The Shabbat Desecrator

July 15, 2015

4 min read


A Harvard-trained psychiatrist working on a locked ward strives to find the good in his patients.

People don’t get along all of the time. We are often tired or stressed out and it can be hard to keep our cool when someone cuts us off on the highway during the commute, spills their coffee on our lap on the trolley, or lets their dog mark its territory on our doormat.

As a clinical psychiatrist, part of my job is to help people see the big picture and to keep things in perspective. Much of my work in this regard on the locked psychiatric ward is done by effectively modeling appropriate behaviors for my patients and their loved ones. Everyone expects psychiatrists to be cool, calm, and collected and most folks would think that this comes naturally to their shrinks…wrong!

People might be surprised to hear that psychiatrists are at a significant risk of burnout from their work. There is even a specific term of psychological lingo – counter-transference – that describes the intense feelings that therapists and psychiatrists experience during their clinical work. For me personally, the best antidote for addressing my own counter-transference reactions has always been striving to find the good in each of my patients, no matter how challenging the case may be.

But this wasn’t a lesson that I learned from Sigmund Freud or even during my training in the hallowed halls of Harvard Medical School. Finding the good in each person was something I learned in yeshiva from the teachings of our Hassidic Masters.

A lovely story is told about Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, of blessed memory, who once saw a fellow Jew smoking a cigarette during Shabbos, something forbidden by Jewish law. Approaching the man, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak said, “You probably are smoking because you don’t know that it’s Shabbos?”

When the man told him that he was aware of which day it was, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak responded, “You probably didn’t know that it’s forbidden to smoke on Shabbos?”

When the man told him he was aware that smoking was forbidden on Shabbos, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak responded, “You probably are smoking because you think it is good for your health?”

When the man told him that he wasn’t smoking for health reasons, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak looked up to the Heavens and cried out, “God, see how beautiful and honest your people are! Even when they commit a sin, they don’t make it worse by lying about it!”

The mishna exhorts us to “judge everyone favorably” (Ethics of Our Fathers, 1:6). Rebbe Nachman of Breslov of blessed memory wrote, “Even if your brother is a completely wicked person, one needs to search and to find in them a single thing that is not completely evil and in doing so will find goodness and the ability to judge your brother favorably,” (Likutei Moharan I:282). By searching for the good in others and focusing on their positive traits, we will have a profound influence on the rest of the Jewish people and inspire them to be better human beings. Certainly this captured the essence of my work – trying to help my fellow human beings to reach their full potential.

So at work, I have to remind myself what my mother always told me, “Everyone is somebody son or somebody’s daughter and has some good in them.” At home and with our fellow Jews, we each have to remind ourselves that not only is everyone someone else’s son or daughter…everyone is my brother or sister!

The Three Weeks of Mourning – beginning with the commemoration of national tragedy on the 17th of Tammuz and continuing through the 9th of Av – are a time for personal and national reflection as we remember the destruction of our Holy Temple. The Talmud (Yoma 9B) tells us that the Holy Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Hinam – senseless hatred between Jews. If this is the case, then the rectification of this destruction must naturally require Ahavat Hinam – love between Jews. Certainly there is no better way to love one another than to look for the goodness in our fellow Jews and in doing so we will help them achieve their personal best.

We must not only pray for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple – we must also be physically engaged in rebuilding it by strengthening our relationships with each other.

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