William Hamilton

Meeting our emotional needs

We tell ourselves stories to make us feel better and more virtuous about what we do and why we do it. Social media executives tell themselves they’re helping people connect. YouTube employees may say they’re helping people learn about things, and to empower young, creative entrepreneurs. This may all be true, notes Tristen Harris, but, when all is said and done, their business model is to consume more of your time, to increase their share of your attention, with each passing month.

Of course more than one story can be simultaneously true. But our human tendency is to focus on one, rather than many. This is particularly so when they contradict each other.

Yes, we tell stories because they’re accurate. But we also tell them because of how they serve our needs. It’s important to recognize the emotional work a story can do for us. As Dara Horn has noted in her important new book, our ancestors didn’t change their own names, some bumbling Ellis Island immigrant official did.

In this week’s final portion from the Book of Genesis, following the proper burial of Jacob, there is a legend that Joseph’s brothers watched him make a side trip to the pit into which they had thrown him years earlier (Tanhuma 17). Joseph does so to marvel at the wondrous deliverance he had experienced ever since that day. But his brothers become gripped with fear that he might be harboring vengeful feelings. Each interpretation speaks to the emotional condition and needs of those telling it.

Yet I prefer another reading. Many generations later, following the Exodus and the entry into the Promised Land, the descendants of Joseph’s brothers will bury his bones in this very place. He will be permanently restored to the land at the very site where he had been torn from it. Joseph’s side trip, then, also signals a mending repair that will take place in the future.

We trust the stories we tell because they are reasonable and coherent. May we also appreciate how they are meet our emotional needs. And may that appreciation awaken us to the reasons and needs that pulsate in us all.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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