Should we be protected? Sukkot 5773 Berakhot 56 and 57

As a trainee psychotherapist, the following was always going to make me chuckle:

Bar Haddaya was an interpreter of dreams. For one who gave him a fee, he would interpret the dream favourably.  And for one who did not give him a fee, he would interpret the dream unfavourably.

Is this a winning business model, a quick fix for psychoanalysts struggling to make ends meet?

Of course we all blush at the suggestion –  “We would never, we should never, we mustn’t even entertain such an idea…” – but I wonder if the matter isn’t actually a little more subtle than it seems, if maybe we don’t actually get ourselves into something of a muddle over it.

To put it bluntly, what is the role of the therapist?

On one reading, our role is perhaps to comfort, to console, to understand and to empathise.  And there is certainly some truth in this approach, there is definitely an aspect of care and concern to the profession.

That said, this is not the whole picture.  Sometimes, and this is true of all relationships, being understanding and empathetic can actually harm the person we are engaged with, it can re-enforce their sense of being a victim, it can discourage them from thinking seriously about the changes they could and should make in their lives.  If one always assures a troubled or distressed person that they are in the right, one might actually be helping them to miss an opportunity.

Many – though of course not all – forms of frustration have their source in the way a person approaches life, in the way they conduct their relationships, in the difficulty they have in genuinely connecting and relating to the other.  This is hard, sometimes we think we’re relating to the other, but we’re actually relating to the imagined version of the other that lives inside our head.  In Kleinian terms, we are relating to a ‘phantasy’ version of the other, or an ‘introjected’ other.

Frustration and anger can arise because the other is not behaving in the way we expect, they are radically deviating from our imagined sense of who they are.  And we are somehow not able to cope with that, their reality outside of us is unbearable, it unsettles and confuses us.

At this sort of juncture, it can be extremely helpful to tactfully and delicately try to get a person to see what is happening, to see what it is that is really distressing them.

It can be harmful and counterproductive to assure them that their behaviour has actually been impeccable, that they are right to be outraged.  The fury must be held, it is a valuable therapeutic commodity, and it must be unpacked and explored.

Holding onto the fury, to the rage and hurt a human being sitting opposite us is experiencing, is an extremely difficult task.  It requires one to be extremely rooted and solid, involved and attentive but not overly swayed or moved by the emotion.  And it requires insight and tact to be able to work it back into the conversation, to turn it into an object of study, to bring out what is revelatory in it.

It is much easier to move in for the comforting gesture, to try to rescue a person, to make all that horrible stuff just go away, to be the fixer.

Easier, but ultimately less productive.

Neville Symington, in his excellent book on narcissism, puts it like this:

My experience tells me that it is necessary for the analyst to be unrelenting in stripping away the false consolations with which a narcissistic person is surrounded, while holding them firmly, as it were, with care and concern.  (Narcissism: A New Theory  p.93)

It takes tremendous experience and skill to carry off this strange conjunction of gestures, to be  relentlessly stripping away whilst simultaneously holding with care and concern.  And yet, when we can manage it, we might be doing a person more good than we can possibly imagine.

I can’t help feeling that there’s something of this dialectical complexity in the relationship between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

On Yom Kippur we are stripped of our defences, we are made raw through the purity of the honest encounter with our weaknesses.

On Sukkot we are held in a protective environment, in a space which takes away our comforts and consolations whilst simultaneously offering us shade, shelter and a modicum of warmth.  It is not the ease and luxury of our sturdy homes; we are rattled, shaken, provoked by what has been stripped away.

At this point, in this difficult and jarring environment, we are instructed to turn our eyes towards heaven, to peer at the stars, to be open to the majesty of external reality, to be confronted  by the other.  We are instructed to find new resolve, to creatively re-engage with our relationships and to try to overcome the ways in which we are numbed to the world around us.

The combination of Yom Kippur and Sukkot should pierce us, it should enable us, to quote again from Symington:

To crash through this inner fortress, and bring the patient out of this turning inward and into relation with objects [people, ideas] in the outer world.

Sukkot is not easy, it does not always feel like the party it was once intended to be.  In Britain especially it can be harsh, a somewhat ascetic exercise.  And it flows from Yom Kippur in ways that were probably not intended.  And yet, it can be an extremely valuable opportunity, it can teach us something significant about the dangers of excessive comfort;  it can shake us into continued reflection on our fragility and our mortality.  It takes us outside: outside of what is homely, outside of our comfort zone.

Bar Haddaya met a gruesome and horrible end.  There is grave danger in attempting to offer false comfort, and also in acting harshly for the wrong reasons.  Harsh yet concerned, this is the challenge, both in our relations with others and also in our relations with ourselves.

