“The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” is one of Shakespeare’s great lines in Hamlet (Act III, Sc. II). Ironically, the queen’s fervent vow that she would never remarry should her husband die comes across as suspicious, and false. So too whenever we witness a histrionic protestation, somewhere in the back of our mind is the question, “Really?”
I’ll admit that I have a bit of that reaction to Jacob’s refusal to be comforted after his remaining sons present him with Joseph’s bloody tunic, apparent evidence of his mauling by a wild beast. “He mourned for his son for many days…and he refused to be comforted, saying, ‘I will descend to Sheol in grief,’ and his father wept for him.” (Gen. 37: 32-35) These days psychologists speak (e.g. in DSM-V) about “normal bereavement,” observing that many people eventually “bounce back” following a loss, while others exhibit signs of major depressive disorder that complicates ordinary grief.
What, however, is going on with Jacob? Is he experiencing a major depressive disorder, and if so, then why? There’s nothing to stop us from speculating, so I’d venture that Jacob might have been blinded by his own experience with Esau, and decided that the older brothers would eventually forgive, rather than murder, Joseph, just as Esau did for him. If so, then Jacob would blame himself for letting down his guard, and sending Joseph to his death. Indeed, Rabbi Hama b. Guria quotes Rav (B. Shabbat 10b) in blaming Jacob for the favoritism that he showed Joseph. “A person should never favor one among his children, for because of the cloak worth two selaim that Jacob gifted Joseph over his other sons, the brothers grew jealous of him, and the matter rolled on until our ancestors were brought down to Egypt.”
Perhaps the bloody tunic serves as a trigger for an earlier trauma in Jacob’s life—the time he allowed his mother to drape him in an animal hide (we can imagine as still bloody) to fool his own father. If so, then perhaps Jacob’s bereavement is not only for his beloved son Joseph, but also for the beloved son that he once was before his father’s dread and his brother’s rage sent him fleeing for his life.
Or perhaps not. It is possible that Jacob refuses to be comforted because he refuses to believe that Joseph is really dead. This possibility is the assertion of Tractate Soferim, which explains that one does not accept comfort over those who are still living. Psalm 31:13 says that, “I have been forgotten, like the dead from the heart.” Eventually the dead are forgotten “from the heart” (read, emotional grief), but one never gives up on the living.
If so, then why the demonstrative grief? Is Jacob being genuine, or is he testing his sons to see how far they will let their ruse play out? How cruel will they be to their old father? How frightened are they to admit what they have done?
We can’t really know the truth, of course, and that is part of the power of this narrative. As with other great moments in Genesis, we don’t really know what the actors are thinking. We have a record of their words, but little else, and so the biblical narratives become a perfect parchment for our own life dramas.
How much grief is appropriate after a major loss? Who gets to judge what response is healthy and adaptive, and what is pathological and destructive? Many groups of people, including our own, continue to grieve for our national losses, and to refuse to be comforted. Sometimes that grief is raw and real. Sometimes it appears to be calculated to extract recognition and even concessions from others. Grief can be good, but it can also undermine the health of an individual, sour relationships and prevent healing. Jacob himself never quite seems to recover. He will tell Pharaoh that his years have been bitter and few (which is sad, but does remind one of the Woody Allen quip about the restaurant where the food is terrible and the portions are too small).
Sometimes the best response to extended expressions of grief is psychological or psychiatric treatment. Judaism gives other mechanisms that can do the trick in normal circumstances. Keep the mourner company, wait for her to share her story, listen, return, repeat. Give them time to grieve, and slowly draw them back into life. And if they refuse to be comforted, there probably is more to the story than you have yet heard.
בראשית פרק לז, לב-לה
(לב) וַיְשַׁלְּחוּ אֶת־כְּתֹנֶת הַפַּסִּים וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶל־אֲבִיהֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ זֹאת מָצָאנוּ הַכֶּר־נָא הַכְּתֹנֶת בִּנְךָ הִוא אִם־לֹא: (לג) וַיַּכִּירָהּ וַיֹּאמֶר כְּתֹנֶת בְּנִי חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ טָרֹף טֹרַף יוֹסֵף: (לד) וַיִּקְרַע יַעֲקֹב שִׂמְלֹתָיו וַיָּשֶׂם שַׂק בְּמָתְנָיו וַיִּתְאַבֵּל עַל־בְּנוֹ יָמִים רַבִּים: (לה) וַיָּקֻמוּ כָל־בָּנָיו וְכָל־בְּנֹתָיו לְנַחֲמוֹ וַיְמָאֵן לְהִתְנַחֵם וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי־ אֵרֵד אֶל־בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה וַיֵּבְךְּ אֹתוֹ אָבִיו:
תהלים פרק לא, יג
(יג) נִשְׁכַּחְתִּי כְּמֵת מִלֵּב הָיִיתִי כִּכְלִי אֹבֵד:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף י עמוד ב
ואמר רבא בר מחסיא אמר רב חמא בר גוריא אמר רב: לעולם אל ישנה אדם בנו בין הבנים, שבשביל משקל שני סלעים מילת שנתן יעקב ליוסף יותר משאר בניו – נתקנאו בו אחיו, ונתגלגל הדבר וירדו אבותינו למצרים.
מסכתות קטנות מסכת סופרים הוספה א פרק א
תני, מה עשה יעקב אבינו כשהביאו בניו את הכתונת בדם, לא האמין להן כל עיקר, מניין, דכתיב וימאן להתנחם, לפי שאין מקבלין תנחומין על חי, אבל שמת הוא מעצמו משתכח מן הלב, שנאמר נשכחתי כמת מלב