Rewrite the Story
Take 10 second right now, look around you and count all of the things that are red...go ahead, I’ll wait.
Now that you’ve done that, please close your eyes, and tell me what is blue in the room. You just activated your reticular activating system. This is a piece of your brain that’s tasked with filtering out all the noise from the world around you so you can focus on the important stuff. So when I asked you to see red, it came at the expense of all the other colors around you since red was what you told your RAS to focus on.
The RAS simply takes what you think about most and assumes that it’s important to you. So it goes looking for more instances, more examples, more evidence to reinforce the ‘validity’ of what you’re thinking about. There’s no external, objective measure of ‘validity,’ either so you become a walking, thinking, self-reinforcing feedback loop.
One of the main sources of that feedback is what Irish storyteller Jodie Rodgers calls Brain Chatter, the voices inside of us that are constantly talking to us. Sometimes they play nicely and allow us to push ourselves, striving for more, building us up. More often than not, that doesn’t happen.
Chatter comes in the form of the stories we tell ourselves. Those stories are usually about maintaining order and self-protection. Because when we tell ourselves certain stories it allows us to disengage from the tougher stuff. As Brene Brown explains, that's what human beings tend to do:
When we're under threat, we run. If we feel exposed or hurt, we find someone to blame, or blame ourselves before anyone else can, or pretend we don't care.
This system of the stories with our reticular activating system is a pretty powerful entity. As you imagine, it can get us into trouble. But it, like any other part of our being, it’s also something that we can learn from and work on.
When we think about stories of individual characters in the Torah, I am convinced that no one has as wild a set of stories as Joseph. Beginning last week with his messy rearing, estrangement and ultimately sale by his brothers, coming to its midpoint this week with his near reunion in Parshat Miketz, and then culminating next week in Parshat Vayigash, in my eyes, there is no person to whom I feel more of a connection than Joseph.
His life, albeit in dramatic and grandiose ways, feels the most relatable. The ideas that underlie all of those plot points feel so human. Jealousy, arrogance, hatred, spite, glory, vengeance, compassion, sorrow, and elation are emotions we are all bound by in some way. Joseph in his highest highs and lowest lies teaches us so much about the fickle nature of the human condition.
Joseph, this week, has made his way out of the literal depths and become elevated in the house of Pharoh and all of Egypt. He has solved the scarcity of resources problem and all come to him in order to find sustenance. Imagine the power that must be coursing through his veins. From being so hated and so devalued as to have been sold for nothing to now being the person absolutely everyone needs? How easy it must be to forget yourself?
So as this vicious famine ravages Egypt and its neighbors, a group of brothers are sent down by their father to Egypt. The very same group of brothers that originally sought to kill Joseph. And what happens? Joseph realizes who they are but they do not recognize him. Two times in fact. Back to back verses tell us that Joseph recognized him, painting the vivid picture for us as we think of Joseph in this moment, almost dazed that this is really them.
My brothers? Those very same ones? We can picture his wide-eyed gaze as he blinks over and over again wondering if it’s real. And had we not known the story, we might think that he’s ready for the big reveal, right now in this moment.
But the same verses that tell us he recognized them tell us that he made himself a Nochri before them, he intentionally created a ruse so that they would not know who he was. He already had a beard, as was fashionable in Egypt. He used an interpreter to feign ignorance of their language, and of course, as the verse tells us, he spoke harshly to them, interrogating them and accusing them of espionage. And the questions that undergirds this whole story are why does he not reveal to them what has happened? And even before this, why does he never think to send word to his father that he’s alive?
As you might imagine, there are many attempts to unpack this question. One that I find fascinating comes from the Ramban, the famed Rabbi and commentator also known as Nachmanides. On the verse that follows, where we are told that Joseph remembered the dreams and accused them of being spies, the Ramban notes that none of Joseph’s dreams have yet been fulfilled. Since he needs all the brothers to be there and recognizing that Benjamin was absent at the 1st meeting, he schemed to bring Benjamin along and thus affect the realization of the first dream.
