Vayeshev: What is Most Torn

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

It’s almost the festival of lights, but this week’s Torah portion,
Vayeshev, is not the most lighthearted portion of the Torah. Yosef is
sold into slavery by his brothers, but Yaakov, their father, thinks
he’s been torn apart by an animal. Yehudah, one of the older brothers,
then mourns for his sons in the story of his encounter with Tamar, his
daughter-in-law, and the parsha ends with Yosef in prison in Egypt.

OK, now that I’ve cheered you all up, let’s continue our discussion of
the practical actions of lived Judaism as they related to the Torah
readings. Yosef is sold into slavery, but his brothers take his
special jacket and dip it in animal blood, then bring it to their
father, so that he would think Yosef was dead (interesting how the man
who tricked his own father is tricked by his sons, but that’s another
discussion.) Yaakov is consumed with grief:

“Yaakov rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and observed
mourning for his son many days.” (Bereshit/Genesis 37:34)

As it turns out, Yaakov is not the only character in the Bible to tear
his garments in grief- in fact, just a few verses before, his son
Ruven did as well, when his plan to save Yosef didn’t work. We still
tear the garment today as a sign of grief, and in fact, to this very
day, we tear the garment standing up, from the example of King David:

“Then the king arose, tore his clothes and lay on the ground; and all
his servants were standing by with clothes torn.” (2 Samuel 13:31)

Yet as a mitzvah, a commandment, tearing the garment is supported by
Biblical verses but is actually a decree of the ancient rabbis, who
saw it as a strong tradition at a time of mourning and fixed it in our
practice. Tearing- called kriah- is usually done by the immediate
family of the deceased (i.e., if someone was your parent, spouse,
sibling, or child, you tear for them) but can also be done by anyone
present at the actual moment of death or even for one’s main teacher
of Torah.

The time of tearing is from the moment of death onwards, but nowadays
most people wait till the funeral and do it with the rabbi or cantor
(but it’s actually quite powerful to tear at the moment of getting the
news.) The garment is torn on the left side for a parent, and on the
right front side for other relatives, and one wears torn garments
through the week of shivah. (The seven-day mourning period, not
including Shabbat .) The blessing “dayan ha’emet” follows the tearing,
but we’ll explain that one another time.

Astute readers (which is any reader of rabbineal-list) will notice
that I keep using the word “garment” and not “little black ribbon on a
button.” The mitzvah is clear- one tears one’s clothing at a time of
grief. To put it another way, when one’s world is torn apart with
loss, to tear a garment says that it’s not clothing or material
possessions which really matter, but rather our relationships.

Not only that, but tearing the garment, and wearing the torn garment
for a week, goes along with the other shivah practices of being
unconcerned with physical appearance during a time of emotional and
spiritual introspection. To me, the little black ribbon common at
Jewish funerals does not adequately capture the power of our
tradition- I understand that people are squeamish about tearing their
good clothing, but I believe a more powerful ritual experience would
be had by wearing clothing that one is willing to tear- a shirt, a
tie, a blouse, a scarf, etc.

We tear- as Yaakov tore, as David tore, as Job tore- when those people
who make up a whole world of relationships (even highly imperfect
ones) are torn from us. Tearing the garment is a physical symbol of an
emotional reality- a way of expressing ourselves using the medium of
fabric rather than language. Words are often inadequate when emotions
are strong- tearing, like other rituals of relationship, picks up
where phrases fail.

Judaism doesn’t deny grief, but rather offers us a framework to hold
onto when grief is most intense. Tearing expresses the utter confusion
and vulnerability of loss, but it also gives us a way to move back
into the world, when after seven days regular clothes are worn- the
practice is not only to tear, but to put away the torn clothes when
one re-enters the workaday world after shivah. It’s a palpable symbol
of the human journey, from Biblical days to our own.

Shabbat Shalom,


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