Rock Bottom by Jesse Dunietz


Towards the end of Parshat Mikeitz, Yehudah and Yaakov have a very emotional conversation.  Yehudah pleads with his father to allow the brothers to bring Binyamin back to Egypt with them, and his father finally accepts – reluctantly.  He acknowledges the necessity of sending Binyamin, but prays for his welfare. Still, he is not particularly hopeful, as he says at the end of the dialogue, “Kaasher Shacholti, Shachalti,” “As I have been bereaved, so I am bereaved” (Bereshit 43:14).  He is clearly expecting the worst.

This particular phrase has a striking parallel elsewhere in Tanach:  Esther says to Mordechai about approaching the king Achashverosh unlawfully, “Vichaasher Avaditi, Avaditi,” “and if I am lost, I am lost” (Esther 4:16).  This language, though it may not sound quite the same in English, is almost identical to Yaakov’s words in Hebrew.  Why so similar a turn of phrase?  What is the connection between these two selections from Tanach?

The Ibn Ezra (Esther ibid. s.v. Vichaasher Avaditi) draws a purely grammatical parallel.  He says that the past tense is used (the verse literally means “As I was lost”) to indicate the thoughts of a character, as it is used in our Parsha.  He connects the similarity in language merely to a similar use of past tense to refer to future, while mentioning no conceptual connection at all.  This explanation seems somewhat weak; while it does explain the grammatical structure of the phrases, common sense would dictate that there should also be some common meaning.

The Rashbam gives another interpretation.  He comments on the Pasuk in Mikeitz that Yaakov was very unsure of what would happen when he sent Binyamin.  When he said “Ka’asher Shacholti, Shachalti,” he meant “If I am bereaved, then I will be bereaved.”  In other words, whatever happens will happen, and if it happens that he loses Binyamin, then such is his fate.  Yaakov is resigned to the doom of his son, just as Esther resigned herself to accept whatever fate was in store for her.  This explanation is a level deeper than that of the Ibn Ezra, at least explaining to some degree what the conceptual connection is.  In fact, this simple, basic explanation of the link may be supported by the many surface-level connections that can be made between these two cases:  Both were making a personal sacrifice for the good of the nation; both had every reason to fear that their missions would fail; both were quite reluctant at first to resign themselves to their fates.  These two incidents certainly parallel each other quite nicely on a superficial level.

The Ramban, however, suggests a still deeper understanding, one that, though similar to the Rashbam’s, goes beyond it.  He believes that “the correct [reading] is that [Yaakov] says, ‘You will not be able to add any further bereavement to me.’”  The Ramban explains that Yaakov has hit an emotional “rock bottom.”  It is not humanly possible, says Yaakov, to experience any more pain than I currently am.  “Ka’asher Shacholti” – since I have already been bereaved once for Yosef – “Shachalti” – I am in a sense “pre-bereaved.”  Similarly, Esther was already doomed to destruction (presumably from Haman’s decree), so there was nothing to add to her doom.  “Ka’asher Avaditi, Avaditi” – she was already going to be lost, so a death sentence could not do any more harm.  However, it is worth noting that despite, and in fact partly because of, the hopelessness and despair that they felt, both Yaakov and Esther were able to make the necessary sacrifices and accomplish what they needed to.

This Ramban actually contains a deep message about life in general.  Many people would be incapacitated by pain such as Yaakov’s (or by fear such as Esther’s).  Instead, these model leaders used their feelings of “rock bottom” to allow them to do exactly what was needed.  Not only did they act despite their troubles, but they acted using their troubles to help.  This approach is extremely valuable to anybody encountering any problems; often, the best way to get around a problem is to use it for the better.

On Pain of Death… or Not by Ariel Caplan

Aligned With the Torah by Jerry Karp