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The Uses and Dangers of Numbness

In this week’s portion, Va’yigash, Jacob’s sons return from Egypt to inform Jacob that Joseph, his long-lamented son, is still alive. Jacob has never recovered from Joseph’s loss. He has been in a protracted state of mourning, spurning all comfort, resigned to grieve until death. So heavy is Jacob’s anguish that, even when its potential resolution presents itself, he cannot relax into relief: “His heart went numb — his heart froze — for he did not believe them.” Jacob hears the news that could release him from suffering, and his heart closes down in cool reserve and distrust.

A few chapters later, as Jacob lies on his deathbed, his final words to Joseph are “re’oh fanecha lo filalti,” translated by the Jewish Publication Society as, “I never expected to see you again.” The verb pl’l, often used to refer to prayer, is associated not only with expectation, but with a kind of receptivity — an ability to be open to what lies beyond the self and its prior assumptions. Jacob, as he confesses to his son, had lost this quality of openness; fixated on his loss, frozen in the posture of grief, he had simply closed to the possibility that his devastating reality could change. And so he could not let go into joy even when the source of his pain was removed.

Numbness is an invaluable survival mechanism. We all know “miracle” stories of people with major injuries who’ve dragged themselves to get the help they needed unaware of just how badly damaged their bodies were. Soldiers have been known to survive for hours with severed limbs without feeling pain. In moments of crisis, our bodies naturally produce endorphins, a built-in anesthesia that helps buffer us against pain so we can focus our attention on survival.

The actual or potential loss of someone we love threatens our existence as well. When we first learn of the sickness or death of a loved one, we often feel stunned and dumbfounded, as if walking in a dream, unable to absorb the news and grasp its horrific reality. Many people, after losing someone, report going about their daily routines in a zombielike fashion, floating through the days in a state of cloudiness and dissociation, unable to fully think, see, hear or feel.

Even in our everyday lives, numbness is an efficacious psychic strategy, for how else could we get through a reading of the newspaper, where we’re constantly inundated with repetitive images of trauma, let alone the more massive heartaches and losses that bereave us? And so we check out. We turn off emotionally. We compartmentalize, repress and deny, sometimes without even realizing it consciously. We retreat into our protective fortresses, until our feelings prove inaccessible even to ourselves, let alone others who want to touch our hearts and lives.

Jewish tradition recognizes the psychological truth that numbness and alienation are natural parts of any grieving process. Jewish law understands that loss turns us away from life and community, and so it mandates that there be no greetings of welcome or farewell in a house of mourning, no superfluous talk and no undue prolonging of any visit. Halacha in effect exempts the mourner from all rites of social etiquette and urges the visitor to act as a quiet companion in the mourner’s loneliness. But for the next 12 months, Halacha skillfully, incrementally beckons the mourner back to society, teaching that disengagement and withdrawal cannot be a permanent condition for those who remain on the side of the living.

Jacob manifests the danger of numbness when it becomes an enduring state of being rather than a temporary coping mechanism. When we desensitize ourselves, we stunt ourselves emotionally, blocking our ability to connect deeply to others and invest in the world around us with commitment and conviction. Numbness may grant us a certain buoyancy but, in doing so, bars us from healing and joy as well as pain, for it is our emotions that help us purge, revive and go on living with depth and intensity.

Melissa Weintraub is a rabbinical student at the Theological Seminary of America.

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