Self Soothing – Parshat Vayeshev 5780

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One of the hardest parts of parenting infants for me was sleep training and helping them learn the process of self-soothing. For the longest time, both of my children could only find comfort snuggled in my arms. I don’t blame them; I love being cozy and snuggled up too. Unfortunately, inconsistent baby sleeping led to regularly interrupted parent sleeping, and I discovered my tolerance for the “cry it out” method was exactly two minutes before I lost my mind and resorted back to snuggling. Eventually, as they both got older and with the help of their soft “lovies” and reassurance from Mommy and Daddy, they learned how to self soothe. 

Being able to healthfully self soothe is one of the skills we learn very early on in life, and it’s an essential skill for the rest of our lives. With so many ups and downs and unknowns in life, the ability to comfort yourself in a healthy and efficient way is critical to your well-being. But what happens if we lose this ability? In our Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayeshev, the patriarch Jacob finds out.

Vayeshev is in the thick of the Joseph story. Joseph has two dreams that he shares with his brothers, both of which make them angry with him. The brothers go out to pasture, Joseph finds them, the brothers decide to sell him, and father Jacob mourns the loss of his favorite son. After this, the story takes a turn to focus on Joseph’s brother Judah and the betrayal of Tamar before turning back to Joseph’s life in Egypt, which ultimately lands him in jail.

Chapter 37, verses 34 through 35, reveal Jacob deep in his grief after his sons tell him Joseph is gone. “Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and observed mourning for his son many days. All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, ‘No, I will go down mourning for my son in Sheol.’” The Hebrew word used for “comforted” here is reflexive, l’hitnachem. In other words, the pain was so great, Jacob refused to comfort himself. 

Soothing yourself as an adult is different than soothing yourself as a toddler. As adults, we can use rational thought and experience to refocus and remain calm. But in this week’s Torah portion, Jacob reminds us that there are some moments in life that don’t fit neatly into these rational coping blueprints. Sometimes even adults have to cry it out. 

Too Young to be a Rabbi – Parshat Vayeshev 5779

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If I had a dollar for every time someone either told me I looked too young to be a rabbi or that I was an old soul, I could have finished paying back my student loans long ago. I have always been an old soul in a younger body. When I was younger, I often preferred to hang out with the adults over my peers, and I was more comfortable in situations that seemed “adult” and less “angst-filled teen” even when I was an “angst-filled teen.”

However, given my young age, I’m also constantly reminded that I look too young to have wisdom, or to teach people decades older than me about a religion thousands of years old. I usually laugh it off, knowing that age is simply the number of years since birth, not a milestone of wisdom. Wisdom is attained through experiences, learning, and living. And in my 36 short years I’ve learned quite a bit from the experiences life has thrown at me.

Parshat Vayeshev reminds us of all the complexities that might come with age. It begins with Joseph’s youth and the problems he encounters when trying to relate to his siblings through his dreams. They subsequently sell him, which results in their father Jacob going into a deep period of mourning. Joseph finds himself in Egypt, interacting with young and old alike and using the skills that once turned off his peers to his own benefit.

Joseph’s relationship with his father, and thus also his relationship with his brothers, is sealed in the way he is described in chapter 37, verse 3: “Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic.” This verse is somewhat confusing. Benjamin was in fact younger than Joseph, so why did Joseph retain the preferred status? The answer for both Rashi and the Kli Yakar, a 17th century commentary on Torah, lies in the words used in Hebrew to describe Joseph. For Rashi, “ben z’kunim” refers to Joseph as a child with the mature wisdom of an older person. Thus, Joseph is wise beyond his years, and that made him unrelatable to his brothers, but the perfect peer for his father. The Kli Yakar understands it to mean that Joseph could be playful with children and mature in the company of adults. Joseph was a chameleon of sorts.

We spend so much time reinforcing to our children that they should just “be themselves.” But what if who they really are inside doesn’t match the “self” we expect them to be because of their age or sex or development? Respect and open communication are possible only when we value each person because of what they offer individually, not because of a category we put them in. A very philosophical statement, right? Well, perhaps I’m wise beyond my years.

Petey the Ghost – Parshat Vayeshev 5778

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When I was a little girl, like most kids, I had an imaginary friend. I named him Petey the Ghost. I was about four years old when I “met” Petey, and he soon started taking the blame for everything I did wrong. Who took all the clothes out of the drawer? Petey. Who made a mess at dinner? Petey. My imaginary friend was my scapegoat, and his existence was calming to me because he gave me an out. As a parent, I’m even more aware of the power of imaginative play now that my daughter Shiri has an imaginary friend. Actually, she has an imaginary community. She calls it her “ballet class.” Shiri has never had a ballet class in her life, but she has story after story about who is in her class, what music they listen to, and what happens each day.

Needless to say, Shiri and I are not the first two people to make believe. Joseph, our predecessor in the Torah, also engages in some imaginative play. Unfortunately, his “play” leads to serious trouble. This week in Parshat Vayeshev, Joseph shares the dreams he has of his brothers bowing down to him, and they do not take kindly to this imagined scenario. They sell him, and then tell their father that they found him torn up by wild beasts. We then read about Joseph in Egypt and the way in which he ends up in jail. Only later in the narrative do we discover how Joseph’s imaginative play becomes a reality.

Luckily for most of us, our imaginative play doesn’t take the dark turn Joseph’s did. For my daughter and me, the world of imagination is a place in which we can feel safe, where we can act out scenarios that might seem scary in real life. The benefit is that the lessons we learn and discover are part of our necessary growth and development as we figure out how to interact in the world.

A Time to Mourn – Parshat Veyeshev 5776

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If you have some knowledge of the medical world, you may know that septic shock isn’t something you typically bounce back from. My mourning process for my father started when it became clear that he was not going to survive this attack to his vital systems.  That’s when it hit me that I would be without my father’s physical presence for the rest of my life.  

It sounds strange to begin mourning before a death. After all, he was still breathing. But what triggered my early grief was knowing that each breath brought him closer to his last and that after he was extubated, any moment might be our last together.

Everyone mourns in their own way. My mom, my sister, and I all expressed our feelings differently and on different timelines. I’m not embarrassed to say I was a wreck because I had already accepted the next phase and was plunged into the emotional depths of this loss, but my process was unique to me. We did our best to comfort each other, even as we were in three different phases and mindsets.

Just as no two people are exactly alike, no two relationships between people are exactly alike. That’s the reason the mourning process works differently for every mourner. Individual circumstances shaped my relationship, so there was no “one grief fits all” solution for my pain.

Parshat Vayeshev, which we read this week, shares this idea in its own way.  The narrative begins with Joseph’s dreams and his brothers’ revenge on him for sharing his prophetic visions.  Jacob is then told that Joseph is gone, and we read about Joseph’s experiences in Potiphar’s house, including his jailing and dream interpretation for fellow prisoners the butler and the baker.

When Jacob is told of Joseph’s “demise,” he reacts as any parent would – he is inconsolable.  The text literally reads that he “refused to be comforted.”  The word for “comforting a mourner” in Hebrew is l’hitnachem, which is reflexive. Thus, Jacob refused to comfort himself.  Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that we can never truly comfort a mourner, even when we have known a similar loss.  We can only surround the mourners with a sense of being cared about, in the hope that this will bring them to the point of comforting themselves.  

Parshat Vayeishev is a reminder that we all experience our relationships and the world in unique ways.  For that reason, we’re not obligated to heal one another, we’re obligated to be there for one another so the healing can happen.