Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Using Both Brains God Gave Us / Vayigash

You know that gut-wrenching feeling you have when confronted by someone who has all the power and plans to use it? This is what Judah experiences in Egypt. He and his brothers are the victims of entrapment – cleverly planned and executed by Joseph – and Judah is reduced to begging for the life of his brother Benjamin.

Parshat Vayigash opens with a long and impassioned speech by Judah to the vizier of Egypt, whom he still does not recognize as his brother Joseph. Throughout, Judah remains polite and appropriate, but we sense beneath the surface expression of his compassion for his father, Jacob, a seething fury due to the injustice of his and his brothers’ predicament:
Then Judah approached [Joseph] and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh. My lord asked his servants, ‘Have you a father or another brother?’ We told my lord, ‘We have an old father, and there is a child of his old age, the youngest; his full brother is dead, so that he alone is left of his mother, and his father dotes on him.’ Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, that I may set eyes on him.’ We said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father; if he were to leave him, his father would die.’ But you said to your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, do not let me see your faces.’… Now if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us – since his own life is so bound up with his – when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief… For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.” (Genesis 44: 18-23, 30-31, 34)
The midrash senses Judah’s seething but controlled anger beneath the surface, as well as the desire of reconciliation and the spirit of hopeful prayer:
Then Judah approached [Joseph]. R. Judah, R. Nechemiah, and the Rabbis commented. R. Yehudah said: He came near for battle, as in the verse, So Joab and the people that were with him drew nigh unto battle (2 Samuel 10:13). R. Nechemiah said: He came near for reconciliation, as in the verse: Then the children of Judah drew near unto Joshua (Joshua 14:6) – to conciliate him. The Rabbis said: Coming near applies to prayer, as in the verse, And it came to pass at the time of the evening offering that Elijah the prophet came near, etc. (I Kings18:36). R. Lazar combined all these views: I come whether it be for battle, for conciliation, or for prayer. (Midrash Beraishit Rabbah 93:6 and Tanhuma Vayigash 8)
Judah’s limbic system has been stimulated. His “primitive, emotional brain,” responsible for the fight-or-flight response, has been ignited. No doubt his amygdala is generating feelings of fear, anger, and resentment in full force. But so, too, according to the midrash, is his cerebrum working full force. It is engaged in thoughtful analysis, reasoning, and problem solving.

It’s not that the midrash is offering us three choices. It’s that Judah responds all three ways simultaneously: Perhaps his initial response is preparation to do battle and protect Benjamin if need be. But he does not permit that initial “primitive brain” response to rule. His actual, behavior response to Joseph is to seek reconciliation by appealing to Joseph’s conscience, and to pray to God for help and strength. The result is a family reunion rather than brawl.

In our families, neighborhoods, and workplaces, we have all seen how stressful situations can cause strong emotional reactions. We may – in the instant – feel threatened or demeaned or insulted. While our limbic systems engage full force because of our biological programming, there is much more to our brains than the amygdala. For this reason, some common-sense good advice we’ve all heard is worth repeating:
  • When you receive an email that makes you angry, don’t respond for at least 48 hours. Give yourself time to think it over. Consider whether there is another way to read it; perhaps the writer didn’t mean what you initially thought. In either case, give yourself time to calm down and compose an appropriate response that will not cause rupture.
  • When someone says something that inflames you, remind yourself that your anger is only your initial reaction. Responding in kind is rarely wise. Ask the person some calm questions, including: “Please tell me what is bothering you most here and why?” or “When can we talk calmly about this?”
  • Be especially careful when your anger is provoked by how someone has spoken to or treated your child. Parents often feel their children’s pain more keenly then their own. Remember that your child is watching your response and learning from you: this is your moment to shine.
Rabbi Simchah Bunam (18th – 19th century), begins with a question others have asked: Why does Torah say that Judah approached Joseph? Wasn’t he already standing before Joseph? He then explains the midrash above.
Commentators on the Torah pose the question: Surely Judah was [already] standing and talking with Joseph, and vice versa, so why [does the text use] the expression he approached? Now it appears that prayer is accepted only if one prays from the depths of the heart and the essence of the soul – such a prayer is received favorably. Similarly, in the case of war, one must arouse oneself with all one's inner powers in order to fight one's opponent, and similarly with conciliation – consider this carefully. So this is the meaning of [the phrase], Then Judah approached him – that Judah came closer to his own essence, and on this basis we may explain the midrash. (Simchah Bunam of Pshische, Kol Simchah HaShalem, Jerusalem: HaMesorah, 1986, p.51.)
Rabbi Bunam is telling us that Judah’s “approach” was not physical, but rather psychological and spiritual. He was calling upon all his emotional, psychological, and spiritual reserves to respond appropriately and constructively to the terrible, threatening situation in which he found himself. Nothing less, Rabbi Bunam is reminding us, is what we must do on many occasions in our lives.

Many years ago I popped into a store to pick up something one of my kids needed for math class. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to get, so when the clerk asked me what I sought, I provided a clumsy and confusing answer. With impatience and annoyance, she said, “You shouldn’t come in looking for it until you know what you want.” My first reaction was a combination of embarrassment and anger. But then another thought occurred to me: maybe this wasn’t about me at all. So I said, “I’m sorry I don’t know what I’m supposed to be getting. But are you okay? How are you today?” She looked at me in shock and began to cry. As the tears flowed she told me that her husband had asked for a divorce that very morning and then the story of her troubled marriage tumbled out during the next 45 minutes. I am so glad I didn’t react with anger and indignation; I would hate to think how that would have compounded her pain that awful day.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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