This week, we entered into the Hebrew month of Tevet. This, I’ve noticed, is a time of year when many people struggle with feeling down, perhaps more so than in other seasons. The days are short, the nights are long and cold. Hanukkah is over, the solstice has not yet come. Our internal clock tells us to hibernate but the world demands of us the same frenetic energy as the rest of the year. It’s an easy time to self-isolate inside our apartments, shielded from the winter and the world’s woes.
In our parashah this week, I found a moment of emotional realism that spoke to an impulse many of us may have when we dip into these lowest of emotions—an impulse I want to explore.
In Parashat Vayigash, we encounter Yosef at the moment his brother Yehudah has come to negotiate with him for food during the famine. After hearing his brother’s speech, Yosef looks into the faces of his brothers who do not recognize him. And then, we read:
וְלֹא-יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק, לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, הוֹצִיאוּ כָל-אִישׁ מֵעָלָי; וְלֹא-עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ, בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו. וַיִּתֵּן אֶת-קֹלוֹ, בִּבְכִי; וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ מִצְרַיִם, וַיִּשְׁמַע בֵּית פַּרְעֹה
Yosef could no longer control himself before all the people standing around him. He cried out: “Everyone, get away from me!” And no one stood by him in the moment he made himself known to his brothers. And his sobs were so loud, the Egyptians heard, and everyone in Pharaoh’s house heard (Gen. 45:1-2).
In the moment that he is overcome with emotion, when he might be expected to want to be heard, Yosef instead cries out: “הוֹצִ֥יאוּ כׇל־אִ֖ישׁ מֵעָלָ֑י,” “Everyone, get away from me!”
As Rashi and many other commentators suggest, Yosef pushes them away because he doesn’t want the Egyptian officials to know how his brothers once betrayed him. Some commentators argue that Yosef’s righteousness prevented him from putting his brothers in a compromising position by letting others know what they had done. But it’s also understandable on a human level that he would want to be alone, with just his brothers, at this moment.
However, I read Yosef’s reaction as more impulsive: The verse says “Yosef could no longer control himself.” He is overcome—he can no longer contain the dissonance between his true self and the way he is being treated as a stranger by his brothers. And, perhaps, he can no longer contain the pain of the past decades of his life. Yosef is on the verge of tears, but he doesn’t want anyone to see how emotional he is. So he says, “Get away!” (And then, interestingly, his cries are heard anyway).
This reaction is familiar to me: In a state of emotional overwhelm, the impulse to push everyone away sometimes comes naturally. We might react as Yosef does—even if we don’t cry out, internally we may feel his “Everyone, get away from me!”
The paradox is that often at the moment when we need others the most, it is hardest to reach out and easiest to push them away. How do we summon the strength to call a friend when it would be easier to just watch a movie alone? Or to say “I’m struggling” when a caring person asks how we’re doing, instead of simply “fine”? What would it be like, if in these moments of our lowest spirits, instead of telling someone to get away, we summoned the strength to say, “Get closer”?
And although Yosef pushes away his attendants on the one hand, on the other hand he leverages the power of vulnerability: he chooses to “make himself known” to his brothers. It is this act of self-revelation that facilitates healing with his brothers and a reunion with his father. Without self-disclosure, this healing would have never happened.
I have great admiration for Yosef. His life experience might predispose him to be untrusting and suspicious. In the moment he was in the pit, despite his probable cries, no one reached down to get him. He was sold. It would be easy to never trust someone —or God—again. And yet Yosef chooses to make himself known to his brothers. Not only that, but he forgives his brothers and acts generously toward them, telling them, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” (Gen. 50:20)
As we approach Shabbat Vayigash, I invite you to consider how we might “make ourselves known” exactly in the moment when we want to push everyone away. How might we, as Yosef eventually does, invite others closer to us? How might we allow our vulnerability to open the gates to healing?
This Shabbat, spiritually if not physically, may we say to each other, “Come closer.”