May 22, 2024
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Psychological Insights from the Torah: Combating Anxiety and Depression: Part III

In previous articles in this series we considered the idea that it is unrealistic to expect a “one size fits all” approach to dealing with pain, suffering, and loss. We also learned that it was unreasonable to expect individuals with different temperaments, histories, and life situations to respond to trauma in the same manner. Yet, even though this makes sense, at some time or other we all fall into the trap of thinking we should deal with the vicissitudes of life with the strength and courage of those set up as role models in transcending adversity. When this happens we may begin to feel a sense of guilt, shame, and even incompetency.

Similarly, when attempting to help others, we sometimes err on the side of offering advice based on our own responses in similar situations. We learned that it is usually more valuable to take the time to listen and assess the needs and wants of the victims; and that in some situations, silence is indeed “golden.” Those entrenched in the stronghold of anxiety and depression were led to consider how critical it is to allow oneself to grieve at one’s own pace; moreover, it is equally important to understand that when one is ready to let go, one finds that there is still much to enjoy and appreciate, to the degree one can handle this shift in perspective. We observed that this broadening of perspective also opens the door to the possibility that better times are yet to come, and that one is deserving of them. It is this spark of hope, the beginning of the healing process, that melts away the coldness of heart, as well as the stronghold of depression and anxiety, even in the most tragic of times.

In the past several weeks, we began Sefer Devarim, which also coincides with the readings of Shabbat Chazon, Tisha B’Av, and Shabbat Nachamu. We saw that the central theme of these days reinforces the notion that the promise of hope always emerges after a period of pain. The familiar story of Rabbi Akiva’s laughter as he observed the ruins of the Beit Hamikdash reveals the ideal level of emunah one can strive to achieve. It is also this level of faith that can help us deal with one’s personal challenges coupled with the world-wide terror and political/financial instability. In my work, I am often challenged by situations where the hold of anxiety or depression is so strong that it is difficult to break the cycle, even though the conscious desire to let go appears to be strong. The words: “I’m so tired of letting the abuse I suffered as a child, or the loss I experienced, define me as a person,” are frequently voiced by those so challenged. Yet, for some, the gains evidenced in the comfort of my office, seem to remain in my office, and this is a source of frustration for myself and the patients who won’t or can’t let go.

A few years ago, in my Torah study, I read a D’var Torah by Rabbi Tzvi Hersch Weinreb, based on the Netziv’s introduction to his commentary on Sefer Devarim. My understanding of the insights he shared resonated strongly for me, and continues to impact on my personal life and professional practice. He began by quoting the Netziv’s belief that one must carefully attend to the “words of instruction” in Devarim because they are “Divinely inspired and uttered by Moshe our teacher.” He advised that “each person will find ‘milk and honey’ in accordance with his spiritual level…..” Moreover, he suggested that if one “reads it contemplatively….” he will “find a straight path upon which to walk.”

Rabbi Weinreb shared that the insights of the Netziv resulted in a paradigm shift in his own thinking, which he immediately applied to his study of Parshat Va’etchanan. Moreover, he challenged himself with the task of figuring out how he could derive relevance from the prohibition against idolatry. While many current scholars have applied this prohibition to the objects of our modern day “idol worship,” such as “materialism” and “technology,” Rabbi Weinreb offered an interesting twist to the definition of “Avodah Zarah.” He explained that in the era of antiquity, idolatry was the manner in which ancient man “identified a single object to worship” and turned the full focus of his attention on the item he selected as his object of worship. In doing so, however, he came to believe that “it, and only it, was worthy of his adoration;” as a result, he discarded the whole picture and the fullness of reality. Viewed from this perspective, anyone, or anything, that exclusively claims one’s attention, to the point of obsession, represents a spiritual fault, and can be considered idol worship from a Torah perspective. This is because obsessions of any kind distances one from Hashem and his Torah.

Rabbi Weinreb’s view on “obsessions” as a form of idolatry is also consistent with the Gemara’s idea that it is only in comparison to God that one is permitted to consider himself as a “lowly” being. Thus, while we may not be as smart, rich, or skilled as another, we possess the competencies with which we are expected to complete our God-given missions; viewed through this lens, in the eyes of God, we are as valuable as anyone similarly focused on his God-given task, even if the attributes he possesses is assigned greater value by our host culture. Moreover, from a Torah perspective, it is the degree to which one nurtures and grows his spiritual side that constitutes his full value in the eyes of God. Therefore, obsessing over that which another possesses, not only diminishes one’s self worth, but also one’s belief in God’s plan. According to Rabbi Weinreb, it is Hashem who is intended to be our one and only direct object of obsession; and ironically, a greater focus on God would most certainly build our self-esteem, as we come to understand how loved and valued we are for our own unique proclivities. Most importantly, this shift in focus would go a long way in diminishing the anxiety and depression we experience when comparing ourselves to others.

In a similar manner, these ideas can also be applied to the anxiety and depression associated with pain, suffering, and loss. Indeed, we can easily understand how such traumas can lead to lapses in one’s faith; and yet, the focus of one’s full attention, on these aspects of one’s life, can also distance one from God, the ultimate source of consolation. Moreover, Hashem does not expect us to lie still in the face of trauma, pain, and suffering; rather He expects and welcomes the entire range of emotion we exhibit. However, He also offers us the choice of coming closer to Him, and tapping into our Emunah. At the same time, He beseeches us to redirect our full focus of attention, from that fractionated part of reality, the source of our anxiety and depression, to the broader perspective of reality. He encourages us to access the Torah truths that reinforce our hope and provide us with evidence that better times are yet to come; He invites us to pray and share our desires and dreams. Rabbi Weinreb also redefines the words “Hashem Echad-God is one,” found in the Shema, we recite twice a day, morning and night. He explains: “Only He [God] is big enough, complete enough, and total enough to be worshipped… and everything else, including our worries, are mere idols, which do not deserve the devotion we give them.”

Our ideology does not discourage tears and sadness; in fact, we are asked to mourn even the oldest tragedies in our history, and beseech God with our tears and prayers, as we did last week. However, in Sefer Devarim we also review the challenges we faced and overcame. Moreover, the prophesies we find in our commentaries and in Tanach, tell us that the end of the story is one of “Promises fulfilled.” Indeed, if we remind ourselves each day, that Hashem is truly the “one,” and that He alone runs the world, then we could more easily shift our focus of obsession, and leave our worries, anxiety and depression to Him. Just imagine what a huge relief that would be!

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: [email protected]

By Renee Nussbaum Ph.D., PsyA

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