Parashat Vayigash: The Trauma of Post-trauma

When we are busy blaming those who hurt us, we continue to let them control us.

'Joseph recognized by his brothers,' by Léon Pierre Urbain  Bourgeois, 1863 oil on canvas, at the Musée Municipal Frédéric Blandin.
Wikimedia Commons

Joseph bears a severe trauma from his childhood. His brothers tried to kill him, his father did not protect him, the brother who “showed compassion” for him sold him into slavery, his family forgot him.

How can one live with such bitter memories? Betrayed by Israel’s children, Joseph goes on with his life, making Egypt his home. The slave owner who buys him and the warden of the prison where he is sent treat him better than his own family did.

Joseph harnesses his energies to adjust to life in Egypt and to find a position where he can use his knowledge in a new culture. He shows everyone respect, and has a special talent for listening to the unconscious dreams of others.

Joseph the Hebrew is unfamiliar with the Jewish flaw that emerges later, and which leads Jews to attribute to themselves a resemblance to God (tzelem, in Hebrew) that is not found among other peoples. Thanks to his skills and loyalty, Joseph is given the highest position a foreigner can attain in Egypt – viceroy.

Joseph never spends time pondering his fate or pitying himself on account of his childhood suffering. Nor does he demand explanations from God. Instead, he focuses on rebuilding his life, with his deep religious faith enabling him to endure hardships which he regards as challenges imposed on him for reasons he cannot understand.

When representatives of his family come to his adopted land, Joseph initially treats them coldly. Perhaps he no longer considers himself the member of a family that hurt him so deeply, or perhaps he wants to bind his fate forever to that of the nation that opened its gates and let him in.

Joseph learns how to allow himself to give full rein to his feelings in his encounters with his brothers, who are now dependent on him. His attitude toward them oscillates between callousness, abuse, revenge and heart-wrenching tears, and the encounters reach a crescendo in a painful confrontation. Joseph needs nobody to help him to reveal his emotions or to express them.

Once the process of reuniting with the family that betrayed him ends, the Bible, in this week’s portion, Vayigash (Genesis 44:18–47:27), proposes another stage in the process whereby Joseph copes with the trauma he carries in his heart – an escalation that is shocking and painful for people who have experienced a traumatic reality that seems impossible to live with.

He rejects the option of exhibiting fury, refusing to brand and punish the guilty parties, waiving the option of demanding compensation – an option that binds many of those who bear childhood traumas to those who hurt them. He forgoes the option of using his difficult childhood to exempt himself from the responsibilities of adulthood, from the option of self-pity and from the option of earning the sympathy of people who are deeply moved by a sad personal history.

Joseph’s approach proposes a stage of treatment that many contemporary techniques for treating post-trauma are unable to attain. When we are busy blaming those who hurt us, we continue to let them control us. However, when the trauma is incidental, its wounds are part and parcel of a harsh worldview that one must somehow overcome, perhaps with the help of medication. When I call myself “post-traumatic,” I am defining myself on the basis of my wounds, not my strengths or roles.

Joseph does not let his family, Egyptian civilization or even Pharaoh define him. He accepts the suffering God has decided he must endure, regarding it as a burden bestowed upon him by a supreme being who gives no explanations, as a calling he must decipher all his life, as a mission that is sometimes discovered only after many failures, when all the false goals have fallen and no longer conceal the one true goal.

Joseph has a partner to whom he can talk and whom he first discovers in his father’s love. He later finds such a partner among the Egyptians whose longing for God he listens to. Now he discovers that his partner was with him even in the pit into which he was thrust and in which he awaited death. Those who are willing to accept their trauma as part of a plan they can never understand discover what their role is: “So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God; and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:8).

From this position, you can sometimes forgive those who hurt you – not because you have to forgive, not because forgiveness will help you forget the pain, but because now those who hurt you suddenly seem so small and unimportant. They were simply filling a role in a grand plan they cannot see: “And now be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither; for God did send me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5).

Post-trauma is a situation in which you carry a trauma you cannot resolve and that controls you. Joseph teaches us to regard trauma as a situation in which one is given a role one wasn’t anticipating. Post-traumatic individuals are still unwilling to accept their new mission and therefore their wounds continue to control them.