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.