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Living Well Through Loss (Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1-40:23)

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Some years ago, I injured my wrist. Following the injury I struggled to get better. I wore a brace, I used special pens to write with, I asked for help with simple menial tasks. As the years went by, the injury mostly calmed down, but there was still the occasional flare-up of pain. Each time the pain came, I felt an accompanying stab of guilt. Clearly it should have been better by now! What had I done wrong this time?

About a year ago, a visit to a doctor changed my life. My wrist injury, the doctor explained, was simply never going to get fully better. The tendon that had torn did not have enough blood circulation to ever fully heal. That's just the way this part of the human body was built.

Which brings us to this week's Torah portion, where we read of two men who each suffer arguably the worst pain imaginable -- the death (or presumed death) of a child.

Jacob favors his son Joseph. Joseph's brothers, angry and jealous, sell him into slavery and trick their father into thinking that Joseph has been killed by an animal. The text reads: "Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins and observed mourning for his son many days. All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, 'No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol. Thus his father bewailed him." (Gen. 37:34-35).

In this same Torah portion, but in a lesser-known story, we hear of another father mourning other children. Judah, Joseph's brother, finds a wife named Tamar for his eldest son. The son, we are told, "does what is displeasing to God," and he dies. Following the custom of ancient Israel, Tamar marries the surviving son. But this one, too, dies.

Having lost two of his three sons while they were married to Tamar, Judah is hesitant to marry her to his youngest son. This leaves Tamar bound as a widow who cannot remarry. Eventually, Tamar gets Judah to recognize her plight by tricking him into sleeping with her. It is through this union that Peretz is conceived, and it is through Peretz's line that our tradition says the Messiah will come.

What can these two stories teach us about living well through loss and pain?

Our culture values and expects a quick fix. Like me with my wrist, many of us expect to go to the doctor and get better, even when our bodies cannot fully heal. When we lose someone we love, or experience other tragedy, our culture expects us to get over it after a reasonable amount of time. But this is not the way grief and pain work.

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors, writes in Traveling Mercies that decades after the death of her father, her greatest achievements leave her feeling like a gymnast who has performed a flawless routine in an empty auditorium. After the death of his beloved wife, C.S. Lewis writes in A Grief Observed:

To say a patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he's had his leg off it is quite another... Presently he'll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg... [But] his whole way of life will be changed... At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.

When Jacob refuses to be comforted by his family, he is teaching them -- and us -- that the loss of his son is not a quick fix. He cannot go back to life as normal, but must grieve and take the time he needs, even if it is the rest of his life. Indeed, giving ourselves the time and space we need to grieve may be the most life-affirming way we can respond to loss.

But this important lesson is deepened and complicated by the experience of Judah. Judah responds to his grief and pain by refusing, understandably, to put his remaining son at risk. Yet, as Tamar understands, this fear-driven response is not life-affirming. When Tamar forces Judah to sleep with her, she is in essence saying, "I know that you are afraid, but life must go on. You must stop hiding and allow yourself to be vulnerable again if the family is going to continue."

When we put these stories together, we are left with a powerful recipe for living well through loss. The first difficult step is to accept that we will never fully recover, and that we must let ourselves grieve deeply for as long as we need -- even when our culture is screaming at us to get over it. The second, perhaps more difficult step, is to stay open to life and further vulnerability despite the grief and fear we feel. Peretz -- the ancestor of King David and the messianic line -- is conceived when Tamar refuses to let loss paralyze her family and her future.

May we, too, find the strength to make life-affirming choices after loss, and may they lead us toward redemption.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.