Mishpatim: How to Deal with Destructive Emotions
A man frequenting a bar at night would routinely throw glass cups at the bartender and at the people sitting around and drinking. Yet he always made sure to follow up his violence by pleading for forgiveness. “I suffer from uncontrollable rage and I am deeply ashamed of it; please forgive me for my embarrassing and unforgivable behavior,” he would say.
“I am so embarrassed; I hate myself for this… Please pardon me.”
Finally, the bartender issued an ultimatum. The man could not come back to the bar unless he underwent therapy for a full year. The man consented and no longer showed up at the bar.
After the year passed, the man showed up at the bar one evening. Lo and behold he took a glass and threw it right at the bartender.
“What’s going on?!” the bartender thundered.
“Well, as you have suggested, I went to therapy,” the man replied, “and now I am not embarrassed anymore.”
Constipation No More
The emotional constipation that has afflicted our parents and grandparents has been healed all too successfully. Gone are the days when ‘closure’ was a term used for zippers and when ‘denial’ was only a river in Egypt.
Welcome to the new age of anxiety where “bad habits have been turned into diseases, foibles are afflictions and sins are syndromes,” as explained by Jon Winokur in his “Encyclopedia Neurotica,” an irreverent guide to the world of neuroses and phobias. In it, Winokur takes issue with the psychobabble that has turned juvenile delinquents into kids suffering from “conduct disorder” and gluttons into “compulsive over-eaters.”
A psychoanalyst once remarked that during the first 20 years of his career in the 50’s and 60’s, every patient was convinced that he or she loved his or her parents. “It took me five years to demonstrate to them that buried beneath the love and tenderness lay some unresolved resentment.”
During the second 20 year period of his work, during the 70’s and 80’s, the psychoanalyst observed the reversal of this. Most patients now came in to his office swearing that they hated their parents vehemently, that their fathers were careless beasts and their mothers’ dysfunctional nuts. “It took me five years to demonstrate to them that beneath the hate and anger lurked a little child that craved to love its mom and dad.”
In this climate, affecting all of us to one degree or another, it is worthwhile to lend an ear to a simple verse transcribed more than three thousand years ago in the Hebrew Bible, in this week’s portion, Mishpatim.
Your Enemy’s Donkey
“If you see the donkey of someone you hate crouching under its burden, and you might refrain from helping him—you shall surely help him.”
The language seems superfluous. Why was it necessary to discuss the possible thought that you may not wish to help your enemy — “and you might refrain from helping him?” rather than stating the law succinctly: “If you see the donkey of someone you hate crouching under its burden, you shall surely help him!”
The answer is simple. The Bible is making a point of acknowledging the instinct to refrain from helping ones enemy’s donkey as legitimate and human. It is perfectly normal to feel that you care not to assist the person you loathe, even if his animal is suffering.
Yet notwithstanding this natural emotion, the Bible is calling on us to challenge our instinct and assist our enemy’s donkey regardless. This perfectly human instinct of loathing an enemy, need not dictate our actions.
Acknowledgement Vs. Domination
There are two significant lessons here, pertinent particularly for an age dedicated to the dissecting of ones emotional persona.
For one, the Torah does not believe in denying and repressing negative emotions; to make believe that they do not exist. Simultaneous with its insistence that we assist the animal of the one we hate, the Torah makes a special point of mentioning the fact that we may harbor a feeling to desist from extending a hand to the burdened donkey of our enemy. The fact that our emotions are not always in sync with our ideals and values does not reduce us to moral failures.
850 years ago, the great medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides captured this truth in his code of Jewish law:
“When one person wrongs another, the latter should not suppress his resentment and remain silent… rather he is commanded to let him know [his feelings] and ask him: ‘Why did you do this to me? Why did you wrong me regarding this matter?’… The Torah warns us against hating in our hearts.”
On the other hand, the Bible is informing us that not every emotion is holy. When somebody’s animal is suffering you must extend your hand, notwithstanding your negative emotions toward the owner of the donkey.
One of the problems unique to our age is that for many of us emotions have become the sole barometers that determine right from wrong. We have turned our emotions into deities, worshiping them as though they embodied absolute, timeless truths—a new G-d. To suggest to somebody that they might overlook an emotion, subdue a feeling, disregard a mood is a form of heresy. Our emotions have become gods and we must obey them at all costs, even if this may be detrimental for our relationships, our marriages, our children, and our long-term visions.
In the Biblical ethos, there is a critical distinction that must be made between acknowledging your emotions vs. allowing them to dictate your behavior.
How to Treat Your Inner Children
In the Kabbalistic literature, our faculties of cognition are commonly referred to as “parents,” while our faculties of emotions are described as “children.” The significance of this metaphor is vital: The relationship between the mind and the heart, it suggests, must reflect a healthy relationship between parents and children.
When your child begins to holler, you must acknowledge his or her predicament, and examine the cause of their outburst. Yet you cannot run to call the ambulance based on the screams of a child alone without examining the situation on your own first. A clear distinction must be made between de-legitimizing your child’s tears, which is cruel, to allowing these tears to dictate your home and life, which would result in chaos.
A similar relationship must exist between the mind and the heart. Emotions, instincts, moods and feelings are ‘children.’ They are cute, spontaneous, vibrant, immature and wild. Sometimes they are on to something very real and serious, other times they exaggerate or distort reality. We ought not to de-legitimize, suppress or deny them. We must be keenly aware of their existence within us. Just like children, we must attempt to educate and refine them. Yet we ought not to worship them and allow them the exclusive right to define our life.
As valuableas emotions are, the moral sense of right and wrong must be given precedence over “I do not feel up to it.”