Healing Trauma

Rabbi Zvi Teichman

One of the most traumatized figures in the Torah was certainly Yosef. 

Imagine how after having experienced near death by the age of seventeen, at the hands of your brothers; being sold to a caravan of Arab slave traders; enticed and eventually tortured incessantly by a temptress; cast for two years into a prison cell with lowly criminals, then rising to a position of prominence, marrying and fathering two wonderful children and living a very peaceful life — and then your abusers, after twenty-two years, suddenly appear before you. 

How would you react?

Yosef saw his brothers and he recognized them, but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke with them harshly.

He asked them, “From where do you come?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan to buy food.”

Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. 

Yosef recalled the dreams that he dreamed about them…

His initial reaction upon recognizing his brothers is to portray estrangement and react unkindly. After hearing them state they have come for provisions, it reiterates his distinguishing them, and adding the obvious — that they did not identify him. Why the repetition?

Lastly, it mentions that he remembered the dreams. Was that a later recollection? Didn’t the memory of the entire episode come rushing forth as soon as he realized it was them?

Trauma is painful. The condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder is well documented. It is very real and debilitating.

It almost appears as if Yosef’s reaction of distance and anger was instinctive and not necessarily a fully processed memory — as reaction to trauma often is.

Yosef had lived all these years trying to forget that scar that was seared into his psyche. Perhaps that natural reaction to simply suppress the memory was indicated in his naming of his first child, Menashe — ‘for G-d has, נשני — made me forget all my hardship…’. 

But that can last only as long as the memory never returns to haunt.

Yosef quickly discovered that despite the distance of time, it was still very much a part of him and affected him despite his attempt at suppression.

There are many therapies used to treat trauma. Two popular approaches are exposure and cognitive restructuring. Exposure refers to reliving the memory from a safer place, learning to disengage from the reflexive emotions, preventing the memory from triggering a response. Restructuring pursues a better and healthier perspective on the events that transpired, hoping to provide a deeper understanding of what, how and why it happened. This often helps to lessen the non-cognitive reactions.

Perhaps it is this second therapy that Yosef attempted to implement when it reports how he ‘recognized them’ but ‘they could not recognize him’. It is not simply referring to his consciousness of their identity — and their lack of his at that moment. It is rather focusing on his beginning to fathom what had taken place so many years earlier. He realized that it all spiraled out of control because though he was able to appreciate their greatness despite their lapses of behavior and approached them on that fatal day so lovingly, yet they however never grasped the genuineness of their ‘kid’ brother — the ‘dreamer’, who in their minds was just seeking to diminish their esteem in their father’s eyes. 

Maybe the ‘recalling his dreams’ was an exercise in ‘exposure’, permitting himself from the safety of his position to securely experience the memory without fear, and thus reduce subsequent reactivity to the memory.

The Baal HaTurim writes that Yosef was eager to reconcile with his brothers as soon as he identified them, but the angel Gavriel intervened and stopped him. He educated Yosef about the intricacies of the nature of relationships, teaching him that sometimes differences cannot simply be papered over by good intention alone, and it requires a deeper analysis in order to gain a greater understanding of one’s own emotions, and a better appreciation of what is transpiring in the mind of those we interact with.

Just as he needed to restructure his thinking — in order to put the entire episode into a heathier perspective, so too he hoped — through his disguised intentional efforts — to challenge them to realize how irrationally they reacted initially, and how from distance one can begin to alter presumptions, permitting their original reaction of hatred towards Yosef, to transform into compassion for their well-intentioned younger brother. 

Truly, they later expressed, as the events unfolded, a very different tune when they stated, “Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother inasmuch we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we paid no heed.” 

The students of the Vilna Gaon teach that the challenge in the days prior to the coming of Moshiach will be precisely the misunderstandings of others’ intentions, and the inability to appreciate one another properly.

Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. 

May we strive, in the spirit of Yosef, to appreciate better the challenges others face that so often lead to misunderstanding and conflict, improving our relationships, heralding the day when we will be truly of one mind again!

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