May 20, 2024
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Controlling the Default Button on Perspective: Blessings or Curses?

In our youth, my husband, Jack, and I did not have the opportunity to travel to Israel. Yet, from the first trip we took, when our eldest daughter Tammy spent her year of study at Michlalah, we immediately fell in love with Yerushalayim. On the last night, as our taxi traveled out of the city, I found myself in tears, not only because I would not see Tammy until Pesach, but because I already felt the loss of the sanctity of this holy city. From that moment, we made a promise to ourselves that we would try to visit Israel each year. In the last several years, Jack has indulged my passion for visiting beautiful places, and we began adding a European city or region to our yearly trips. The sad part is when we encounter the very visible decline in the Jewish population and religious practice, in cities where Jews played such a prominent place in the all arenas of life. Kudos to Chabad, who can always be counted on for an inspiring Shabbat and amazing show of kiruv.

Since we typically leave the best for last, I am always struck by the stark difference in cultural values between the secular world and the spiritualism of Yerushalayim. This year, in particular, in each city or region in Italy we visited, while we were taking pictures of the Jewish ghettos and other historical sites, I took notice of what seemed like a very strange phenomenon we encountered. It appeared that while we were engrossed in the magical city of Venice, trying to capture the beauty of “water, water everywhere” and the quaint Gondolas, water taxis and vistas such as the Grand Canal, many others were not so engaged; it seemed that so many of the tourists took greater pleasure in holding on to strange “metal prongs,” with an iPhone attached at the other end, directed onto themselves. Even though I consider myself quite technologically savvy, it took me a while to realize what they were doing. Imagine, surrounded by the beauty our Creator bestowed upon mankind, they seemed far more interested in taking pictures of themselves. Once I understood what was going on, it took no time for me to appreciate the metaphoric value of the “selfie” phenomenon, which persisted throughout our stay in Italy.

To my great relief, once in Yerushalayim, the change in perspective left me feeling appreciative of the palpable spirituality I am always aware of in the city I love so much. Easy access to the Kotel, past history, history in the making, and abundance of shiurim, fortifies my feelings of safety, despite the threat of terrorism. And, guess what? There was little evidence of the “selfie” phenomenon, which seemed to haunt me throughout our trip to Italy. In fact, what I did notice, was a change in my own perspective, which I think was the outcome of my experience in Italy, I was even more acutely aware and appreciative of the blessing of this land, and the impact it continues to have on my life. In the Begin Museum, which Jack and I can’t seem to get enough of, we came upon one of our favorite quotes: Lo b’zchut ha’koach shavnu l’eretz avotainu, shavnu ela b’koach ha’zchut —It is not by the merit of our strength that have we returned to our holy land, but by the strength of our merit. Jack reminded me that Begin never failed to evoke a verse from the Torah, or express hakarat hatov to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, in each of his speeches, even when addressing the likes of Jimmy Carter.

On a less spiritual level, this quote reminded me of a famous maxim coined by John F. Kennedy back in the day: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Both of these statements, expressed within the context of the political arena, speak to the idea that the development of a people and a nation hinges upon “altruistic” rather than “egotistic” goals. Thus, while it is important to recognize, appreciate, and enjoy one’s competencies, talents, and possessions,we need to be mindful of the perspective through which we view these G-d-given endowments; we also need to understand the danger reflected in the “selfie” phenomenon noted above. Indeed, viewing these endowments through the lens of “egotism,” with excessive emphasis on personal development and pleasure, may result in these blessings turning into curses, as is evidenced in a culture dominated by excessive materialism.

Unfortunately the state of our world today speaks to the decline of the noble goals, grounded in the perspective of altruism. With every faction of society vying for power, the focus on the greater good of the individual is often lost in all societal arenas; this imbalance of perspective influences the perspective through which personal growth takes place, as well. Yet, even though the State of Israel is not impervious to this systemic failure of perspective, I still believe that the warnings and prophesies recorded in our Torah maintains a stronghold on the character development of the nations, as well as the individuals that inhabit it. Indeed, no one can dispute the fact that Israel is a nation that historically and currently does not rationalize away “collateral damage” as an acceptable outcome of war; rather, it continues to avoid casualties among their own enemies, even at the expense of an easy victory. No other nation has shown this level of perspective on altruistic, other-directed goals, sometimes even to a fault.

Thus viewed, even though Israel, a modern nation, reflects the technological and cultural advances of other nations, the spiritual tenets of our Torah, and its ongoing influence on the people, continue to distinguish us among other nations. And from the time of our slavery in Egypt, it is this spiritual endowment, passed on in our Jewish DNA, that helps us avoid the impact of cultural ills such as favoring self-development and other egotistic goals over altruistic and other humanistic goals. Indeed, it is maintaining this balance in perspective, the ability to redirect one’s perspective outwardly, that has the ability to impact positively all arenas of life, including personal development, relationships, and overcoming the ills of anxiety and depression. The Torah shows us just how to accomplish this sometimes daunting task.