May it be a chag which pierces us in all the right ways, and may the joy we attain be raw and pure in its intensity.

p.s.  This blog is dedicated to the memory of my cousin Yoni Jesner, who was killed ten years ago today in a terrorist attack in Israel.  May his memory continue to be an inspiration to all of us.

Pure at our Core: Yom Kippur 5753 Berakhot 52

Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are discussing the finer details of the laws of tumah – ritual impurity – when suddenly Beit Hillel offer a tremendous principle:

An implement or instrument cannot make a man impure.

Impurity comes from death, or from an illness or creature reminiscent of death, it is a deeply human phenomenon.  A man may make his objects tameh – impure – he may emanate the feel and sense and smell of death, he may create a surrounding atmosphere and environment which are infected by his negative energy, by the fear and deadness which have touched his soul.

But the flow cannot operate in reverse.  A tool is just a tool, a dish is a dish and a bucket is a bucket.  Their emotional range does not compare to that of man or woman, nor even to a child or animal.  They can pick up an atmosphere, whether through the fundamentals of their design or through their association and intimacy with a person, but they cannot reach out and change the state of a man.

They are objects, not events, and it is an event, something alive which changes the state of our spirit.

They are, by definition, instrumental, and they may help or hinder us as we attempt to get on with the tasks in front of us.  But if our soul should suddenly feel heavy, if our spirit should suddenly flag, then it is not really the object’s fault, it is something else.  It is perhaps something we haven’t yet noticed, a new fear which has partially emerged on our horizon, trouble in a relationship that we haven’t become fully conscious of, some part of our life which is no longer fitting into place so well.

These are the things that affect us. We may mistakenly think that it is the state of our objects, of our possessions; we may ascribe them – or our lack of them – magical and redemptive powers, to believe that our next material acquisition will be the one which really makes the difference, which really changes the quality of our lives.  We all fall prey to this at one point or another, we are living in materially seductive times.

But this is what Hillel are coming to teach us, that the object, the tool, do not change the spirit.  They cannot shift the weight that is burdening us, they cannot re-ignite the spark that is missing from our fire.

Man’s spiritual condition is a deeply interior affair.  ‘Interior’ isn’t even a particularly good word, it has some merit as a metaphor, but it leaves the impression that our feelings can be located somewhere, that they have a physical location, and hence, perhaps, a physical constitution, a physical cause.

This is of course not the case.  Where do we feel fear, angst, joy or liberation?  We do not feel them in a place, we simply feel them, they become our totality; they become the definition of what it means to be us.  They become our being.

Nevertheless, the Talmud runs with the imagery of the interior and teaches us another profound lesson:

A vessel whose outer side is rendered ritually impure by liquid, only the outer side of the vessel is impure…but if the inside of a vessel becomes ritually impure, the whole of it, its entire being, becomes impure. 

Our personality has many level:  we can exist on the surface, we can spend days, months or even years without re-visiting our depths, without confronting the harder questions of our existence, some of the quieter feelings which might guide us in life.

And make no mistake, these outer levels of the personality are rich and multi-talented, they can store some of our greatest powers and bequeath us a tremendous energy.  If it was obvious that we were living on the surface, that we were missing out on something subtler, something more sacred and significant, then we wouldn’t do it.  We’re not stupid, after all.

And from this perspective, this teaching starts to offer us a vital beam of illuminating hope.  It may be that your outside has become impure, has become sullied and filthy; it may be that your energy has caused you to become lost and adrift, that your talents have serviced you in all of the wrong ways.

But this is just the outside, it has not contaminated your depths;  there is something still in you which is untainted, which is clean and bright and pure.

And for as long as that inner light is still alive, for as long as the cold winter winds have failed to blow it out, you may still find the way, you may still recover and feel profoundly once more.

The inner is not so easily infected, our depths stay hidden for good reason:  they know that to expose themselves easily would be to run an extremely grave risk.

On Yom Kippur we attempt to renew and purify these outer layers, we ask for Divine assistance to “cleanse and remove our sins and transgressions”.

And we are given assurance that the Day itself will help us, will change us.  I doubt that a day alone could ever change us, without any input or effort from our side.  But I know and believe with all of my heart that this is a Day like no other day, and that the possibilities for change that it opens up in front of us would not be readily available at any other point in the year.  It is singular and unique, it has an incomparable atmosphere and dynamic, a rich tapestry of emotional complexity that is all of its own.

May the day help us to rediscover our purity, may we be renewed with completeness of heart, authenticity of purpose, integrity of being and a range of feeling which is warm, empathic and open.

Gmar Chatima Tova, may it be sealed decisively for us on The Day.