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Parashat Mikeitz - Visiting the Iniquity of Parents on Children


"Joseph and His Brothers" by Marc Chagall

We do not speak of it enough, but the Book of Genesis is really all about trauma. The first humans experience the trauma of expulsion and shame. The next generation experiences the trauma of murder. The generation of the flood experiences the trauma of mass extinction. The generation of the dispersal (the Tower of Bavel and its aftermath) experience the trauma of mass confusion and no communication. Avraham experiences the trauma of family separation. Yitzhak is traumatized by being sexually assaulted by his older brother and then again violently abused by the hand of his father. Yaakov is traumatized by preferential treatment by both of his parents, traumatized by the violent anger of his brother, and then traumatizes his own children with similar behavior. Dina is traumatized by rape. Yaakov is again traumatized by the death of his wife, Rahel, at the birth of the Binyamin, and even again later by the deception of his sons. Yosef is traumatized by his brothers, and in turn, in this week's Torah portion, Yosef's brothers are traumatized all by power differential - the hierarchical void between those in positions of authority and those in subordinate positions. Yaakov is, yet again, traumatized by believing his son is dead, and his other sons traumatized by having deceived and traumatized their father. And so it is so important that we read Parashat Mikeitz through a trauma informed lens.

Viewing a situation through a trauma informed lens implies that analysis should be sensitive to the impacts of trauma on any or all parties involved. So when Yosef, now in a position of immense power in Egypt, recognizes his brothers coming looking for sustenance in a time of famine but they do not recognize him, it is impossible to see his response as anything other than the reaction of a traumatized person. While some may argue that because of the emotional and physical violence perpetrated against him in his youth by the hands of his brothers Yosef's response to subjugate his brothers to his ruse is understandable, we must also recognize that in doing so Yosef not only compounds his own trauma, but he traumatizes his brothers and his father through his actions.

The ruse works as follows: Yosef, appearing as an Egyptian authority, takes advantage of his anonymity and accuses his brothers of being spies, demands they return with their youngest brother -- whom Yaakov is protecting because of his own earlier traumas -- imprisons one of them, and sends them back to their father unknowingly with the money they had offered to procure food rations, thereby making them appear as thieves. And Yaakov's response, in the palpable pain of his sorrow of years of trauma understandably responds (Gen. 42:36):

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם אֹתִי שִׁכַּלְתֶּם יוֹסֵף אֵינֶנּוּ וְשִׁמְעוֹן אֵינֶנּוּ וְאֶת־בִּנְיָמִן תִּקָּחוּ עָלַי הָיוּ כֻלָּנָה׃
Yaakov, their father, said to them: It is me that you bereave! Yosef is no more! Shimon is no more! And you are taking Binyamin from me?! It has always been this way.

When the brothers return with Binyamin, Yosef's emotional state begins to shift. Overwhelmed with emotion, the Torah tells us that Yosef has to leave the room (Gen. 43:30):

וַיְמַהֵ֣ר יוֹסֵ֗ף כִּֽי־נִכְמְר֤וּ רַחֲמָיו֙ אֶל־אָחִ֔יו וַיְבַקֵּ֖שׁ לִבְכּ֑וֹת וַיָּבֹ֥א הַחַ֖דְרָה וַיֵּ֥בְךְּ שָֽׁמָּה׃
Yosef hurried away because he was overcome with his compassion toward his brothers and he wanted to cry; he came into the chamber and he cried there.

The language here is striking - Yosef was overcome with compassion. It is not that trauma causes anger or violence, rather, trauma dysregulates emotion. This erratic behavior is commonplace for traumatized people. Not only the erratic behavior, but the replication of traumatizing behaviors against others as well. This is just like God states in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:5, Deut. 5:9):

...פֹּ֠קֵד עֲוֺ֨ן אָבֹ֧ת עַל־בָּנִ֛ים...
...visiting the iniquity of parents on children...

While often interpreted as a threat, perhaps when understood through a trauma informed lens, we can recognize this idea as a statement of inevitability when trauma is unresolved. The stories in the Book of Genesis are not intended to be narratives of ideal, rather they are intended to be cautionary tales -- these are things we are *not* to do. These figures are not heroes, they are troubled and traumatized people struggling to move forward in light of their past.

It becomes our responsibility to engage with these ideas, to wrestle with them and grapple with how we see these undeveloped characteristics in ourselves and to learn from the mistakes of the mythic narrative so we may be able to break the cycle of trauma replication in future generations. The verse in Exodus (and Deuteronomy) continues:

...וְעֹ֥֤שֶׂה חֶ֖֙סֶד֙ לַאֲלָפִ֑֔ים לְאֹהֲבַ֖י וּלְשֹׁמְרֵ֥י מִצְוֺתָֽי׃
Acting with love for a thousand-fold generations for my lovers and those who practice by commandments.

Rather than see "commandments" as strictly religious laws, we can also understand them as expressed values based on the teachings of ancestral wisdom. When we act with love, when we *allow* our compassion to be felt, when we allow ourselves the liberating experience of feeling *all* of our emotions, of struggling to understand them and to be sensitive to our own traumas and wounds, then we stand a chance at breaking the cycle of older generations living out their traumatized past on the lives of their descendants. It is our responsibility to do the difficult labor of integrating our trauma and wounds so they remain our own and are not issued to others. The power to influence positive change on future generations is not in the hands of those in the past, rather it is in our hands in this very generation. May we all cultivate the strength necessary to do this difficult work with compassion towards ourselves and others.

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