“And He Refused to be Comforted”

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Please daven for a refua sheleima for YHE alumnus
Rav Daniel ben Miriam Chaya Ruth


This week’s shiurim are dedicated in memory of Israel Koschitzky zt"l, whose yahrzeit falls on the 19th of Kislev.  May the worldwide dissemination of Torah through the VBM be a fitting tribute to a man whose lifetime achievements exemplified the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.


Adapted by Immanuel Meyer

Translated by Kaeren Fish


Yaakov’s sons report Yosef’s “disappearance” as follows:

“And they took Yosef’s coat and they slaughtered a kid of goats and dipped the coat in the blood. And they sent the coat of stripes, and they brought it to their father, and said: ‘This we have found; acknowledge, now, whether it is your son’s coat or not.’

And he knew it, and said, ‘It is my son’s coat; an evil beast has devoured him, Yosef is without doubt torn in pieces.’ And Yaakov rent his clothes, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days.

And all his sons and daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted, and he said, ‘For I will go down to my son mourning into Sheol.’ Thus his father wept for him.” (Bereishit 37:31-35)

The verses document the report that reached Yaakov, and his response. First, he is presented with Yosef’s coat, stained with blood. Yaakov looks at it and recognizes it as belonging to Yosef. He concludes that Yosef has been killed, and following this understanding comes his reaction: he rends his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and is submerged in his mourning.

How long did Yaakov mourn? The expression “many days” can be understood in two ways: either the word “yamim” (days) is understood in the literal sense, and “rabim” (many) indicates many three days, or the word “yamim” can be understood as “a year” (see Ketubot 57b).

We find the word “yamim” appearing in Sefer Bereishit in another context: “And her brother and her mother said, Let the girl remain with us yamim or ten; thereafter she shall go” (Bereishit 24:55). Rashi explains, based on the Gemara in Ketubot: “Yamim means ‘a year,’ as in, ‘it shall be redeemable for a year (yamim)’ (Vayikra 25:29), for thus a maiden is given twelve months in which to furnish herself with jewelry.”

Thus, while according to the first explanation Yaakov mourned for a number of days, the second interpretation suggests that he mourned for a year. This seems to be the more likely meaning, considering the context, which tells us that Yaakov “refused to be comforted.”

The way of the world is that people are eventually comforted for their losses. Time brings healing, and the pain of the loss becomes dulled. Yaakov apparently makes a conscious decision not to be comforted. Come what may, he will maintain his mourning. Why does Yaakov adopt this position and continue mourning beyond the usual period?

One reason for his decision is his loyalty towards Yosef. A return to routine, an acceptance of consolation, would be a sort of betrayal – a statement, as it were, that life can go on without the deceased. Yaakov seeks to express the greatest possible loyalty; he will go down to Sheol mourning his son.

In contrast to Yaakov, Yosef’s brothers appear to recover from the episode within a short time. “All [Yaakov’s] sons and daughters rose up to comfort him,” but “he refused to be comforted.” What is the reason for this gap?

The Rambam rules:

“One should not cry over the deceased for more than three days and one should not eulogize him for more than seven.

With regard to whom does the above apply? Regular people. With regard to Torah scholars, by contrast, everything depends on their wisdom. In any case, we do not cry over them for more than thirty days, for we have no one greater than Moshe, and concerning him, and the Torah states with regard to him, ‘… and the days of crying in mourning for Moshe were concluded.’

Likewise, we do not eulogize for more than twelve months, for we have no one of greater wisdom than our holy Rabbi [R. Yehuda HaNasi], and he was eulogized for only twelve months. For the same reason, if the report of a wise man's death reaches us after twelve months, we do not eulogize him.” (Hilkhot Evel 13:10)

Even a great sage, then, is not to be mourned for more than thirty days. It is reasonable to assume that the brothers mourned as required, and then were comforted.

Not so Yaakov. Yaakov understood that the halakha sets down the minimum requirement. Unquestionably, a person who feels a need to mourn for longer, to express his feelings towards the deceased for a more prolonged period, may do so. And so Yaakov chooses to continue mourning.

A writer once described his profound mourning following the death of a close friend. This writer’s circle of friends and acquaintances tried to coax him out of his mourning, but he explained to them that they could not understand the nature and depth of the relationship that he had shared with the deceased, and thus would not understand the weight and duration of his mourning.

Someone who has seen great people in mourning can understand this. Someone who has witnessed great Jewish sages mourning over loved ones can grasp something of the enormity of the loss and sorrow. It is such great sorrow, such a powerful experience of loss. And so it was with Yaakov, whose relationship with Yosef had been so close. Still, Yaakov refuses to be comforted, even after some time. This is indeed unusual: such heavy mourning that is not eased or relieved even after much time.

