The Self-Help Book

Parashat Vayigash attempts to deal with the subject of closure.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Americans live in the kingdom of self help books: Five Steps to Overcoming Fear and Doubt; Five Steps to Emotional Healing; Five Steps to Spiritual Growth. Every self-help book is marketed as the "ultimate one," or even as "the last self-help book you'll ever need." Over 300,000 self-help books are on the market. Typically, they promise a neatly outlined plan for self-transformation, for becoming free of a rooted sorrow or of deep-seated fears. They encourage the reader to believe that suffering is not worth the trouble, and gaining self-knowledge a routine affair-easily available for anyone with access to amazon.com and a credit card.
women's torah commentary
Thanks to the "self-help" industry, Americans--in particular--flee from mourning. We talk of going through the "grief process" until we experience "closure,"   as if we ourselves roll along an assembly line of emotion until we get to the final station: the packaging of our sorrow, the sealing it tight, the storing it away.

Closure is an Illusion

But the very notion of "closure" for grief is an illusion. Instead, there is only the tentative recognition that our anguish is endurable, that--despite ourselves-- life goes on and engages us with new emotions, new situations and images, new challenges and changes. The remembrance of the people we miss gets tucked into our hearts to be revisited-perhaps when we least expect it. As for the process of true inner change, true self transformation, we learn to forgive ourselves for the mistakes of the past by not making them again. If we are lucky, life "tenderizes" the heart, gives us hearts not of stone but of flesh.

Vayigash powerfully addresses this more authentic model of true emotional change via the character of Judah. In its very opening lines, we find Judah in the midst of responding in an impassioned voice to the demand of the Egyptian vizier that the youngest of Jacob and Rachel's sons, Benjamin, be left behind in Egypt. Not knowing, of course, that the forbidding vizier is none other than Rachel's other son, Joseph whom Judah and his brothers threw into a pit years before--Judah pleads with him to change his mind.

Losing Benjamin would break his father's heart, already broken because he believes his beloved Joseph is dead, says Judah. He begs to be kept behind in Benjamin's place. And then he speaks the most plaintive words of all: "For how can I go home to my father if the lad is not with me?" (44:34, my translation).

These words finally break Joseph's heart-and continue to reverberate through the ages. They signal to Joseph that he can finally trust his brothers, that there has been a profound sea-change in their character, that he can finally reveal himself to them. And so we need to ask ourselves what, in fact, has enabled Judah to come forth in this way? What has enabled the change?

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Miriyam Glazer

Miriyam Glazer, professor of literature at the University of Judaism, is author of Dancing on the Edge of the World: Jewish Stories of Faith, Inspiration, and Love and Dreaming the Actual: Contemporary Fiction and Poetry by Israeli Women Writers. She is studying for the Conservative rabbinate. She married again in September 2003.