Jews are the pioneers of modern psychology: Freud, Klein, Maslow, Frankl, and Kahneman. Apparently, we create what we need. Jewish suffering gave rise to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.
Yet, examples of improving mental health are as ancient as the Torah. At the end of Genesis, the text shares Joseph’s descent into despair. First thrown into a pit by his brothers who wanted to kill him, he later became a slave, and then a prisoner. Joseph’s redemption came as a successful interpreter of dreams for the Pharaoh. Elevated to a leadership role, Joseph successfully organized Egypt’s “farm back better” famine plan. Joseph’s own estranged family, fearing starvation in Canaan, came to Egypt to buy food. After a series of torturous and enigmatic encounters with his brothers, Joseph revealed his identity. The petrified brothers feared that Joseph would seek revenge. Rather Joseph learned to positively reframe his situation. He explained to them that God merely sent Joseph ahead to Egypt so that his family could survive the famine.
Joseph made a dramatic and life-affirming transition. Psychologists refer to this as positive reframing. Joseph thought about his difficult situation in a more helpful way. Joseph was able to comprehend the ultimate benefit of an extremely negative situation. Finding something to be grateful about after two decades of abuse is a great example of positive reappraisal.
Joseph regrouped and transcended without a therapist or prescription for anti-depressants. Joseph understood that the point of his suffering was for his family to thrive in Egypt. Accordingly, he is neither angry with his brothers nor with God.
Joseph teaches us to search for meaning in our personal travails. That is the lesson taught by Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor who later became an influential psychologist. He wrote that human existence is a search for meaning. Joseph happened upon the meaning of his struggles when reunited with his brothers in Egypt. Joseph’s example instructs us to employ our struggles as tools in a search for personal growth and purposefulness.
None of us exit this life without challenges and downfalls. Joseph teaches us that we can overcome our resentments, fears and acrimony. The key is to refocus our understanding, unveiling our best selves to the world. We can learn to positively reframe our lives thanks to both Joseph and the groundbreaking work of Jewish psychologists.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame