One scene, two interpretations
Dr. Huda Akil, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan who studies the biology of stress and resilience, said in a recent speech:
“Active resilience happens when people who are vulnerable find resources to cope with stress and bounce back, and do so in a way that leaves them stronger, ready to handle additional stress, in more adaptive ways.”
We literally have brain molecules that give us resilience and those can be rewired as life requires. They can be fortified through tactical decisions we make in our life as we confront traumas. Greater activity in the central executive network of our brains increases self-control which most likely reduces some unhealthy behaviors people often use to cope with stress. Other studies have shown that we can change the activity in the self-control network, and increase healthy behaviors, with simple behavioral interventions. For example, mindfulness training, which involves attention control, emotion regulation and increased self-awareness, can increase connectivity within this network.
I got to thinking about this vis-à-vis our own responses to trauma as I looked at Joseph and his brothers. After Joseph, his brothers, and their whole party bury Jacob, Genesis 50:15 tell us the following:
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him?!”
What makes little sense here is the wording that the brothers “saw” that their father was dead. After all that had transpired as part of his burial process, there’s no way his brother’s couldn’t have seen what took place. They literally took part in the burial itself, perhaps even with Esav returning, as the midrash argues. If that’s not memorable I don’t know what is!
With this line, the Rabbis attempt to understand what it is that they saw then that made them realize their father had died. On this verse, the midrash shares the following:
“What is the meaning of “and they saw”? They could perceive that he was dead through the conduct of Joseph. Previously they used to dine at Joseph’s table and he used to receive them with open arms out of respect to his father; after Jacob’s death, however, he no longer treated them in a friendly manner...They were wrong however. His real reason for stopping the invitations was that Jacob used to insist that Joseph sit at the head of the table. Now however Joseph felt uncomfortable about taking precedence over Reuven and Judah, his elders.
It is a magnificent read and insight into the mindset of the brothers and the different ways they developed. In a 180 degree turn from how this whole thing began, Joseph sees the favoritism that was still present in his father’s actions and course corrects once his father passes away. He doesn’t want to make the same mistake twice and recognizes the vulnerability of his brothers and tries to get ahead of the problem before it rears its head. His brothers though, perhaps still carrying the emotional residue of their earlier traumas see that and think to themselves, “oh no, it’s payback time.”
Two parties, raised in the same home (albeit for a shorter period of time), approach one situation and see it with totally different eyes. It’s almost as if our response to the initial trauma and how we’ve coped since has serious implications for how we face similarly emotionally unstable situations to come. We don’t hear much about Joseph’s brothers’ attempt to deal with this. Joseph, though, does have ample opportunity in his life to figure out how to be better and different.
In the minds of the Rabbis, he quite literally confronts his demons:
As they were returning from the burial of their father, they saw their brother go to the pit into which they had hurled him, in order to bless it. He blessed the pit with the benediction “Blessed be the place where God performed a miracle for me,” just as any person is required to pronounce a blessing at the place where a miracle had been performed on her behalf. When they beheld this they cried out: Now that our father is dead, Joseph will hate us and will fully requite us for all the evil which we did unto him.
Joseph stares into the pit and recognizes the blessing, albeit in disguise, that resulted from this trauma. He was able to see the silver lining. His practice of gratitude leaves him more mindful of his surroundings and able to make a more sound decision in future crises/confrontations. His brothers see the demon and jump to the worst possible conclusion.
We’re goners. They confront the chaos and succumb to it. Their executive functioning goes haywire. Our ability to survive a trauma and then process is the key to stunting or expediting this development.
We all have lived through traumas, some major, some minor. This year especially that unites us all. Joseph and his brothers’ particular narrative may be unique and perhaps a bit far-fetched, but the broad notion of these types of experiences is universal.
What Joseph tells us and what the science we’re now understanding illustrates is that perhaps we have more control than we think. Self control, mindfulness training and support systems are just some of the methods that we can learn to rewire our brains to help grow our resilience.
Remembering like Joseph did throughout his journey that life was bigger than just him, recognizing his blessings, even the ones that came through struggle allowed him to overcome his obstacles. Some folks are born with the strength to get through anything. But all of us have should remember that we have it within us, on a literal molecular level, to learn to strengthen our resilience and retrain our brain.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend. Stay safe and healthy, friends!
Bereishit Rabbah 100:8