Having mourned the death of his beloved son, Joseph, for 22 years, it’s hard to imagine what it must have felt like for Jacob to learn Joseph was actually alive. So it’s little wonder he was in such need of reassurance that he is sent a heavenly dream telling him “do not be afraid”.
When receiving such good news, of what might Jacob be so afraid? Some commentators suggest he is afraid for the future of his family if they settle in Egypt. Will they lose their identity and adopt Egyptian ways? This is a reasonable speculation based on a close reading of the text. But what might another reading, one that considers the psychology of characters and situations, yield for us?
Essentially, Jacob has been put in a position where he must radically revise the story he has been telling himself of his life. If he was wrong to accept Joseph’s death, about what else has he been wrong? Moreover, he has to accept the earlier perfidy of his other sons, on whom he has learned to rely in the intervening years. What might they be scheming behind his back?
I also believe Jacob had been living in a very particular kind of fear since his eyes saw Joseph’s bloodied coat.
It is a fear that often goes unrecognised, as it is hard to put it into words and may last for years.
Several people I know who have been bereaved in traumatic circumstances have used the word ‘fear’ to describe part of what they are feeling.
Much as they might crave the promise of restoration Jacob appears to be given here, it is not in our hands to give it. What we can do, however, is to shift the focus as much as possible by our ongoing presence in their lives.
If we can find a way to be with those who continue to suffer from past bereavement, it might be possible to take away a little of that pain.
- Rabbi Janet Burden serves at Ealing Liberal Synagogue
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