Our forefather Yaakov is considered to have been the patriarch who endured the most suffering. Although our rabbis look to the binding of Yitzchak and the trial of Avraham as the epitome of suffering in the form of self-sacrifice, Yaakov is our greatest teacher in the difficult subject of dealing with life’s hardships.
His suffering began when, as a young man, he had to run away from his parents’ house. He fled from the treacherous Eisav into the clutches of the deceitful and poisonous Lavan. His trials continued after leaving Lavan’s domain: his famous showdown with Eisav and his army of 400 men; the violation of Dinah by Schechem; the death of his mother Rivkah at night without proper burial; the passing of Rachel and her burial on a roadside; and finally the “death” of Yosef, which was actually his abduction and slavery in Egypt.
In Parshat Vayishlach, after the death of Rivkah, Yaakov created a paradigm for dealing with future sadness in the nation of Israel.
He cried deeply and mourned the loss of his mother. It was the first tragic death in the family of the patriarchs. Yaakov’s pain is memorialized by his naming of a city after the tree where his crying took place – Alon Bachut, the tree of tears. Rav Saadia Gaon and others translate the city’s name as the plain of tears.
In the Lecha Dodi prayer we sing Friday night during Kabbalat Shabbat, we ask God to save us from Emek Habacha, the Valley of Tears, for we have been dwelling there for too long. What started as Yaakov’s flat plain of tears outside the city of Bet El, after thousands of years and the copious tears shed by the Jewish nation over that time period, became the valley of tears.
Someone who hears tragic news, like in Parshat Vayeishev where Yaakov believes that his dear son Yosef was torn apart by wild animals, is swept away and immersed into the valley of tears.
We were blessed with a beautiful child who we presumed was healthy until the age of eight months. And then Noah ascended to heaven 10 years ago on 21 Kislev, after living four years and one day in this world. So we identify with Yaakov’s situation after he was led to believe that Yosef was no longer.
That may be why it says in Vayeishev that Yaakov could not be comforted from the sadness he felt in losing Yosef for 22 years, despite his great stature as one of our eternal role models. Yaakov filled the plain of tears, originally carved out with sadness for the loss of his mother, with 22 years of his deep, heartfelt tears for Yosef’s disappearance.
The tears of all our generations – from Yaakov to the Jews in the Holocaust, and those in between – are seemingly endless. And our tears cried over our dear Noah trickled down into the valley as well. We felt trapped in the valley for many years. But little by little, God helped us escape. We cannot believe that now, 10 years after Noah’s passing, we are able to look back and appreciate Him for all that we went through – but we have and we do.
You climb to the top of the valley and move away, and you leave it in hindsight. But it is always there, and the tears you cried are eternal. If you are fortunate, you are lifted high above and look at it from God’s infinite perspective.
Once you have been to the valley, you relate more deeply to those that have also been there. You speak to them without speaking. And just mentioning the valley unites you in a bonding of your souls. The tears you cried flowed into the river that lies within the valley, and your tears merge with theirs. You want to ease their sadness, but cannot. And once you have left the valley behind, you can still return in an instant. Not to cry again, but to behold the tears you once cried. Your tears that were cried once will never dry.
Sad though your return is to the valley, it is part of what makes you alive. Without your connection to it, you have no compass. You never realized it, but from the point of your sadness and forward, the valley has become your guide. Wherever you find yourself in life, you always measure yourself by how far you have come since leaving the valley. The valley may be a real entity, as we see from the tree of tears that Yaakov named. But it also resides in a part of us that we didn’t know existed. We may not want to know it’s there, and can’t believe it’s there – but it is.
We know our tears have not been shed in vain. Despite the sadness we felt from Noah’s passing, the joy of knowing that Hashem gave us this precious gift far exceeds the sorrow. Although no one would ever ask for this type of gift, once it has been given to you, you realize that you have witnessed the ultimate truth.
May we all be zocheh to the coming of Moshiach, and have all of our holy neshamot return to us in happiness – bimheirah b’yameinu, amen.
To contribute to the foundation we created in Noah Raphael’s memory to help children facing serious illness, please send a tax-deductible check to Noah’s Spark Foundation, c/o Jarashow, 5 South Myrtle Ave., Spring Valley, NY 10977.