As a young mother preparing for an expected birth, I knew my young children would probably struggle to adapt to life with a tired Mommy and a needy infant. I bought small gifts, borrowed story CDs from the library, and steeled myself for potential tantrums and regressions. Surprisingly, my kids sailed right through the first four weeks of their newborn sibling's life. I breathed a sigh of relief. Clearly, all the parenting books had been wrong and I could relax. Wrong! About two months after the baby was born, just when my life seemed to be getting back to normal, my young children were not. The kids who had been as good as gold when the baby was born, began to act moody and cranky. What was going on?
Parshas Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27) describes the powerfully emotional reunion of Yaakov (Jacob) and Yosef (Joseph). After being apart for twenty-two years, Yaakov and his family came down to Egypt to be reunited with his long lost son. Yosef, the viceroy of the country, harnessed his chariot and eagerly went to greet his father. As they met, he threw himself upon his father’s neck and Yosef wept copious tears while Yaakov remained dry-eyed. How can we understand this distinction? Why did Yaakov stay dry-eyed while Yosef fell into racking sobs?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) answers this question with an eye-opening insight into human nature. He reminds us that Yaakov was told that his beloved son Yosef had died over two decades earlier. At the time of their reunion, Yaakov had grieved and mourned for Yosef for many years. He was all cried out. For twenty-two years he had focused exclusively on the loss of Yosef. He had nothing to distract him as he processed his grief fully. Yosef, however, had lived a busy and eventful life from the day he was sold. He had gone from being a prisoner to royal minister! Every day had been full and he hadn’t had time or space to fully feel the pain of separation from his father or to grieve. But now at the moment of reunion, when he beheld and hugged his father, all those hidden emotions of twenty-two years came to the surface and overwhelmed him in a flood of tears.
Isn’t that incredible? And isn’t that something we can all relate to? All families go through difficult times over the years. Truthfully, even a happy event like a holiday or family wedding can be emotionally taxing on us and our children. Have you noticed that occasionally you’re amazed by your child’s ability to get through the upheaval of a holiday or the challenge of a tough time, but right afterwards, when life has returned to normal, they begin to regress or fall apart? Parshas Vayigash provides an explanation for us. Yes, a new baby, or a vacation, or a difficult time, takes a toll on us and on our children. But often, in the midst of the occasion or crisis, we all keep moving forward as we deal with the situation day by day. We keep functioning because that’s what has to be. We have other things to deal with. It’s only afterwards, when life returns to normal, that we and our children can start to feel the emotions from that period, and sometimes those emotions are overwhelming.
As mothers, it can feel frustrating to have a child begin a difficult stage right when we are coming out of a stressful time. This is why it is so important that we understand this natural and normal process so that we can be there to support our children instead of feeling resentful that they chose “this” moment to act up. Because of course they didn’t choose it, this is how God made them and how they are supposed to function. We are all designed to feel the flood of emotions only once we are in a safe and quiet space. If we change our mindset to expect normal and natural fallout as we and our children’s process emotions after a challenge, we will be better able to support our own and our children’s healthy growth.
This Torah thought is dedicated to the parents of two-year old Almog Levy, Eynav Levy (32) who was murdered on October 7 and Or Levy (33), taken captive on that day. May Hashem protect and bless Almog and all the orphans in Israel.
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