Va'eira 5781: Group Therapy
Va'eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35 )
GOOD MORNING! Most of us have had that experience where someone makes a particularly unpleasant remark to you, one that requires a witty response, and you do indeed think of the perfect and witty response – a truly sharp retort that will cut them down to size – but you only think of it after ceaseless rumination and five years too late.
Many people live with these sorts of regrets for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, like the majority of the problems in our lives, how we emotionally deal with the issue is the primary reason that we are unable to get past it. We are often focused on the wrong aspect of the situation and are therefore unable to move on.
I am reminded of the man, bothered by his unethical behavior, who goes to see a therapist. “How can I help you today?” The patient explains, “I have this great job where my boss lets me do whatever I want. I can come in late, leave early, and take three hour lunches. I rarely do what is expected of me. In fact, last week I took off two days and nobody even noticed. Yet every Friday I get a full paycheck. Then I feel guilty and I get really depressed over the weekend. I need your help!”
“So you want us to work on learning to be honest and moral, and strengthening your will and resolve to do the right thing?” The patient replied; “For heaven’s sake, NO! I want you to fix me so that I won’t feel guilty and depressed!”
In this week’s Torah portion we find an illuminating lesson; one that can have a powerful impact on how we deal with our issues and change how we interact and relate to others.
“And God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, and gave them a charge to the Children of Israel...” (Exodus 6:13).
The Talmud (Jerusalem Talmud Rosh Hashana 3:5) derives from this verse a fascinating teaching:
Rabbi Shmuel son of Rabbi Yitzchak asked, “What did he (Moses) command the Children of Israel? He charged them with the Torah obligation (mitzvah) of freeing one’s slaves.”
Quite remarkably, according to Rabbi Shmuel the very first mitzvah that the Almighty asked Moses to command the Jewish people was the obligation to free their slaves. Even though the Jewish people already had several mitzvot previously (e.g. God had given Abraham the obligation of circumcision), those commandments had been given individually to our forefathers. However, the obligation of freeing one’s slaves was the first mitzvah commanded of them as a nation.
At first blush, this is difficult to comprehend: Why would the mitzvah of freeing one’s slaves have the prominence of being the first mitzvah given to the Jewish nation as a whole? Seemingly, there are other, more significant commandments like observing the Sabbath or keeping kosher that would surely take precedence.
Furthermore, this was an oddly irrelevant commandment at this time. Since the Jewish people were still in Egypt, none of the Jews even had any slaves! Moreover, this law really only applied once they arrived and settled in the land of Israel – which turned out to be forty years later. Why charge them with a mitzvah that could not even be fulfilled at the time, and why give it the importance of being the first mitzvah they are commanded to fulfill as a nation?
Psychological studies show that those who were abused as children have a tendency to become abusers themselves. Obviously, not everyone abused as a child becomes an abuser; but studies show that there is a threefold higher risk for abused children to become abusers later in life.
Psychologists have offered a few possible reasons for this link. One of the prevailing theories is that children rationalize the abuse by thinking that it is normal behavior. So as they mature they don’t fully understand that this behavior is wrong, and therefore don’t have the same moral barriers in place to prevent such behavior.
This is problematic for a few reasons: 1) if someone experienced something difficult or painful he should be more sensitive to it, and thereby take extraordinary measure to ensure that he does not cause the same pain to another, particularly not to another vulnerable child and 2) this reasoning doesn’t explain why they would have a stronger tendency toward deviant behavior. At some point in their lives they would certainly learn that society considers such abuse wrong. Why shouldn’t that be enough to stop them?
A much more compelling theory is that an adult who has unresolved issues from childhood abuse acts out as a way of coping with the feelings of helplessness experienced as a child. In other words, those who were abused as children become abusers as adults to prove to themselves that they are no longer helpless victims. By becoming abusers, they psychologically reinforce within themselves that they are no longer the helpless child they once were.