Rashi offers the following explanation:

“‘But he refused to be comforted’ – A person cannot be comforted for someone who is actually alive, but whom he believes to be dead. For concerning the deceased, it is decreed that he will eventually be forgotten by the heart, but not so concerning the living.”

According to Rashi, the reason that Yaakov cannot be comforted over the loss of Yosef is because Yosef is actually still alive. According to many psychologists, it is very important for a person to actually see the dead body of a loved one, for different reasons. First, the actual sight of death causes one to understand the concept of mortality. The human mind is usually incapable of accepting such absolute finality until he sees death with his own eyes. Second, a person who has not actually seen the body may continue to hope that somehow, perhaps, the beloved is still alive. Perhaps it is not true, perhaps it was just a rumor, a misinterpretation of the facts. Perhaps Yaakov hopes, either consciously or subconsciously, that Yosef will eventually turn out to be still alive.

Beyond these ideas that we may understand from Rashi, Yaakov also feels responsibility. In the Sifri, at the beginning of Parashat Devarim, we find:

“And it was in the fortieth year’ – this teaches that [Moshe] rebuked [Bnei Yisrael] only just before he died. From whom did he learn this? From Yaakov, who rebuked his sons only just prior to his death, as it is written (Bereishit 49:1), ‘And Yaakov called to his sons and he said, Gather yourselves together and I shall tell you what will happen to you at the end of days…’

For four reasons a person does not give rebuke until just before his death: so that he will not rebuke and then rebuke over again; and so that his friend will not see him and be ashamed before him; and so that he will not bear a grudge against him; and so that he will part from him in peace, for rebuke leads to peace.” (Sifrei Devarim 2)

Moshe learns the proper way of rebuke from Yaakov, who reproves his sons only in Parashat Vayechi. Why does Yaakov wait until the very end of his life to rebuke Reuven, Shimon and Levi? The midrash explains that Yaakov was acutely aware of his family situation, and of the jealousy, competition and hatred that prevailed among the brothers. He chose to hold his peace and not to rebuke them, for fear that rebuke might cause one of his sons to leave and cross over to the camp of Esav. But he remains aware of the tension, and it is clear why Yaakov felt responsible for having sent Yosef to his brothers, while they were shepherding their father’s flocks in Shekhem.

The concept of “responsibility” is understood in two ways. In the context of the laws of damages, Massekhet Bava Kama speaks about responsibility (liability) for one’s actions. A person, or one of his possessions, causes damage to another person or his property, and the discussion concerns the degree of liability for the action that caused damage. In contrast, in Bava Metzia we encounter a different sort of responsibility when discussing the laws of the four guardians (paid, unpaid, borrower, renter). Here, the issue is not necessarily an improper action. Here a person may act in an entirely appropriate manner, but nevertheless his actions bring about certain results and he must bear the consequences.

In the context of the sale of Yosef, we ask: why should Yaakov feel responsible in any way for this deed? What did Yaakov do that could be viewed in any way as causing the brothers to feel the way they did towards Yosef?

In the verses preceding the sale of Yosef, we read about his dreams. And here the Torah tells us: “And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind” (37:11). Yaakov offers no rebuke – neither to the brothers, nor to Yosef. He leaves them to argue and bicker. Perhaps this restraint, this silence, was the appropriate educational response. However, the next scene has Yaakov sending Yosef to Shekhem. It is reasonable to assume that Yosef, who is used to bringing negative reports about his brothers to his father, departs this time for the same purpose. Yaakov dispatches Yosef to check on his brothers’ activities: are they doing their job properly? Are they shepherding efficiently? Yosef is being sent, for all intents and purposes, to spy on his brothers.

While it is possible that Yosef is being sent for the brothers’ benefit – to ensure that they have everything that they need – his is nevertheless a problematic mission. Yaakov should have been aware of what he was doing and conveying by sending Yosef. Yosef, the brother who is not shepherding, the brother who is hated by all the others – arrives to visit… Thus, it may be that Yaakov does indeed have a part in what happens, and therefore he feels profound responsibility for the fate that has befallen Yosef.

A person who causes the death of someone else is in an emotional state from which it is difficult to emerge. When Yaakov understands that he has played some role in what has happened to Yosef, he falls into a profound depression and mourning and cannot be comforted. This explains why his family members are unable to reach him: none of them fully appreciates the emotional state that Yaakov is in, and therefore none of them can understand why he will not be comforted.

A person who has caused the death of someone else cannot free himself of the images that replay themselves in his thoughts. No amount of consolation will help him, for no one can understand his state of mind. Only if they can plumb the depths of what he is feeling and experiencing will they be able to reach him.

Thus, there are a number of factors that prevent Yaakov from being comforted: there is the sense of betrayal that this entails; there is the absence of physical proof, with the lack of closure that this implies; and there is the heavy responsibility that rests upon his shoulders. All of this underlies his inconsolability – which ultimately holds the greatest consolation.


(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Vayeshev 5772 [2011].)