Parashat Vayeshev tells the tragic story of mekhirat Yosef – the sale of Yosef as a slave. Yaakov was under the impression that Yosef had been killed by a wild beast, and mourned inconsolably for his son. After telling that Yaakov did not accept words of consolation offered by his children, the Torah says, “His father wept for him” (37:35). Sensitive to the seeming redundancy of this phrase, the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 84:21), cited by Rashi, explains that it refers not to Yaakov, but rather to his father, Yitzchak. According to Midrashic tradition, Yitzchak, who was still alive at the time of Yosef’s sale (which occurred when Yaakov was 108 years old, such that Yitzchak was 168, twelve years before his passing), knew through ru’ach ha-kodesh (prophetic insight) that Yosef was sold as a slave by his brothers. However, realizing that God did not want this information revealed to Yaakov, Yitzchak was unable to comfort Yaakov with the knowledge that his beloved son was still alive. And thus “his father cried for him” – Yitzchak wept for the pain and anguish experienced by his beloved son, Yaakov.
Symbolically, this Midrashic image of Yitzchak weeping for Yaakov perhaps conveys an important lesson about empathy. There are times when people, like Yaakov, weep and mourn unnecessarily, due to a lack of knowledge or understanding of the situation. Children and young adults, for example, often grieve over matters which they will eventually realize hardly warrant such anguish. And even mature adults occasionally worry about or lament situations which later, in hindsight, will be recognized as benign. Just as Yitzchak empathized with Yaakov’s pain despite realizing that it resulted from misinformation, similarly, we must empathize with people’s distress even when we feel it is exaggerated or altogether unwarranted. What feels important to one person does not necessarily feel important to another person, and thus what disturbs one person’s peace of mind will not necessarily disturb another person’s peace of mind. The Midrash perhaps instructs us to try to feel our fellow’s pain even when we realize that the problem he experiences is not as severe as he thinks. Since from his current perspective the “crisis” causes him distress, we must empathize with his pain and do what we can to help alleviate it.