Managing intense emotions can be difficult. In moments of distress, the body’s SNS (sympathetic nervous system) is activated, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. When in such a state, feelings may seem overwhelming and challenging to change.
In order to calm down and take control, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – which decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature – needs to be activated.
The good news is that there are helpful strategies that help shift the physiological system from distress to calm (from the SNS to the PNS). One such strategy, utilized in one particular kind of therapy (Dialectical Behavior Therapy or DBT), is to use cold water to alter body temperature.
While there are several permutations of the exercise, the crux of the concept is to immerse your head in cold water while holding your breath. By doing so, your heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature will decrease, “freezing” the emotion so that you can better handle the challenge.
Yosef, upon seeing his brother Binyamin for the first time in over 20 years, becomes overwhelmed with emotion. While we could intuitively understand such a reaction, the nature of his thoughts and the exact emotion experienced is unclear from the verses. The Sforno and Alshich suggest that he was feeling empathy, thinking of all the anguish that his father and brothers had endured throughout the years.
Alternatively, the Netziv suggests that he was distressed by the fact that he could not yet tell them who he was and that he knew his upcoming plan would cause them anguish.
Rashi, based on the Midrash, fills in a back story to help better explain the response. When Yosef meets Binyamin, he asks him about his family. Binyamin reveals to Yosef that each of his 10 sons’ names references some element of the Yosef’s suffering.
In any case, it is clear from the verses that the feelings were intense. Yosef, unable to fight back tears, runs away from his brothers, and weeps in a different room. However, being overwhelmed with emotion threatened to ruin his overall plan. He needed to continue to be the viceroy and interact with the brothers at the feast, setting the stage to frame Binyamin for stealing the silver goblet. How could Yosef shift from being overwhelmed with emotion to being calm, cool, and calculated?
Although incredibly difficult, Yosef made a strong effort (“vayitapak”), exerting control over his emotions, and stopping himself from crying. As part of that process, we are told “va’yirchatz panav” – that he washed his face.
Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor explains that the reason he washed his face was to remove the traces of the tears, ensuring his brothers wouldn’t know he was crying. However, Shmuel ben Chofni Gaon (as understood by Otzar Mefarshi HaTorah) suggests that washing his face also served to remove the pain, shifting the emotional experience, allowing him to now have a meal with his brothers.
While we obviously cannot know the temperature of the water Yosef used to wash his face, we nonetheless see traces of the DBT technique at work. Despite strong feelings, Yosef was able to quickly shift his emotional experience by washing his face, helping him proceed with his ultimate plan.
When we are overwhelmed with an emotion that is getting in the way of achieving our goals, utilizing the cold water technique could help us lower our heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature, making it more likely that we can focus on what we need to do to cope effectively.