Sefer Devarim, which we have been reading this summer, is rich with strategies on developing the ability to control the default button on perspective. Moreover, in applying these lessons we are empowered with the ability to transform one’s perspective, from the negative to the positive mode. As we learned in previous articles on anxiety and depression, this is a necessary tool in dealing with the challenges we face in the course of a lifetime. In the very first pasuk in Parshat Re’ah, which we read at the start of the summer, Moshe relates Hashem’s message: “See, I put before you on this day, blessings and curses.” The commentaries question the use of the word “see,” when in fact the message was related verbally, and therefore should have been “heard” rather than “seen.” Moreover, the fact that “blessings” and “curses” are placed in the same verse almost appears as if Hashem is giving with one hand and taking away with the other, a perfect example of the positive and negative canceling each other out. Indeed, how can one hold on to the prospect of a blessing, when the prospect of “messing up,” and losing it all, is held over one’s head?

Yet, the word “Re’eh,” translated by some of the commentators as one’s “perspective” or one’s “vision” for life, appears to resolve this dilemma. Viewed from this perspective, with the word “see,” Moshe is reminding the nation that Hashem, the source of all we are and all we possess, sets a specific life mission before each one of us; moreover, He endows us with the competencies and attributes with which to accomplish these tasks. Thus, individuals who possess the emunah, faith in Hashem and His plan, are appreciative of His gifts, and they spend their lives further developing their endowments, physically, spiritually, and professionally. With this altruistic emphasis on spiritual growth, they avoid the danger of “egotism,” and they are more likely to actuate the fullness of their potential, leaving them satisfied. On the other hand, those who fall short in faith may feel embittered and dissatisfied, always craving that which others possess, needing and wanting all the days of their lives.

As a result, they swim against the tide and do little to nourish and grow their G-d-given proclivities or complete the mission set before them. Moreover, the more they need and want, the more unfulfilled they feel, and the further they distance themselves from G-d and His mission. Most importantly, this negative perspective on life places them in danger of anxiety, depression and anger. Indeed, this is the danger in the “selfie” phenomenon I mentioned at the start of this article. In a world defined by self interest, personally and nationally, we have to pay special attention to the default mode and remember that the bottom line on perspective remains with us at all times. We have but to press the default button on blessings and remain ever mindful of our blessings, appreciating and using them for identifying, nourishing and enjoying our gifts, and using them in the service of mankind. Most importantly, in building up this reservoir of positivism and faith, may we merit the strength to view life’s challenges as opportunities for spiritual and personal growth, and the ability to help others in need. Let us remember the lessons of Devarim, and control our default buttons directing our perspectives outward, and seeing our blessings for what they are.

This same duality of perspective is also found in Parshiot Ki Teitzei and Ki Tavo; once again, the wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is referenced by numerous authors on Chabad.org. At the end of Parshat Ki Teitzei we read: “You shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. Do not forget.” This remembrance regarding the ambush of Amalek is one among five remembrances mandated in the Torah, with each remembrance marking an event that had a significant impact on the existence of the nation. For the most part, the remembrances mark a holy event that is intended to sanctify the name of God, such as the mitzvot of remembering the Shabbat, and the deliverance from Egypt. Yet, in the case of Amalek, we are asked to remember not to forget Amalek, a nation that desecrated the name of God. In Parshat Ki Tavo, we also find the mitzvah to remember the transgression of Miriam, which led to her affliction with tzara’at—leprosy.

Numerous commentators share the sentiments we discussed in the previous articles on dealing with anxiety and depression. They note the difficulty in simultaneously focusing on positive and negative memories or thoughts. Therefore, they argue the challenge posed by asking the nation to remember positive events and negative events in the same breath. In responding to this challenge, they reference a Midrash first referenced by the Rebbe to address this challenge. Bnei Yisrael actually questioned Moshe regarding the difficulty in holding on to two opposing memories or thoughts, one meant to crystallize the name of God, as the Source, in the hearts and souls of the people, and the other call to mind an evil nation that witnessed the majesty of God and still chose to deny His existence. On the surface, Moshe’s response does not appear to address the challenge of opposing memories. An explanation offered by Mrs. Chaya Shuchat, an author on Chabad.org, inspired by the above-mentioned work of the Rebbe, explains:

“Vinegar on its own is exceedingly sour, and not fit to drink. Mixed with other foods, however, it adds taste and even possesses health benefits. Furthermore, since vinegar is derived from wine, it has some of the properties of wine.”

Applying the wine/vinegar metaphor to the true-to-life challenge of holding on to opposing thoughts and memories, we come to understand that a definitive clarity in perspective rarely exists in real life. Indeed, when Hashem endowed us with bechirah—free will, He inserted the element of evil into the world. The serpent, who seduced Chava into eating from the “Tree of Knowledge,” was the first encounter mankind had with the opposing forces, and it is up to us to choose. Without it we would be automatons, without the possibility for spiritual growth, self awareness, and character development.

