Friday, December 29, 2017

Parashat VaYehi: Crying

A Message for Parashat VaYehi 2017
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The Torah described a final encounter between Yosef and his brothers:
And Yosef’s brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said…“Your father left a charge before his death saying, ‘Thus shall you say to Yosef, We beseech you, forgive the crime and the offense of your brothers, for evil they have caused you. And so now, forgive the crime of the servants of your father’s God.” And Yosef wept when they spoke to him. (Bereshit 50:15-17)
Although Yosef had wept several times in the past, he never seemed comfortable doing so. Whenever he felt the tears coming, he would attempt to hide them. Yosef left the room to cry when he heard his brothers talk about him (42:24) and again when he saw Binyamin (43:30). Revealing himself to his brothers, he cleared out the room before crying with them (45:2). Although Yosef let down his guard when he cried in his embrace with Binyamin and his other brothers, he concealed the tears as he wept “upon his neck” and “upon them” (45:14-15). And his tears in embrace of Yaakov were again “upon his neck” (46:29), and after Yaakov’s death “upon his father’s face” (50:1). Earning the reputation of a rational-minded controller, Yosef was careful to never let his emotions interfere with his thoughts and behavior. But then, perhaps unexpectedly, the stone-cold façade cracked: “And Yosef wept when they spoke to him.”

Was Yosef’s public display of emotion at that time a personal failure? I do not think so. I recall a conversation that I had with a group of 12th Grade boys, several years ago. Over the course of our discussion, one of the boys remarked that he had never seen his father cry. The boy seated next to him quickly added that he had not either. As did the next. And the next. One by one, nearly every one of the thirty boys in the room revealed to me that they had never seen their father cry. This bothered me. I felt that their fathers had failed to expose them to “true emotions.” Hiding behind the veil of “power” and “control,” the fathers had missed the opportunity to teach their children how to appropriately respond to emotional pain and discomfort in a healthy manner.

Yosef was a prominent leader. The eyes of an entire empire were upon him at all times. His thoughts, decisions and expressions were noticed by all. By publicly exposing his tears, Yosef taught them a lesson that extended beyond the basic skills of proper decision-making. He taught them how to feel.

Several years ago, a journalist noted the American people’s changed perception of public crying. When Senator Edmund Muskie was caught crying on camera during the presidential campaign in 1972, he unconvincingly claimed it was melting snowflakes. Muskie lost the campaign and forever remembered that critical moment. He claimed that his tears changed people’s minds about him, explaining, “They were looking for a strong, steady man, and here I was weak.” Consider, now, the impressive list of politicians who have proudly cried on camera in the 21st Century: Barack Obama, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, among others.[1] Crying is no longer seen as an expression of weakness, but rather of humanness. But is it necessary? Can’t we live and succeed without the interference of our personal emotions?

In Feeling Smart, Eyal Winter wrote about the necessary interplay between rational thinking and emotions. He imagined, for example, a situation where you arrive at work one morning and find an email message with an offer for employment by another company. A decision made solely by the rational department of your mind would begin by compiling an exact list of all the characteristics of your current job, followed by a parallel list of the characteristics of the newly offered job. Carefully scaling the advantages and disadvantages of each opportunity, the next step would be to assign to each characteristic a value representing the extent of satisfaction or disappointment you expect to receive from it. Without the help of your emotional mechanism, however, you will certainly fail at this stage. Although you will have all the facts at your disposal, the channel to a wise choice will remain blocked. Winter wrote, “Only close cooperation between the emotional and rational mechanisms can enable you to arrive at a wise and satisfactory decision.”[2]

Yosef’s ability to expose his emotions late in his life revealed his impressive growth as a leader. He taught his brothers, the people of Egypt and all future generations the importance of relating to our feelings in an honest and genuine fashion.

Let the tears flow! It’s best for your growth.

[1] Jim Windolf, “It’s Alright to Cry, Dude,” The New York Times, Oct. 17, 2015.
[2] Eyal Winter, Feeling Smart: Why Our Emotions Are More Rational Than We Think (New York, NY, 2014)), pg. 237-8.