April 19, 2024
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April 19, 2024
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Psychological Insights from the Torah: On Building Relationships

As a mental health professional, I often find myself helping couples, family members, and individuals heal the ruptured relationships in their lives. Over the past ten years, I have discovered the Torah as a valuable resource and am in awe at the extent to which current psychological theory and practice draws from Torah truths. The relationships our holy descendants experienced with Hakadosh Baruchu, and the strategies they used in dealing with quality of life issues serve as paradigms for effective parenting, education, and building successful relationships.

In Sefer Bereishit, we learn about Eizer K’negdo. Assuming the role of a loving and supportive partner means sharing values, but does not necessarily require agreement with one another. The very loshon, Eizer K’negdo, which is literally translated as “a supportive and/or opposing partner,” speaks to the dual nature reflected in this role. Thus viewed, partners are meant to be supportive in helping one another fulfill his or her God-given task. On the other hand, when the situation calls for it, the role takes on an oppositional posture whereby one partner helps the other move back on track. The Torah also teaches that partners in every relationship must always be mindful of appreciating and acknowledging one another’s individuality and working hard in listening to and understanding each other. At times this requires suspending ego for the greater good of the relationship.

In the Bereishit and Shemot stories we take some giant steps in dispelling the myth that a peaceful household or a successful relationship hinges upon agreement. We also begin to recognize the danger when disagreement rears its ugly head—individual members feel dismissed, invalidated, or disrespected. At times, if this pattern of response is sustained, the risk of shattered egos and ruptured relationships cannot be ignored. In order to void these outcomes, the goal of “cloning” oneself through one’s spouse, children, friends, or colleagues, needs to be replaced with a more productive one; and the Torah shows us the way.

In Parshat Tetzaveh we see a wonderful example of the importance of suspending one’s will in order to achieve the desired outcome. There is no doubt in our minds that the Torah was a primary force in Moshe’s life. Each morning we acknowledge this in our tefilot with the words: “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe….” We also know the great commitment Moshe had towards Bnei Yisroel and the extent to which he worked in advocating for them and sustaining that relationship. Yet, in Parshat Tetzaveh, which continues with Hashem’s instructions to Moshe regarding the building of the Mishkon, we notice the glaring absence of his name. Instead Hashem addresses him with the word “you.”

We read in the Pasuk: “And you shall command…” (27:20) Even as children we learned that addressing someone with the word you, rather than his name, could be rude; at minimum, it appears distant and cold, lacking the intimacy reflected in the personal relationship Moshe enjoyed with Hakadosh Baruchu. This of course, raises the question of: “What went wrong?” Several of the Meforshim suggest that this absence of Moshe’s name in Tetzaveh was the realization of Moshe’s declaration following the sin of the “Golden Calf,” when he stated: “If You do not forgive them, erase me from the book that You have written” (Shemos: 32:31).

We can just imagine what is must have taken Moshe to utter these words and dismiss the Torah which meant so much to him. I share the sentiments with others, that there had to be more; and if it was chutzpah, I have to believe it was the breed of chutzpah rooted in commitment to and advocacy for the greater good. As we learned, every trait has positive and negative components, depending on how they are expressed. And in this case, where something feels right because it is for the greater good, then at times we have to go that route, certainly when it comes to relationships. And I believe that is exactly what Moshe did.

Over the years, I have become more and more sensitive to the idea that when it comes to the relationship issues noted in the Torah, these stories are not intended to evoke judgment or criticism; rather they are meant to teach us how to deal with these very same experiences when we are confronted with them in our own lives. According to the Rebbe, even though Moshe’s name is physically absent from the Parsha, his presence is very much felt. As noted, the very first word in the Parsha is ve’atah, “and you”—the “you,” in this case is Moshe. The Rebbe argues that while the name reflects the more superficial, outer character traits the individual displays to the world, the word “you,” is deeper and captures the inner essence of his being.

Thus viewed, with the word You, Moshe was actually present in the Parsha in a way that was far more fundamental and vital than he could have been communicated if his name had been used instead. And how did Moshe merit such a z’chut? It was because he was willing to suspend his ego, to give up his own association with his treasure, his beloved Torah, for the sake of the relationship he built with Benei Yisroel. This explanation also fits in nicely with the one offered by the Ohr Hachayim who explains that tetzaveh can alternatively be interpreted as to “bond” or “connect.” Thus, Hashem himself was telling Moshe that “he should bond with the innermost holy souls of the people.” Thus, Moshe was only complying with Hashem’s command and he was driven to act on behalf of the people with whom he had established an everlasting bond. Moreover, whether Moshe was following Hashem’s command or driven by his own will, as a result of his actions Hashem was reminded of the inner bond He had with Benei Yisroel, His beloved children. Indeed, as Hashem observed Moshe’s great devotion to his people, in face of all their complaints, distrust, and lack of appreciation, His own sense of forgiveness was aroused. After all, it was because of Hashem’s children, that Moshe was risking the loss of his greatest treasure, the Torah. This time it was Hashem who mirrored Moshe’s behavior and forgave His children, for the sake of the love and connection he desired to recapture.

The Hasidic Masters tell us that “the Torah is the tool Hashem has given us to enhance the bond between Him and His people, and it is this bond that the Torah serves to enhance. “As Moshe demonstrated by example, there is nothing more vital than the love and connection we have with God and with one another, even the Torah. You can’t have one without the other. And Hashem rewarded Moshe for tapping into that truth, and the people were forgiven. In the end, they reclaimed their bond with the Torah, as well, and it was returned to them on Yom Kippur.

In the previous Parshiot we learned the importance of moving from inspiration to action, before self-doubt and other distractions blur the clarity of the Torah truths we derive. Let us be mindful of how important it is to work on our relationships each and every day.

Take the time to share an appreciation or caring behavior with a spouse, child, sibling, friend or colleague, preferably at all the moments we are so inspired. For example, when a spouse brings up a cup of coffee before going to shul, let’s extend ourselves beyond saying a quick “thank you” and going back to reading our books. Instead, we can engage in an “appreciation’ or “caring dialogue.”

When it is necessary to say “no” to a child, or even a spouse, friend, etc., it is important to take the time to validate his or her need before denying it. This can be accomplished with a few simple words: “I wish I could give this to you….or “let you do that.” “I understand how important it is for you” or “how much you want it;” but right now I can’t give it to you,” or “allow it,” because…..”

Let us remember that it is the little things that count. Taking the time to assure those we love and care about that they are understood and appreciated opens the door to positive communication, avoids the risk of conflict, and offers a greater chance of enjoying sustained and successful relationships.

Renee Nussbaum, is a practicing Psychoanalyst, Child Adolescent Psychotherapist, and Learning Disabilities Specialist. Renee and her husband Jack live in Fair Lawn. For the past ten years, Renee has facilitated a “Chevrusah in Cyberspace,” edited by her friend, Debbie Friedman.

By Renee Nussbaum

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