by Tamar Rabinowitz: Dean, Jewish Studies and Hebrew

Many of you might have seen the poster on social media changing the 7th (Sheva in Hebrew) of October to שבעה באוקטובר (Shiva in October).In Judaism, after the burial of a loved one, mourners return home to sit shiva for seven days. Shiva is simply the Hebrew word for seven. During the shiva week, mourners are expected to remain at home and sit on low stools, physically acting out their grief. Israelis and Jews around the world have been in a state of mourning ever since October 7th, a never-ending shiva. 

In this week’s portion, Ya’akov shows clear favoritism towards hisyoung son Yosef which angers Yosef’s brothers. Yosef has dreams in which he predicts reigning over his brothers, provoking them further. They decide to throw him into a pit and then sell him into slavery. In order to cover up their deed, they kill a goat and dip Yosef’s coat in its blood, which they bring to their father as evidence of Yosef’s death. Ya’akov, when confronted with evidence from his sons, acknowledges that it is Yosef’s and “Ya’akov rent his clothes, put on sackcloth, and mourned 

his son for a long time. His sons and daughters tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. He said, “I will go down to the grave mourning for my son.” (Genesis 37:34-35). Not surprisingly, there are many laws that dictate how one should mourn and for how long. In Judaism, one’s bereavement and grief has limitations and one is not permitted to mourn endlessly. The Talmud (Moed Katan 27b)  says that God admonishes one who weeps beyond the appointed time, “You are not more compassionate than I.”  And yet Ya’akov refuses to be comforted.

A Midrash gives a remarkable explanation. “One can be comforted for one who is dead, but not for one who is still living,” it says. In other words, Ya’akov refused to be comforted because he had not yet given up hope that Yosef was still alive. This explanation is a haunting one when considering the families of those still held hostage. They are unable to go through the normal stages of mourning because they simply cannot abandon the possibility that their loved one is still capable of being rescued. Their refusal to be comforted is a refusal to give up hope. 

But we, who are not on the planet of agony of the families of the hostages, as Rachel Goldberg named it in her speech to the UN, what can we learn from Ya’akov’s refusal to be comforted? We too can hold out hope in solidarity with those families, that their loved ones will be returned. In our long history, Jews refused to be comforted after the destruction of the Temple, after their exile from their home. In the book of Jeremiah, we see the prophet make statements that demonstrate his positivity that the Jews would ultimately return to their home precisely because they refused to give up hope. 

So where do we find hope in an endless shiva? 

I find hope in listening to my colleagues engage with difficult and heavy conversation about Israel and Gaza in preparation for our Day of Learning that we held on Tuesday. I find hope, to paraphrase my colleague Joe Gindi, watching my colleagues hold the mess of thoughts and feelings with as much grace and kindness as they can muster. I find hope in listening to my students engage thoughtfully and with tremendous openness to the complexity of our current reality. It is not easy work, but it is necessary. 

Rabbi Sacks wrote, “It is not too much to say that Jewish survival was sustained by hope. And that hope came from a… phrase in the life of Jacob. He refused to be comforted. And so – while we live in a world still scarred by violence, poverty and injustice – must we.” Each night of Hanukkah, Jews light candles, first one, then two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.  From one small cruze of oil bursts forth an abundance of sudden light. Let’s take it upon us to both hold on to our hope, activating our hope to bring kindness and light into our world.