All Joseph cared about was the dream coming to fruition. Had he revealed to them right away who he was, then God’s divine providence would not have born itself out. Instead, he would’ve been unnecessarily inserting himself, acting God-like as it were, controlling the fate of the people around him. A fairly well-reasoned answer? Joseph knowing the power of dreams needs this dream to take place. So he can’t reveal himself yet because that would thwart the dream.
Many commentators take Ramban to task for this theory for the primary reason that Joseph could have fulfilled the dreams without causing such pain to his brothers and father. Perhaps there were other methods at his disposal. Nonetheless, it’s a good attempt to answer a difficult question.
This year though, I came across a novel, more contemporary approach that I think sheds light on a dynamic at play that I hadn’t thought of before. This comes from Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, an Israeli Rabbi who was one of the founders of Yeshiva Har Etzion in Gush Etzion. On this double question of why he doesn't reveal himself to the brothers here or to Yaakov before this, he posits the following:
Yosef's decision was based on a mistake. Yosef believed that he had been rejected from his father's household, just as Yishmael and Esav had been pushed out in the preceding generations in favor of their respective brothers. Yosef believed that his sale was undertaken with his father's knowledge, and that Yaakov had perhaps sent him in the first place to check on his brothers with the intention that they would take care of removing him from the House of Israel. Since Yosef knew nothing of the brothers' ruse of dipping his coat in the blood of the ram, he could not understand why his father did not come to redeem him or seek him out – and these thoughts led him to the conclusion that his father was apparently persuaded by his brothers that there was no choice but to force him out, just as Yishmael and Esav had been forced out.
This whole time, argues Rav Yoel, Joseph had been telling himself the story that he had not only been betrayed by his brothers but also by his father. Yosef knows the family’s history. He knows the disowning that had happened in the past for other children. Esav and Yishmael are not just names to him. They are flesh and blood, so he thinks that he too is in a long line of cast asides. So he accepts that reality. It also explains why he chooses to literally name a child after the forgetting of these painful episodes, Menashe, from the root Nashani, God has caused me to forget. Outwardly he claims to have forgotten but I think Rav Yoel’s theory points to the fact that on the inside, this story is very much not forgotten.
That’s the power of the voice in our heads. Think about how much Joseph had accomplished since those incidents. Yet still somewhere there, he was the betrayed son and brother. And in his own head, he was still thinking, these are the same ones that hurt me. There’s that brain chatter again.
So focused on one thing that it never really leaves you. So he holds it in; he hides. And we know even with all the later attempts to retcon it as a positive move, this withholding proves too much for Joseph as he soon enough breaks down in torrential tears with his brothers.
In fact, it is only when he has the ability to rewrite his story that he begins to shift. That comes in the moment Yehuda is pleading on behalf of bringing Benjamin:
Your servant, my father, said to us: ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons. And one went out from me, and I said, ‘Surely he has been torn in pieces;’ and I have not seen him since. Now if you take this one from me too, and some disaster befalls him – you will bring down my grey hairs with sorrow to Sheol.’"
In that moment, he realizes that not only was his father not party to this, at least in the way he believes, but also that his brothers, now faced with a similar situation, have also undergone some nascent form of teshuvah. They have changed. In turn, this allows Joseph to change the story. He has once again taught us a valuable lesson.
So, how can we do this? What work can we do? As Jodie Rodgers put it,
Just because you think a thought, it doesn’t make it a fact.
What thoughts and stories are you telling yourself right now that might not really be true? Brene Brown offers many different steps to help ourselves recalibrate these conversations with the self. Chief among them is getting curious. We should write down and ask ourselves questions about the emotions that we’re feeling. Her framework is as follows: The story I'm making up...
For some this can be a minute process and for others, like our progenitor Joseph, it can be a years long one. The longer a story has to embed itself, the more deep the process of rooting it out can be. But if we can ask the right questions, if we can put ourselves in the right situations to learn about them, then we can begin the process of refocusing our reticular activating systems and rewriting our stories. May we all find the courage and curiosity to do so.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend