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CONTRADICTORY EMOTIONS


After Yehuda passionately pleads to take Binyamin’s place to stay in Egypt, Yosef can no longer maintain his ruse. In what is perhaps the most emotion-laden scene in all of Chumash, Yosef bursts out crying, revealing his identity, “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?” His brothers are shocked, although it is unclear what emotions they are experiencing. Some commentators assume that they are ashamed and embarrassed. Others argue that they fear retaliation. Yosef attempts to comfort them, although since they are speechless, he is forced to speculate as to the cause of their negative reaction. He tells them “do not be pained (al te-atzvu) and do not be angry in your eyes (al yichar be-eineichem) that you sold me here,” because it was all orchestrated by God for the purpose of being able to provide sustenance.


Yosef assumes that they are pained and angry, but it is not entirely clear as to what the “pain” is, nor what they would be angry about. Several commentators assume that the pain is referring to the constellation of self-referential negative emotions they may be feeling as it relates to the wrongdoing of the sale, such as regret, shame, anxiety, and/or sadness. The nature of the anger, however, is less clear. Why would Yosef assume that they would be angry? Additionally, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar asks: isn’t anger, which is rooted in ego, an entirely oppositional emotional experience to regret and sadness, which are rooted not in ego, but a broken spirit?


Perhaps Yosef is guessing that they are angry at themselves that their plan backfired. Anger generally surfaces when our goals are blocked, and there is little that is more anger-inducing than having our goals blocked by the very actions we took in order to achieve that very goal. Here the brothers sold Yosef to Egypt as a slave so that he wouldn’t rise to greatness, and that very act precipitated his greatness!


But if this is correct, then how could they also feel regret and pain? It’s either they feel bad for what they did to him, or they are angry that their original plan didn’t work! Malbim maintains that Yosef is not sure what his brothers are feeling, so he addresses both possibilities. Similarly, Netziv writes that Yosef is targeting his statement to two subsets of his brothers. While some brothers probably feel bad for what they did, others may be angry that their plan didn’t work. He is addressing both subsets in his statement, arguing that whether they feel bad or they feel angry, they should realize that this was all done by God for the sake of their survival.


However, there is another possibility. One of the core principles of Dialectical Behavior Therapy is that people could hold two seemingly opposite perspectives at one time. We often run into added emotional difficulties when we think in all-or-nothing patterns. Once we open up to the possibility that our emotions are complex and often contradict each other, we can learn to accept these competing perspectives, and work on changing to improve our situation.


Based on this, maybe our original assumption was wrong. Maybe it isn’t that the brothers could feel either remorse or anger, rather that they can feel both remorse and anger. They could simultaneously feel bad for what they did to Yosef and be frustrated that their plan didn’t work out. By acknowledging both the moral sentiments of regret and the darker parts of their anger, they will be better able to move forward with repentance and reconciliation.


While sometimes our emotions are clear cut and straightforward, at other points they are confusing and contradictory. By allowing ourselves to identify and accept even competing emotions, the better we will be able to both understand and manage our emotional experiences.

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