Yosef as a Motif of Familial Intergenerational Trauma; Yosef as Model of the Window of Tolerance
Welcome to Awakening: Torah Mussar MIndfulness, where we at The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar meet weekly at 15:00/3pm EST on Sundays to learn from the Torah/Hebrew Bible portion that we just observed on the Jewish Sabbath/Shabbat. You may join us on Zoom (link here) or LIVE on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. All sessions are recorded and can be found at our website (www.kehilatmussar.com) in the Blog section.
Before we begin delving into the weekly Torah/Hebrew Bible portion/parasha, this week being Mikkets (Genesis 41:1–44:17), we pray that our Intention/Kavannah be of learning Torah, Mussar, and the Dharma together and practicing Mussar Mindfulness. We commit to learn and practice together once a week to strengthen our Middot/soul-traits and souls, to be of service to others and God/Hashem; indeed, to bring God’s Good to others.
We always begin our practice with our Kavanah/Intention for today’s practice: to do this type of practice and care as an act of self-care and to connect us with the Divine, and ultimately, to other people. So, before doing this engagement of learning and practice together we say: this is something I am doing to strengthen my own soul in order to be of benefit to others in the future; and then our last paragraph: this is something that I’m doing to strengthen my relationship with the Creator so that I can be a better conduit of God’s Good to others when they need me. (See below)
We use the first and third Kavanot/Intentions listed below for today’s learning and practice:
We begin with Mikkets with the awareness that this portion may trigger some of us, especially those of us from more immediate traumatic backgrounds or present. It is the lowest point in the behavior of humanity, of our ancestors, that is described in the text. In order to face this history, this behavior, we must approach with boundaries of self-care and self-compassion; not unlike how we had to approach Vayera when Avraham followed the command by God to offer this son, Yitzhak, as a slaughtered offering.
Background to our parasha: Yosef at age 17 is sold off into slavery by at least nine of his brothers, and spends at least 12 years in a dungeon prison in Egypt. Our beloved ancestor has lost his youth, his years of vitality. Now in his thirties as we enter our parahsa of Mikkets, I want to remind you how at seventeen, Yosef lacked awareness of his impact on his family, particularly his brothers. When we shared his dreams, for example, he was not aware and perhaps did not have the maturity to witness or care that his brothers had strong, negative reactions of jealousy and anger to the sharing of his dreams.
Now in this parsha, Yosef has matured and with that maturation, gone is the child who brought bad reports of his brothers. Gone is the child who wore clothing that differentiated himself from his brothers. Gone is the child who shares his dreams. Born is the young man who, with God’s help, interprets dreams.
We teach in Mussar that one can choose to engage in mindful practice to slowly change the balance of one’s middot or life will bring about this change through painful and unpleasant experiences. Yosef is stuck in Paro’s prison for twelve long years and somehow does not lose hope. Let’s ponder what middot were balanced and strong in Yosef for him to be able to survive his prison sentence and to exit prison ready to provide service to Paro and Egypt.
While in prison, we witness a young man who notices the faces and embodied emotions of an imprisoned baker and a cupbearer, who share how distraught they are because they had dreams they couldn’t interpret.
Avivah Zornberg shares:
“Joseph’s growing wisdom is indicated by an apparently minor detail: he becomes sensitive to people’s faces, to their changing expressions…Joseph’s progress in sensitivity to the human face, which hides and reveals invisible worlds, is a token of the deepening of his wisdom.”Avivah Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, p 253
Gunter Plaut shares:
“Thirteen years as a slave, even though at times a privileged one, left their mark on the young man. He had been his father’s favorite, a pampered youth, who told tales on his brothers and who overwhelmed his family with his ambitious dreams. But the trauma of near-death and his subsequent sale into slavery apparently brought on a profound change. Gone were the ornamental tunic and with it the easy arrogance… The gifted son of Jacob developed a sense of humility, and with it his basic qualities of religious sentiment began to change.”Gunter Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p 271
Left to perish in the pit, forgotten in the dungeon prison, Yosef had every opportunity to wallow away in rage and unforgiveness at: his father’s privileging of him over his brothers; his brothers’ assault, kidnapping, and sale of him into slavery; the fact that neither his father or his brothers came to save him in Egypt. However, he didn’t do this. Rather, the young man lived in the present moment, always ready for opportunities to be of service to others.
This will to live, to survive, to provide for when called upon testifies to balanced and strong middot/soul-traits of Faith and Trust in God, known as Emunah and Bitachon. Yosef is a living embodiment and testimony of the vow his Abba, Yaakov, prayed to God back in Vayetzei (Genesis 28:20-21): that if God provided food and clothing, protected him, and returned him to his father’s house, then Adonai would be his God.
וַיִּדַּ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב נֶ֣דֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־יִהְיֶ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים עִמָּדִ֗י וּשְׁמָרַ֙נִי֙ בַּדֶּ֤רֶךְ הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָנֹכִ֣י הוֹלֵ֔ךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִ֥י לֶ֛חֶם לֶאֱכֹ֖ל וּבֶ֥גֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ׃
Jacob then made a vow, saying, “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear,
וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה לִ֖י לֵאלֹהִֽים׃ and if I return safe to my father’s house—the LORD shall be my God.
Adonai is surely Yosef’s God and he trusts in God that God will protect him, that God is with him, and that he, Yosef, must remain loyal to his God.
