Paths to Success, Psychological and Cultural

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat VaYechi: Four Commentators

Crying, the External Expression of Strong Emotion

In verses three and eleven of chapter fifty, HaKetav VeHaKabbalah cites an interpretation of R. Solomon Pappenheim not in line with our usual one, with interesting results. Verse three uses the verb of bechi, crying, to describe the Egyptians’ reaction to Ya’akov’s death.

R. Pappenheim relates the word tomevucha, confusion, points to a few verses where that is true, and says that crying in voice and tears reveals inner turmoil. Nor is it voluntary, he says, it is an irresistible urge to offload extreme emotion, happy or sad (people cry while laughing, cry at weddings).

Two factors determine whether crying involves tear, sobs, or both: the makeup of the person and the cause of the crying. Children cry with their voice rather than tears (he says; kids today must not have gotten the memo), happy crying is tears without sound, and others have both.

Mourning Is Also Inner Turmoil

Verses ten and eleven bring up evel, mourning. R. Mecklenburg again relies on Pappenheim, who thought it was not a language of sadness and eulogizing, as most read it. To him, the word signified confusion, inability to be in one’s fully right mind, similar to mevuchah, the word he thought similar to bechi, crying.

With mourning, the cause has already occurred and cannot be changed, the mourner is just unable to order his or her thoughts properly and as usual.

Sadness and mourning do generally come together, R. Mecklenburg concedes, and Tanach therefore interchanges them, but yagon, sadness, happens in one’s heart (emotionally, he means), where mourning is primarily a matter of being stuck in our thoughts about the person who is lost, unable to focus elsewhere.

[We today think of grief as an emotion, too; I think R. Mecklenburg is pointing to the course of the two, where sadness is just sadness, while mourning has a ruminative component, the mourner constantly thinking about the deceased.]

It means mourning is more easily overcome by force of will, the reason halachah sometimes requires those who have suffered a loss to nonetheless focus their thoughts on mitzvah obligations (mourners must pray, for example, must put their mourning aside long enough to be able to talk to Hashem both about the loss and about other topics, where there is no specific requirement to put aside one’s sadness for the mitzvot a mourner must fulfill).

From words, bechi and evel, to an insight into the psychological/intellectual components of loss.

Instability as Character Flaw

Ya’akov’s words to his sons start with Reuven, whom he characterizes pachaz ka-mayim, 49;4. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch bemoans (really! you can look it up) the rarity of the root pachaz in Tanach, making it difficult to define/translate. From Shofetim 9;4’s using the word pochazim derogatorily when it described the people Avimelech hired to support him (along with reikim, empty), R. Hirsch assumes it is a negative, but is not sure what the negative is.

Upping our degree of difficulty, Ya’akov paired it with water, an item R. Hirsch finds too multiply meaningful to guide us here [he means water can symbolize Torah, life, and much more, not really easing our way to know what pachaz can mean]. Its most prominent characteristic, though, is its fluidity.

Sometimes that’s good, makes for greater flexibility. Here, R. Hirsch thinks pachaz takes a negative version, indicates a lack of stability. Water flows freely, takes on the shape of whatever container it is in, will overflow its borders. Reuven has that, Ya’akov was saying, but life requires us to have a solid core [to know when not to flow, not to just adopt what’s around us].

Permission to Look Not So Jewish

At the beginning of the parsha, Ya’akov seems to resist blessing Yosef’s children. Verses 8-9 tell us he sees them and asks who they are. Malbim thinks it started with their dress, their having adopted the style of the Egyptian court. Yosef clearly was allowed to dress this way, because it was necessary for his political position, and the Gemara tells us of people close to non-Jewish rulers allowed to ignore some halachot regarding improper mixing (he names the family of Rabban Gamliel, whom Sotah 49b tells us studied Greek wisdom].

Ya’akov saw them dressed like Egyptians, and couldn’t imagine they were still faithful to the family traditions. Yosef responds they are his sons, fully righteous, dress as they do because they are whom Hashem has given him ba-zeh, in this place, where the situation necessitates it.

[For a Jew who thinks of him/herself as Modern or Centrist Orthodox, this is a fascinating comment, because it recognizes times when it is important to adopt non-Jewish practices. I think Egyptian dress would be particularly fraught, because tradition says they dressed deliberately licentiously. Yet Malbim can imagine people who dress that way by force of circumstance and remain faithful to tradition.

To add to the comment’s remarkable quality, remember that much of Malbim’s rabbinic career, from at least age fifty and on, involved struggles with growing Reform tendencies, among whose first goals were to reduce their difference of appearance from non-Jews, such as by shaving their beards.

Despite his personal story, he could still envision situations where looking like non-Jews did not have to mean loss of connection to God, faith, and observance.]

I’m not sure that’s a psychological insight like our first two, but it does round out a week where our commentators educate us on how to keep our lives on a good path, to understand the layers of our emotions/thoughts, know which we can put aside when necessary, to recognize the necessity of a strong sense of core self, and to see where/if we can mix in with those around us without cost to our connection to what’s more important, our service of God.

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