The word להתאפק is not a particularly common word throughout the Tanakh. It means to restrain or hold back with a negative valence. Even more uncommon is the trio of characters to whom the action is described: Joseph, Haman, and God. One the fanciful dream interpreter turned savior of the Israelites. The second the wicked enemy that tried to destroy the Jewish people. The third…uh, a deity.
Both Joseph and God do acts of holding back until they can no longer. Joseph holds back his emotions while he conceals his identity from his brothers until:
וְלֹֽא־יָכֹ֨ל יוֹסֵ֜ף לְהִתְאַפֵּ֗ק לְכֹ֤ל הַנִּצָּבִים֙ עָלָ֔יו וַיִּקְרָ֕א הוֹצִ֥יאוּ כׇל־אִ֖ישׁ מֵעָלָ֑י וְלֹא־עָ֤מַד אִישׁ֙ אִתּ֔וֹ בְּהִתְוַדַּ֥ע יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶל־אֶחָֽיו׃ Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.
God’s holding back happens in the book of Isaiah where we read the following:
הֶחֱשֵׁ֙יתִי֙ מֵֽעוֹלָ֔ם אַחֲרִ֖ישׁ אֶתְאַפָּ֑ק כַּיּוֹלֵדָ֣ה אֶפְעֶ֔ה אֶשֹּׁ֥ם וְאֶשְׁאַ֖ף יָֽחַד׃
“I have kept silent far too long,-f
Kept still and restrained Myself;
Now I will scream like a woman in labor,
I will pant and I will gasp.
This is amid a larger section where Isaiah is describing God returning to the people as a result of their returning to God. God had restrained from showing emotion and then it poured forth.
Haman who we read about once more this week on Purim does the following after a perceived slight by Mordechai:
Haman was filled with rage at him.
וַיִּתְאַפַּ֣ק הָמָ֔ן וַיָּב֖וֹא אֶל־בֵּית֑וֹ וַיִּשְׁלַ֛ח וַיָּבֵ֥א אֶת־אֹהֲבָ֖יו וְאֶת־זֶ֥רֶשׁ אִשְׁתּֽוֹ׃
Nevertheless, Haman controlled himself and went home. He sent for his friends and his wife Zeresh,
Joseph and God let go of their “holding on” while Haman gives into his version of it. As Dr. Ruchama Weiss of Hebrew Union College notes: "once you give up on holding on to so much, you actually tap into your humanity and your ability to connect to others."
In other words, living a life where you're constantly hiding your feelings, obfuscating, and deflecting makes you a Haman-like character. It's why the Midrash Tanhuma describes Joseph's feeling of התאפקות as reflecting a tremendous inner conflict raging within Joseph.
When we feel this storm of emotions, it’s hard to know what to do with it. We have a choice. Do I bottle it up? Do I release it? Is there a middle way?
I find myself today at the end of my paternity leave for my now almost 5 month old son, Cal. To say it has been a whirlwind would be an understatement. In my sermon this past year on Rosh Hashanah I spoke about my anxieties at the prospect of bringing a new life into the world. So many of the comments I received in response were some form of “You’ll see. It’s so much fun and so meaningful.”
In that first month after Cal’s birth, I kept wondering why I wasn’t feeling all these positive things that people had promised. I was spiraling. I didn’t feel particularly connected to him. I was not enjoying it. I felt disconnected from myself, my partner, and certainly from Cal. I was the worst version of myself.
I have a vivid memory from one of the nights during his first week at home during the witching hours between 5-7pm where he was inconsolable. None of the few tricks we had learned were working. As I held him while he cried and I cried, I just kept repeating, “it’s going to be ok” over and over again. I am still not sure whether I was talking to him or myself more.
As I navigated this darkness, with the help of my therapist I realized I was battling depression. I had so much I was keeping bottled up at the time because I had a certain image of how I was supposed to be acting and feeling that with each moment that ran counter to that, I felt like I couldn’t actually let it out. That is the toxic power of התאפקות.
That’s the Haman-like response to the storm of emotions. Keep it in. Hide it. But then I slowly started to realize that method wasn’t serving me anymore. In the same way that Joseph has to come to terms with his emotional turmoil, I too had my moment of the dam bursting forth. Once that happened, I was able to begin to come to terms with the reality I was living. That, and also anti-depressants. Thank God for those too.
I came to understand that not every moment of Cal crying, not sleeping, or generally doing frustrating baby things needed to be a moment of existential questioning of why I became a parent. Usually a baby is just being a baby.
Here I am having just completed the latter stint of my parental leave feeling so different than when I started. It’s not as if those low moments don’t happen. It’s not as if the tears still don’t come. Certainly, it’s not as if there aren’t moments of wanting to pull my hair out (if Cal doesn’t get there first with his iron grip).
It’s that I can meet those moments with a sense of equanimity. I understand the tools that I have acquired in these past few months. I am competent and cautiously confident. As Jospeh taught me, holding it in doesn’t need to be the default. I remind myself daily of what it says about God when God let it go:
When you give up holding on to so much, your foes, in whatever form they come, can be overcome. I am thankful for that reminder and I hope it resonates for you as well.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend
What an amazing and brave post. Always so proud of you ... as a son, brother, rabbi, husband and now Dad!! So grateful that you are our son.
Bravo to a great dad!