leadership. Richard Neustadt a while back wrote this great book, recently got updated, called Presidential Power, in which he analyzes the nature of what it means to be powerful as a president. How is a president powerful? What he argues there is that we actually sometimes make a mistake in thinking about where a president's power really lies. We think a president's power lies in statutory powers; his ability to declare war, his ability to submit budgets to Congress, his ability to address the Union, his ability to order in the National Guard, issue executive orders. All of these are his statutory powers by law, but he argues that presidents that rely on these alone will eventually find their power slowly, slowly seeping away. A president's real source of power, Neustadt argues is actually in his power to persuade. The great presidents, people like FDR over here, people like Kennedy, even to some extent people like Reagan, were successful not because they were a bully in terms of how they used statutory powers, but because they used the bully pulpit. They understood the power to persuade. They took their case to the public, the public put pressure on congress, they were able to influence others. According to Neustadt the great presidents leave their statutory powers in reserve and they become a reserve of power that enhances their ability to persuade, but it's the power to persuade that is their essential power.
Yehuda is ultimately the leader here, understood by the brothers to be their leader, because; Vayishme'u echov - we listened to you, you had our attention, we changed our mind. At that point the plan was to kill him, it was to leave him in the pit. They changed that plan because of Yehuda's power to persuade. We were listening to you they said. If you had gone further; Ilu amarta lehashivo hayinu shomim lecha - we would have listened to you to do that too. You had the responsibility to stop us. Had you told us to bring him back to father we would have done it.
So coming back to Rashi's assertions, it seems like there really is pretty good evidence for all of these assertions. The question we need to deal with now, is okay, so if we accept all of these assertions, still there's one last problem, which is that they don't add up - apparently - to a solution to Rashi's central problem, which is; Lamah nismecha parsha zu l'kan - why is this story here? Because even if you accept that Yehuda went down from his brothers, not just physically but politically. Even you accept that the reason why he was politically demoted was because the brothers perceived him as having failed them in the sale of Yosef. Even if you accept that the brothers regretted their decision once they saw their father's grief, they understood that they were wrong, they understood that this is a loss that father will never get over and that they were mistaken that they could console him. Even you accept that the brothers would have listened to Yehuda had he told them to return Yosef to father. Even if you accept all of that, it still seemingly doesn't add up to a solution to this problem, which is why is this story here?
Because even if you accept all of that, what you would essentially be doing is accepting the Medrashic reading of this word. But it's just one word, it's just one sentence, we're just understanding this sentence; Vayehi ba'eit hahi Vayeired Yehuda mei'eis echov - the reason why it says Vayeired is to teach us these things, to teach us that Yehuda went down politically from among his brothers. But that just explains this one word, or at best this one sentence, what about the rest of this whole chapter going on farther, and farther, and farther? Why is all this here?
What I want to argue to you next is that this little Rashi is a very, very deep little piece of work and it's not just telling you about one verse, it's telling you about the whole story. Let's come back and see how that's so.
1. Introduction to Yehudah and Tamar
2. Kinds of Questions
3. A Question of Placement
4. A Tale of Two Digressions
5. Does Rashi Answer The Question?
6. Are We Explaining One Sentence or a Whole Story?
7. A Triangle of Descent
8. The Unexpected Element
9. Perpetual Mourning
10. Failure to Persuade
11. Patchwork Quilt
13. Lest it Come to Scandal
14. Recognize, Please..
15. Tales of Goats and Coats
16. Keepsake or Evidence?
18. How Many--and Why?
19. What's At Stake?
20. Yehudah's Name
22. Superfluous Details
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