And as the world turns, the vastness of opportunities to “vanquish evil and channel the energy into good,” grow exponentially. I believe the Rebbe is teaching us, in referencing the wine-vinegar metaphor in the Midrash comparing Shabbat to wine and vinegar to Amalek, that under certain conditions, dual perspectives can co-exist and even support one another. Moreover, I believe that Mrs. Shuchat’s interpretation offers us the power of balancing one’s perspectives. Thus viewed, while the Shabbat is pure in its holiness, and the benefits derived require minimal additional enhancements, the likes of Amalek, despite its evil, has the potential for goodness, but one can only benefit from it if it is fully refined and all the evil is extracted from its depth. Without these efforts, the sour taste—the evil—can indeed contaminate the sweetness of the wine and everything else it comes in contact with.

While the remembrance of Miriam’s affliction recalls a sad time in our history, the purpose here is quite different from the case of Amalek. I believe that it is meant to teach us that we must never be too sure of ourselves when it comes to making the choice between good and evil. The contrast between Amalek and Shabbat represents two opposite poles; yet, the contrast between the afflicted Miriam and Shabbat is hard to discern. Miriam was a tzidkanit, and the personification of spiritual feminism. She represented strength, determination and courage, and her emunah was remarkable. She was among the nashim tzidkaniyot whose merits resulted in our first yeshuah—redemption. Yet, even with her good intentions, she was not impervious to the temptation of sin, in her case “lashon hara.”

In the case of both remembrances, they are meant to teach us that at times, and in certain circumstances, we benefit from holding on to conflicting thoughts and memories. They are meant to help us navigate a world that oftentimes lacks clarity of perspective, where it is not always possible to discern our internal and external enemies. And here the Torah is offering us “hazard” signs to ease our choices, to navigate our ways. At the same time, the Torah is also cautioning us to avoid making the mistake of giving up on people, or rejecting experiences, because we fail to take the time to separate the good from the bad. It is indeed important to hold on to these thoughts and memories to support us on days where a deep fog settles in and we have our work cut out in navigating the way home. And most importantly, when evil strikes, as it does periodically, when the default button is no longer on the “Shabbat” mode, when someone pushes the “Amalek” default, when we no longer directly taste the scent of “Gan Eden,” the mandate to remember the Shabbat seeps through the walls of Amalek, and helps us find our way back home.

This same duality of perspective is also reflected in Parshat Ki Tavo, which we read last week. In Chapter 28, Moshe prophesied the brachot—blessings that will come upon the nation, as well as the curses that will occur, if they stray: “If you [Bnei Yisrael] hearken to the voice of Hashem, to observe and perform the mitzvot—commandments, then the blessings will come upon you, and they will reach you (Devarim: 28:1-2).” The commentators weigh in on the seeming redundancy in the language. Since it already states that the blessings will come upon you, what do the words “and they will reach you” add to the meaning? Moreover, with mentioning the blessings and the curses, it once again appears as if G-d is giving and taking away. Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky, another author on Chabad.org, explains that the word “hisigucha—they will reach you,” is associated with the word “hasagah—insight and understanding.” Interpreted in this way, the second part of the pasuk is not a redundancy used for emphasis, but rather is intended as a second bracha, protection. We may ask, why is protection needed? Once again, we are reminded that the world, outside of Paradise, is not so clear cut. We are not always attuned to the plan G-d has for us, nor do we always appreciate the gifts G-d bestows upon us to complete our missions. Instead we submit to the misguided standards of our host culture, and covet that which others have. Thus, we interpret our blessings as curses. With the addition of the word “v’hisigucha,” Moshe promises the people that if they do their due diligence and commit to working as hard as they can, then He will do the rest. How so? By providing us with the blessing of hasagah, intuition and understanding, to appreciate our blessings rather than turning them into curses.

Applying the insights to our everyday lives, oftentimes we are distracted or misguided by the standards of our host cultures. We covet the material possessions or accomplishments of those around us, craving larger homes, fancier vacations, as well as educational and job opportunities. As a result we are always left swimming against the tide, needing and wanting more, and wasting opportunities for genuine growth. With the word v’hisigucha, the Torah is addressing this challenge of faith, and adding a blessing—a “protective edge” against being misled when trying to fit in to the mold of a false value system. Viewed from this perspective, the intuition and understanding Hashem is offering us is the hazard sign that warns us along the way, that redirects us onto the path and lights our way until the finish line, and prevents us from turning our blessings into curses. And if we stay the course and look for those signposts along the way, we will not only reach our destination, but will derive pleasure from the journey as well.

Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst, with special training in Imago Relational Therapy. She also offers psycho-educational evaluation and disability counseling. She can be reached at: doctorrenee nussbaum @gmail.com.

By Renee Nussbaum, Ph.D., PsyA

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