May 20, 2024
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Remembering the Good Through Difficult Times

Years ago, my close friend was horrified when she heard the words “You da mean grandma,” uttered by her adorable, sweet granddaughter. Although she understood that this indictment was the result of her refusal to dole out a second helping of birthday cake, it was hard to hear these words. Yet, as most of us understand, due to the limited perspective of young children it is developmentally appropriate for a toddler or young child to have difficulty accepting or integrating the various aspects of personality; as a result, in the course of parenting/grandparenting we are alternatively perceived as “very good” or “very bad,” depending on the situation at hand. And, of course, we learn to accept this temporary loss of popularity when trying to keep our charges healthy and safe. The good news is that in the course of healthy psychic development, when sufficient good feelings are experienced the child is left with images of a loving, giving mother or caretaker, and a happy contented self; unfortunately, the converse is true as well, and if an overabundance of “bad feelings” is experienced, these result in images of a frustrating, unloving mother or caretaker, and a frustrated, angry self. Thus viewed, one’s deepest sense of self and others is the outgrowth of these consolidated images, providing a lens through which experiences and perceptions are viewed and filtered. If sufficient positive interactions are experienced, a greater level of differentiation occurs, generating the ability to integrate these images and perceive one’s mother as both the loving and gratifying mommy, but also as the frustrating mommy who delays gratification and metes out punishment. In the field, this integration of alternative images is called “psychic fusion” and is necessary in order for the child to process more complex and sometimes ambiguous experiences all through his life. Yet, for a variety of reasons, including temperament or the mother’s failure to be receptive to his changing developmental needs, the child may also fail to develop an adequate level of psychic fusion. This failure in progressive development can lead to a host of issues, including the inability to experience gratification in emotional response, to be disappointed by someone and still feel love for them, as well as loved by them, and most importantly, the loss of his sense of being worthwhile or loving.

Given these insights, we can appreciate that under satisfactory conditions of parenting, children develop the ability to understand and accept that the same mother who loves and cares for them may not always comply with their demands, and may even punish them for their own good. Unfortunately, due to the above-mentioned internal and external variables, this developmental process can go awry, leading to a failure to develop psychic fusion, a phenomenon called “splitting”; when this occurs, the same individual can be viewed as “friend” or “foe,” even on the same day, depending upon how they interpret the situation at hand. In extreme cases, this pathological bifurcated perspective can render the world of the child or adult as terrifying and dangerous; and in the course of self-defense, their behavior or actions toward others can be verbally or physically aggressive because they are incapable of integrating the prior positive interactions of the other, and “yesterday’s friend” quickly turns into “today’s enemy.”

While this seems bizarre, on a far less pathological level, this “bifurcated” perspective is something we all experience when conflict occurs in our relationships. It is for this reason that relationship therapists spend a great deal of time teaching clients to appreciate and validate one another and how to avoid “You always…” and “You never…” statements to those who forget the good and focus only on the points of contention between them. In the case of our relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, particularly during times of pain, suffering or loss, the rating on our “psychic fusion” scale drops dramatically. During these times we understandably question how our God of Goodness could let this happen. On one level, we recognize that our limited perspective prevents us from seeing the truth; still, this knowledge seems to do little in easing the pain and suffering we experience. In Parshat Vayechi we saw a very clear example of how even a tzadik like Yaakov can fall victim to this “splitting” in his relationship with God. We know that while Yaakov was blessed, his life was peppered with severe challenges. No one would question Yaakov’s feelings of anguish during the 22 years of his separation from Yaakov. Yet, at the end of Vayechi, Yaakov was able to achieve a healthy level of “psychic fusion” in his faith and found his way out of his cave of despondency.

As the story unfolds, we come upon the “Kodak moment”—when we are privy to the emotional meeting between Yosef and his father. Yet, while Yosef is overcome with emotion, it doesn’t appear as if Yaakov returns these feelings. As Rashi points out, “…. he [Yosef] fell on his neck and he wept … but Yaakov did not embrace Yosef and did not kiss him; our Sages tell us he was saying Shema (46:9).” The oddity of Yaakov choosing this moment to pray to Hashem with the words of Shema raises many questions. Based on the wisdom of the chasidic masters, upon reuniting with his beloved son, the tzadik Yaakov was stunned by this overwhelming, never-before-experienced surge of love for Yosef, and he took this opportunity to channel this feeling to Hashem in appreciation for the enormous chesed Hashem bestowed upon him; and he did so by reciting the Shema. This still leaves us with the question of why Yaakov chose the Shema as the expression of his love and hakarat hatov.

The wisdom of the Rebbe provides us with the finishing touches on this transformative message. According to the Jewish mystics, the various names of Hashem reflect His numerous character traits, and the two names of God that appear in the
Shema reflect His traits of rachamim (mercy) and din (strict justice). Moreover, we know that Yaakov’s name was changed to Yisrael. If we substitute the word Yisrael for Yaakov, we find that Yaakov is actually having a conversation with himself as he is reciting the Shema, and using our imaginations it could sound like this:

Shema Yisrael—Listen Yaakov”: You have gone through difficult times, where you thought God was only responding to you with strict justice, but now, with the appearance of Yaakov, you know that Hashem—the God of Mercy showering us with loving kindness—and Elokeinu—the God of Strict Judgment, testing us with the challenges that help us elevate our spirituality—is Echad—One and the same.” With these words, Yaakov understood that everything that emanates from God is rooted in goodness and part of His plan for us.

According to this view, it was not a lack of empathy and love for Yosef that led to his recital of the Shema at this emotionally charged moment in time. Rather, it was Yaakov’s belief that the best way he could support Yosef at this point in time was to shower him with an infusion of his own spiritual high; and so he took this opportunity to show him and all future generations the ability we have for tapping into our emunah, love and appreciation of God and mankind and channel it during the lifelong challenges Hashem throws our way. What a beautiful gift at our disposal to be used in filling the spiritual and emotional voids we feel during vulnerable times, in our relationships with God and mankind. Perhaps this is also the source for the significant status of the Shema as the tefilah we tap into until this day when we need a “hug” from God. This is a phenomena I experienced firsthand this summer when I visited the death camps in Poland, as we listened to the stories of how millions recited the Shema as they entered the gas chambers or marched to their death by the firing squad. Indeed, these feelings are so poignantly recounted in Dr. Victor Frankel’s poignant account of his Shoah experience: “These words have been whispered throughout the ages, in times of grave challenge, in dark hidden cellars, by those breathing their last breath, at an auto da fé in Spain or a gas chamber in Nazi Germany. These are also words of hope and happiness, sung in joy while celebrating significant milestones.” May we be blessed with the strength and wisdom to fall back on this message in our own relational challenges with God and those we love and care about, and perpetuate this message until the time when this truth will be revealed for all to know.

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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