I was recently talking with a particular teenager and she was animatedly telling me a story. Her voice was loud, she was practically out of her skin telling me about something that happened to her at school. She started crying, and then out of nowhere, as if someone had thrown a switch, she got totally calm, lowered her voice, and said: “Sorry, I know, I’m too much.”
It was like she heard a voice in her head telling her to rein it in, to get it together, to stop embarrassing them. If not with words, then with something, because the lesson had been learned. Her emotions, her feelings, her body language, her expression of herself—was all way too much, over the top, too big. And needed to be contained.
And she contained it. The tears disappeared, her animated story was reduced to a flip: it probably wasn’t that big a deal anyway.
And in an instant, the light was gone. So was her story, so was her truth. So was her sense that whatever she was feeling was alright.
And I just thought…wow. It did not take long for her to learn that lesson. That it’s best to shut down our embarrassing emotions.
We do this. As adults we do this. We contain ourselves. We worry what other people are thinking of us. We do it because we don’t want to be called over-sensitive or off the handle or too emotional. Or be so vulnerable—what if someone should think less of us, or use it to their advantage. So we tidy up our feelings.
We hide our tears or choke them back. We apologize for our sadness. We stifle our uproarious laughter because we’ve been told we’re too loud or too much. We would express hurt, but we have been taught to hold that in—it’s not appropriate.
We even heard this in testimony this week from Former National Security Council senior director Fiona Hill. She was asked—was she angry with a colleague, and she explained: “Often when women show anger, it’s not fully appreciated. It’s often, you know, pushed on to emotional issues or perhaps deflected onto other people.”
And in my experience, this is the same for people who identify as male, or non-binary—we may apply the rules differently, but the message is the same. Rein it in, your emotion is making other people uncomfortable so…stop it.
And it is—I want to suggest, leading to the numbing of our world and the numbing of our own hearts. And that is a very dangerous thing.
Now, sure, there are times when we make an appropriate decision to postpone our own expression of emotion—in a professional setting, or in a large public meeting, or when we realize that actually, we need to hold the space for someone else at a certain time, or because it’s just what we want to do.
But when it is enforced that we curtail our emotions—or we do so from years of being told to do so—I think it diminishes us. And it hurts. Sometimes physically.
That knot in your throat you get when you’re holding back tears? It’s pain—existential pain, I think, but also physical pain as our bodies wonder what the heck we’re doing stopping this natural course of letting out who we are and what our heart is telling us we feel.
Our kids learn it so young that this phenomenon shows up in their favorite movies to try to make sense of it all.
You might be done with Frozen and Let it Go, but Elsa sings—to all of our listening children: “Don’t let them in. Don’t let them see. Be the good girl you always have to be. Conceal. Don’t feel. Don’t let them know”…(of course, she learns to…well…let it go).
But when it comes to big, raw feelings—we learn that even among friends or family, and eventually we learn—even when we are alone, we really should conceal, or contain, or control them.
But not here in this Torah portion. In parshat Chayei Sarah, we see a flash of emotion that is raw and real and beautiful.
See, Abraham has sent his servant to go find a wife for his son, Isaac. And he goes off and does just this. And he comes back with Rebekah, who we know will become his wife. But the story of their first sighting of each other goes like this: vatisa rivka et eineha vateireh et Yitzchak v’tipol mei’al hagamal. Rebekah lifted her eyes and she saw Isaac. And—some translations say—she alighted from her camel. That’s lovely, but that’s not what the Hebrew says, lest we edit away her emotions, too. V’tipol mei’al hagamal—means: she fell off her camel. She saw the love of her life and was so overwhelmed, her heart started beating so fast, and she was so overcome with love and emotion, that she fell off her camel!
She did not contain her emotion. She did not first think—oh let me be proper. Let me demure. I don’t want to embarrass myself. Nope. She up and fell off her camel she was so in love.
We don’t get a lot of emotional outbursts in Torah, so when we do, it’s worth the pause and the wonder. And the question.
What should we learn from Rebekah…besides maybe a warning about camel safety?
Maybe we can teach ourselves to try to, more often, turn off that voice that says we are too much when we feel what we feel. It won’t happen right away, but consider the next time you are sad—to tears even—the next time you are ecstatic—to tears even—to let your body do what your heart is telling it. Maybe we can fall off our camels a little more often. Our kids are listening, our teens are watching, and they are learning that numbing ourselves or appearing numb is a positive thing. Let’s not let them learn that from us.
May we grow to feel like Rebekah knows how to feel, may we learn to let others feel like Rebekah has come to teach us—may we become ever less numb, ever more real, and more and more unafraid to express our innermost hearts to one another.