We see this in many other instances as well. Smokers who are finally able to quit for good often become crusaders and feel compelled to lecture others to quit smoking; overweight individuals who manage to lose weight are suddenly weight loss experts and have no problem sharing their opinions about how much you should weigh; religious leaders struggling with their own demons become virulent about anti-smut and crusaders against lascivious behavior – and nobody is surprised when scandals about them emerge. All of these “campaigns” are merely a coping mechanism for their own unresolved issues.
The real problem that most of us have in trying to cope with past trauma or unpleasantness in our lives is that we allow those experiences to define us. Someone may have said or done something to us, but we compound it by torturing ourselves and replaying it in our minds thousands of times. We then lean towards behavior that proves that we aren’t that person any more. But that is a mistake.
A classic example of this is borne out by the expression “Generals always fight the last war.” This refers to the common situation of fighting the current battle in the way in which they wished they’d led their armies in the previous one.
The reason this happens isn’t because they are unimaginative or cannot see that the current situation is different, but rather it is done almost instinctively. The generals have beat themselves up countless times for mistakes they made previously that cost soldiers their lives. As one might imagine, this is hard to live with. Thus, the strategies they wished they employed are ingrained by way of mental repetition; their moves in the current war then follow that path as they try to correct prior mistakes in the current fight.
Unfortunately, we cannot go back in time. Current behavior doesn’t magically fix mistakes we made in the past. When someone makes a disparaging comment to us, we turn it over in our minds endlessly and it begins to define us. Our beloved mentor, Rabbi Kalman Packouz of blessed memory, used to call this “playing negative tapes in our mind.”
This is similar to a person that grows up with the trauma of being poor or not having enough to eat. When they finally achieve success as adults they either hoard their money and cannot spend a penny on themselves or go way overboard; spending lavishly and irresponsibly. Both of these approaches is wrong. They are similar to the general who fights the last war. Current behavior does not change the past. The only thing that can address those issues is learning to redefine how we perceive ourselves.
The only way to properly do that is to understand that what happened is in the past and we must let go of that perception of ourselves. When we begin to see ourselves in a different light we are no longer bound to past trauma.
This is exactly what the Almighty is trying to convey to the Jewish people. They had been slaves in Egypt for close to two hundred years. They were on the threshold of leaving Egypt and that slavery behind them, but after generations of slavery and trauma there was bound to be a lot of emotional baggage. The Jewish people needed to psychologically process their ordeal and face the fact that they were finally truly free and no longer slaves.
One might naturally think that the way to emotionally get past one’s own slavery would be to acquire and hold onto slaves of your own. But that would only serve to fight the demons of the past and would actually reinforce the perception of oneself as a slave – albeit one without a master.
This is why Hashem commanded the Jewish people to observe the mitzvah of freeing slaves. The ultimate proof that they had internalized their freedom and were in a healthy emotional place would be the fact that they no longer needed slaves of their own. Once they freed their slaves then they could redefine themselves in their current state, letting go of the past and moving forward as a free people. This is why it was the first commandment given to the Jewish people as they left Egypt. It wasn’t enough to be free, they had to no longer define themselves by their past or see themselves as slaves.
Va'eira, Exodus 6:2 - 9:35
Here is the story of the Ten Plagues which God put upon the Egyptians not only to effect the release of the Jewish people from bondage, but to show the world that He is the God of all creation and history. The first nine plagues are divisible into three groups: 1) the water turning to blood, frogs, lice 2) wild beasts, pestilence/epidemic, boils 3) hail, locust, and darkness.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that these were punishments measure for measure for afflicting the Jewish people with slavery: 1) The first of each group reduced Egyptians in their own land to the insecurity of strangers. 2) The second of each group robbed them of pride, possessions and a sense of superiority. 3) The third in each group imposed physical suffering.
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Miami 5:33 - Cape Town 7:42 - Guatemala 5:34
Hong Kong 5:43 - Honolulu 5:52 - Johannesburg 6:46
Los Angeles 4:49 - London 4:06 - Melbourne 8:257
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Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.
— C.S. Lewis