In the past few weeks, our parshiot focused on the overarching mandate of “Kedoshim tihiyu—Thou shalt be holy….” We learn that the challenges inherent in this struggle are due to the conflict we experience between our baser human instincts and our chelek Eloka—the Godly aspect within us. I also believe that because of the enormity of this struggle, an entire sefer is devoted to address this internal battle. Yet, as societal mores become less and less restrictive, this task is compounded by the “anything goes” stance reflected in our culture. The germs for this decline in moral values was already evidenced in the early 1930s. Sigmund Freud, for example, in his seminal work “Civilization and its Discontents,” viewed this struggle through a psychoanalytic lens. As a psychoanalyst, I admire and appreciate the genius of Freud. I also recognize that the majority of the current psychological orientations are rooted in his groundbreaking theories of psychic development and pathology. However, I categorically disagree with his claim that formal religion was responsible for the repression of man’s primary predispositions and the resulting neuroses that plagued mankind. I wonder how he would feel if he knew that despite the loosening of societal restrictions, the neurotic conditions, such as depression and anxiety, which were the objects of Freud’s concern, are at the highest point in history. Lucky for us, this compelling issue is addressed in our Torah via the laws pertaining to the charge of refining our souls.
Sefer Vayikra in its entirety is a valuable textbook for achieving the status of kedusha; and since we find ourselves at the midpoint of “Sefirat Ha’Omer,” the bridge between Pesach and Shavuot, it seems timely to make an effort at deepening our understanding of the metaphoric value of this time period and the associated “Omer” offering. In recent years, with the help of nightly reminders from my husband, Jack, I have taken pride in successfully staying in the game for the full 49 days. Yet, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally understood the real meaning and power of this mitzvah as a tool for elevating our neshamot.
As I often do, I accomplish a great deal of my writing on planes. Being strapped in seat belts for at least three hours, I don’t have to contend with any distractions; and since I began this article on the way to Boca for my granddaughter Aliza’s bat mitzvah, I was inspired by the leaps she made in her own spiritual development, particularly in the areas of hakarat hatov and chesed, which are among the most fundamental principles governing the refinement of our souls.
Indeed, if we truly buy into the idea that all we are and all we possess is the result of Hashem’s lovingkindness, then we would have no difficulty expressing our gratitude on a minute-by-minute basis. We would also work harder at identifying our God-given missions and developing the unique proclivities Hashem gifted us with in order to accomplish our personal tasks. Yet, the imperfect humans we are, our journeys are impacted by the very struggles between characterological traits identified by Freud. But lucky for us, despite the complexity of this task, because of the premium our Torah places on “altruism” over “egotism,” we find ourselves in a win-win situation.
We all know that the inspiring periods in our lives, such as spiritual milestones and the Yomim Noraim (Days of Awe), do not suffice to keep us on task. So the Torah provides us with additional opportunities throughout the year to recharge our spiritual batteries, and Sefirat Ha’Omer facilitates the process by helping us tap into the metaphorical value of these inspiring days. In one of the video classes I frequent, Rabbi Moshe New, based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s seminal work, “Likkutei Sichot,” deepens our understanding of Sefira with a beautiful insight. He explains that the typical interpretation of Sefira is rooted in the word “lispor—to count.” Yet, Sefira can also be considered within the context of its relationship to the word “saphir,” akin to the precious gem sapphire, known for its “luminous” quality. Thus viewed, the name Sefira is intended to remind us that the daily count-up to spiritual elevation and refinement can be facilitated by becoming “translucent” rather than “transparent.” Since mankind begins life as a narcissistic being, focused on taking rather than giving, this developmental task can be difficult to achieve. Yet, tapping into the values embedded in the Torah, such as the mandate for striving toward kedusha, we learn how to use our God-given proclivities, including our chelek Eloka, to enhance the lives of others rather than being slaves to Freud’s “pleasure principle.”
Rabbi New explains that this transition typically occurs during the time of bar or bat mitzvah; it is at this stage when young adolescents, guided by Torah and parental values, begin to grow their chelek Eloka—Godly aspects—and redirect their egotistic tendencies to considering the needs of others. When this milestone occurs, they not only absorb the light of Hashem or other role models, but also begin to truly appreciate all that Hashem and others do to impact positively on their lives; as a result, they begin the transition from “egotism” to “altruism” and are transformed from being primarily takers to givers, shining their lights outward toward the needs of others, rather than inward, in their relationship with God and mankind. If we think of Sefira in this way, applying the metaphor of the sapphire as a template, we have the perfect antidote for Freud’s “anti-religion” solution to the threat he believed it posed.
Indeed, Aliza’s bat mitzvah reminded me how much we can learn from our inspired youth in how to use the Torah as a guideline for the war of altruism over egotism. Several years ago she cut her beautiful golden locks and donated it to children suffering from cancer, and prior to her bat mitzvah she partnered with her mother, my daughter Penina, in baking for a full week or two and donating the proceeds to buy toys for children enduring extended stays in a hospital nearby. Watching her over Shabbos and during the bat mitzvah, her actions and smile told us that she is a young lady who is ever seeking ways to enhance the lives of others and enjoys extending the inner light from her neshama onto those in need. May we learn from our youth, becoming people who not only “count,” but can always be “counted on” by Hashem and mankind.
By Renee Nussbaum, PhD, PsyA
Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst with training in imago and EFT. She can be reached at [email protected]