And we witness this Uprightness and balanced Zeirizut/Alacrity, with his passion to provide God’s interpretation of others’ dreams, and his follow through to not only propose how to address a impending famine, but to step up and actually serve in the role that will enable Egypt to survive a seven year famine. And he is spectacularly successful as provider of plans, of food, of life, to a whole nation.
Yosef’s survival and integration of trauma is awe-inspiring, all the more so when we are witness to his brother’s testimony to each other in front of him that “We are being punished for our brother, for we saw his suffering (the pain of his soul) in this pleading toward us and we did not listen thus.” (Genesis: 42:21)
וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֗יו אֲבָל֮ אֲשֵׁמִ֣ים ׀ אֲנַ֘חְנוּ֮ עַל־אָחִ֒ינוּ֒ אֲשֶׁ֨ר רָאִ֜ינוּ צָרַ֥ת נַפְשׁ֛וֹ בְּהִתְחַֽנְנ֥וֹ אֵלֵ֖ינוּ וְלֹ֣א שָׁמָ֑עְנוּ עַל־כֵּן֙
In the Torah’s original recording of Yosef being attacked by his brothers, thrown into a pit to perish, and then sold into slavery, there was no description of Yosef’s pleading. Now we have insider witness status to how the brothers deliberately ignored Yosef’s cries for help. This testimony emphasizes how cruel the brothers were. It was as if Yosef’s cries never existed. Rarely does the victim of violence, assault, kidnapping get to witness that the perpetrators do understand the trauma they have caused. Rarely does the victim get to witness that the perpetrators feel that they are being punished by God for their behavior. This insider knowledge gives Yosef the energy and stamina to survive the perpetrators standing before him.
We as ancestors of Yosef become witnesses to the trauma, and with this witnessing, we can give voice to Yosef and to the experience of this trauma. We can take one step toward healing this collective, intergenerational trauma by telling this story, which stops the perpetuation of Yosef losing his voice to this experience. Yosef’s and his experience has lived on in our minds, as a continuous presence, manifested in our yearly study of his life and story and in our naming our sons Yosef. He has continued to be an object of imagination and regret for all of us (Aviva Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire).
And here is where our practice is: we may have attachment to a certain expectation for Yosef’s behavior toward his brothers who arrived in Egypt during the famine to procure some food. There is often the expectation, the clinging to the desire that a victim of trauma will not perpetuate trauma. That the victim should “know better” and therefore not act as a perpetrator of violence, psychic or physical. But that is not completely what we witness from Yosef when his brothers appear before him without knowing that it is indeed him.
Perhaps at this moment it is best to practice imagining how much worse it could have been: Yosef could have acted out years of rage, pain, and revenge. He could have ordered his brothers killed right then and there. His instinctive desire for revenge must have been tempered by the knowledge that his father, brother, and extended family back in Canaan may be starving and are depending on the acquisition of provisions in Egypt. Yosef must have been conscious of the terrible suffering, perhaps fatal in its consequences, that he would be inflicting on his father and extended starving family by detaining or killing nine of the brothers.
This self-restraint on Yosef’s part demonstrates not only great Strength as a middah but also great Responsibility. He maintains mindful awareness of the potential consequences of the choices of his behaviors and the effects they could have on others, particularly those he holds most dear in his heart: his father, Yaakov, and his brother, Benjamin. Yosef gains great strength from the admission of their crime, particularly when Yehudah falls to the ground before Yosef with his clothing rented, as he admits that God has uncovered their crime (Indeed, Yosef has!).
As uncomfortable as these scenes may make us as Yosef yields great power over and domination of his brothers, suffering was a divine punishment for sin in ancient belief. Today, in our Mindfulness practice, we may choose to embrace that the Dharma teaches that there are consequences for our behavior, and those consequences may be greatly unpleasant, and our reaction to this unpleasantness may cause us suffering. Yosef’s brothers committed a sin so great that there most likely was not full forgiveness by Yosef, God, or themselves while they remained living. The challenge today is: Can we forgive them?
In conclusion, strong inner states can arise in us when doing this Torah study, when engaging in this encounter with our ancestors each week. Strong inner states can be a source of turbulence that affects the calmness of the soul. It is our Insight Mindfulness practice to recognize and accept these states and to know that they are just states that will pass with time; that we need not cling to them or avoid them. It is through our daily sitting mindfulness meditation practice that we develop the capacity to witness our inner states.
This is what we have begun to do right now: develop the capacity for inner distancing through our Torah study. And for those of you reading this, we also develop this capacity together through our sitting meditation practice, which is available in the YouTube video embedded above.
We honor God, our practice, our ancestors, our community, our Torah, and Dharma. I am honored to be your teacher and to be here together in order to enable offerings like this. We rely on your donations of any amount to offer these teachings and sitting. This donation is called Dana in the Pali, a tradition of Insight Buddhist Meditation, and Terumah in Hebrew, a tradition of Judaism. On behalf of The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar, I thank you for your donation.
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Shalom Shalom Shalom
We practice and ask ourselves:
- Can we bear the burden of our ancestors, particularly when they act out with unbalanced middot?
- Can we extend compassion and less judgment?
- What can our ancestors and the Torah teach us?
- And can we integrate and be mindful of these lessons and what was handed down to us by our ancestors, like Yosef and his brothers, so that we can use this wisdom to make sure that we do not cause more harm and suffering?
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