Monday, November 19, 2018

Death Of Rachel - Tragedy Beyond Words

Parshat Vayishlach

by Rabbi Avi Billet

While opinions abound as to how old Rachel was at her death, one thing is pretty clear – from the time Yaakov meets her at the well until she dies is a period of no more than 22 years.

This means that her children, Yosef and Binyamin, were respectively 8 and a newborn at her passing.

Knowing what I know now, it boggles my mind that Yosef’s brothers treated him the way they did into the teenage years, seemingly not having a sensitivity that their younger brother, bereft of his mother, might need a different kind of treatment, be given a pass more often, due to his tragic reality.

A confession: When I was a novice teacher in high school, I was asked to give a dvar torah at a school shabbaton, and somehow I mentioned in a terrible moment of naïvete (I don’t remember the parsha – but it was pretty early in the school year) that “thank God it doesn’t happen today, but the Torah is teaching us how to treat those who are orphaned at a young age.”

One of the administrators called me over afterwards and told me that one of my students had lost her mother a few years prior. It was an eye-opening moment. I later apologized to the student for my insensitivity, and have since tried to be a lot more careful – knowing that the facts of life are simply facts, and that opining about them is where we get into trouble.

Of course since then, I’ve seen too many people pass away far too early. In the last 6 months, I’ve seen peers of mine, all in their 30s, burying spouses. And I’ve heard of other similar stories. In the count of the recent families I know (sadly there are more) – 15 children are now without one parent. The ones I mention died of natural causes. What of those who are killed in terrorist attacks? Battles? Or (not to equate, though the tragic results are the same) car accidents?

In the context of talking about “Daas Torah” and what it means for rabbis heavily embedded in Torah study to have a keener sense and understanding of the world, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein shared an incredible anecdote, which has troubled me since the first time I read it.

“Many years ago, I travelled to Bnei Brak to console my rabbi and teacher, Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt'l, in his mourning, when his wife had passed away.
“When I went to see him, I found him sitting alone. We had a private conversation, and this was conducted in a very open and honest fashion, from one heart to another. Rav Hutner told me that one of the talmidei chachamim who came to console him, tried to convince him and to 'explain' to him how his wife's passing was 'positive', inasmuch as she was now in the world of truth, a world which is entirely positive and other such nonsense.
“And indeed, it is not uncommon to hear such things when one goes to console a mourner, especially when the deceased passed away while being involved in a mitzva or has fallen in battle, in sanctification of Hashem's name.
“It is superfluous to state that saying such things is totally unsuitable. I remember that when Rav Hutner told me this, he raised his voice and he applied the following severe words of the Midrash to that talmid chacham (Vayikra Rabba 1): "Any talmid chacham who lacks 'da’at' is worse than a putrid animal carcass!" 

Rabbi Lichtenstein shared the rest of Rav Hutner’s comments (you can find it here, on pages 8-9) to support his point in the article. But the story is what resonated most with me.

Are there people who are so unaware, that they could say the most ridiculous things, just to fill the awkwardness of silence in a house of mourning?

Rachel’s death was a travesty. It destroyed Yaakov. He was never the same again. He didn’t deal with the brothers properly, even as he spoiled Yosef. He was ridiculously overprotective of Binyamin, who will still be identified as a “naar” when he is an adult of 30, the father of ten children, unable to leave his father’s side, because his leaving may cause Yaakov to die.

But there is one thing we can take from Rachel’s death, because just before she died she gave birth to a child. The same verse that she says she named him “Ben Oni” says that his father called him “Binyamin.”

Some commentaries say Ben Oni means “the son of my suffering.” Others, such as the Malbim and Ramban, suggest that Oni means “strength.” Ramban essentially says that Yaakov took from pain and turned it into strength, while Malbim says the “change” reframes the name and makes it more clear. Calling him Binyamin (“son of right hand”) means the same thing. “Son of strength.”

Rabbenu Bachaye also says “Son of Strength” (30:23) as he notes that Rachel’s name for her son, Ben Oni, came from a perspective which denotes God’s name of judgment, while “Binyamin” invokes God’s name of mercy.

And this, I think, leads us to what is the most equitable response. The death of a loved one, at any age, combines God’s attributes of Judgment and Mercy. We understand neither, so for us there is only sadness.

However, there is hope – we give a blessing to people when we visit them that God should be the ultimate comforter. We bless a surviving spouse to eventually find strength amidst the pain. We commit as a community to be as helpful and supportive as we can. And we also must take extra care and be as sensitive as possible to the reality that while everyone is sad when losing a parent (at any age), children who lose a parent while they still live at home are the “Y’tomim” of which the Torah speaks – the ones who must be protected, cared for, watched over, and supported in any way possible. Because they are God’s children, and He expects us to fill the void.

Reality is sometimes troubling, difficult, exceedingly challenging. But like our ancestor Yaakov, who was renamed ישראל (Yisrael - Israel) twice in our parsha, we should be blessed to live up to our namesake as we too “struggle with God” and the challenges He sends us “yet we overcome.”

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