Tuesday, January 31, 2023

In my personal life and private practice, I am keenly aware of the challenges associated with aging. Research indicates that nearly one in five Americans over the age of 65 struggles with depression and/or anxiety, which can be debilitating and even life-threatening. Variables that can trigger anxiety or depression include social isolation, illness, long-term pain, the loss of beloved ones as well as certain medications. While advances in treatment, including medication and therapy, have helped, accessing one’s faith in God and the wisdom of the Torah turn out to be excellent sources for healing. Last month we celebrated Thanksgiving, and as our rabbi likes to say, “We had it first.” Indeed, our Jewish ideology is rooted in our faith and hakarat hatov, appreciation, of God, our creator. Moreover, as part of the spiritual food that nourishes our souls, we express our gratitude for all the blessings He bestows upon us on a daily basis. Yet, most importantly, we can tap into the truth that God orchestrates the world for our good, and therefore, if we stay in the present with this knowledge at hand, we can combat the depression and anxiety that traps so many of our contemporaries. As Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher (531-605 BC), wisely stated, “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”

This year, because Thanksgiving was bracketed between the parshiot detailing the lives of Avraham and Sarah, where it all started off for our people, it took on a special meaning for me. I was privileged to attend an amazing week of learning and chizuk, a spark igniting and strengthening my spirituality. On a more personal level, what really touched me at the core of my soul was connecting with my sister, brother-in-law, their children and grandchildren, as well as long-time friends, all of whom had the courage to respond to their personal calls of “lech lecha.” Indeed, transcending the mesirat nefesh it takes to make aliyah and leave loved ones behind speaks directly to the lessons in the Torah regarding the intrinsic connection between the land of our people and the people of our land.

The commentators seem to agree that the Torah appears to sum up the lives of Avraham and Sarah as well-lived, peaceful, blessed and serene; still, they question the enigmatic wording in the text: “And Avraham was old, advanced in days, and the Lord had blessed Abraham bakol—with everything (Chayei Sara: 24:1). Given the trials and tribulations the couple experienced throughout their lives, it does seem odd, leaving us to wonder, “Really, this is a couple who had “everything”? Numerous responses are offered to explain this dilemma, yet it is the words of the Zohar, referenced on Chabad.org, that resonate most strongly for me. According to the Zohar, Avraham, along with Sara, did not just “pass” through each of their days. Instead, they “entered” into them, using each moment to impact every individual who entered their domain and tapping into all of their God-given competencies and talents. Thus viewed, it was not by virtue of their material possessions, joyful experiences or peaceful times that their days were rated as “very good,” but rather by the quality of the lives they led, filled with meaningful experiences. Indeed, for this couple, each day was a “precious commodity,” and because they believed that every journey they took, every life experience they faced, the joyful and challenging alike, was exactly where they were meant to be in fulfilling the life tasks God had assigned to them, they were able to sustain the perspective that they were blessed with everything.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, in a sermon delivered on Parshat Chayei Sara, was also troubled by the focus on the positive aspects of the lives of Avraham and Sara, without making mention of their challenges and losses. In responding to this dilemma, he references Rav Kook, who distinguishes between two divergent perspectives on life, which call to mind our previous discussions on Freud’s notion of “healthy narcissism.” Rav Kook believes that an individual blessed with a healthy psyche and spiritually developed understands the intrinsic connection between the individual, creation and the universe. This recognition enables him to let go of his “ego” and care about others, including his part in the universe as a whole; moreover, this broad perspective also empowers him to see the “positive” in people and situations, even those that appear to be negative to others. In dramatic contrast, the individual whose psychic and spiritual development, as well as his perspective on life, are flawed, remains “self-absorbed” and “obsessed with his own happiness and interests”; moreover, as a result of his narrowed perspective, he fails to “align with creation” and the world around him. Moreover, his experiences and the people in his life never seem to fit in with his worldview, nor do they fulfill his needs and wants. Most importantly, his failure to assume a “panoramic view” of the world and his life leaves him unaware of the “harmony, beauty, integration and unity of the universe.”

Viewed from this perspective, when the Torah uses the words “Avraham was blessed with all (good),” the Torah is not ignoring the challenges this couple faced; rather, it is speaking to Avraham and Sara, complete individuals, spiritually and psychically whole, well able to see and react to the world. Moreover, the “panoramic view” with which they viewed life allowed them to see “all reality…even the painful, as part of the meaning, order and purpose of the universe.” As a result, they viewed those “hard, dark moments of their experiences as part of the ‘kol,’ the bigger picture.” Indeed, Avraham and Sara discovered the “Fountain of Youth” well before Ponce de Leon envisioned it. Yet, because they were on the right track, Hashem helped them along. Moreover, because they never felt that they paid their dues, nor did they ever have the need to retire to a “Century Village”-circa antiquity. Rather, as people of destiny, they were ever grateful for all their gifts and continued to see “tov” in everything; they truly enjoyed a life where every day was Thanksgiving. May we learn from them and be so blessed.

By Renee Nussbaum, PhD, PsyA

 Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst with special training in Imago Relational Therapy. She can be reached at: [email protected]


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