Positive Psychology and Torah Wisdom:

Combating Anxiety and Depression—Part I

Last month, I had the privilege of listening to Rachelle Fraenkel, the mother of Naftali, one of the three boys kidnapped and brutally murdered by Hamas this past summer. Mrs. Fraenkel is a master teacher and Torah scholar. The courage, emunah, and simchat hachayim reflected in her persona is testimony to how Torah wisdom can provide a treasure trove of strategies in dealing with the full range of emotional stressors experienced in what sometimes feels like an “upside-down” and “out-of-control” world. Among the many personal strategies for coping Mrs. Fraenkel shared, there was one in particular that struck a chord. When responding to the question of how it is possible to remain positive in the face of such a tragedy, the psychic balance she has managed to sustain in the face of every parent’s greatest nightmare, was stunning. Mrs. Fraenkel shared that she hand picks the times when she revisits her personal grief. She recounted a poignant moment with her younger son when he asked, “Is it true, Imah, that you do not put your make-up on until you get to work because you weep in the car?” Mrs. Fraenkel explained that she chooses not to lose herself in her grief, because giving in to the depths of the tragedy would “paint her life black” and she refuses “to go there.” First, for the sake of her children, she and her husband believe that focusing on the positive will go a long way in allowing the children to experience the happy lives they deserve.

Yet, I also felt that there was more than just courage or deference to the needs of her children that allow Mrs. Fraenkel to stay on track. She clearly stated that Hashem owes her nothing. She recounted that until this summer, she led a wonderful and protected life. Moreover, she remains aware of all the gifts God has bestowed upon her family and the goodness that life still holds. Despite the fact that at times, the glisten of tears was visible in her eyes, the beatific smile that hardly left her face throughout the presentation bears testimony to the authenticity of her faith, her hakarat hatov towards Hashem, and the acceptance of his plan.

Mrs. Fraenkel’s response resonates for me very personally. “As a child of survivors, I never felt that I had permission to be happy, or to complain or to feel bad about my own problems. After all, how could any childhood disappointment compare to the pain, grief and loss my parents suffered? Yet, now I know that these feelings “bubbled” under the cover of a “boiling pot,” the impact of which I still suffer from today. There is no question that life is filled with uncertainties, and as a result, some of us begin to experience mild levels of anxiety or even depression. For the most part, these feelings are balanced by an awareness and appreciation of the goodness life also holds; however, when a particular challenge increases in severity, or is compounded by additional stressors, the resulting intense emotional distress, if unchecked, can lead to feeling overwhelmed and hopeless,” she said.

Mrs. Fraenkel shows us that during these times, Torah wisdom, along with the support of our loved ones, friends, rabbis and professionals are there to help us.

This Pesach, one of the simanim we found on our seder plate was the shank bone, which is symbolic of the Korban Pesach. The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 16) explains that the precept “not to break any bone of the Korban,” while rooted in the mitzvah to remember the miracles of Egypt, also possesses many corollaries. Mitzvah 16 prohibited the people from “scraping the bones and eating them like dog.” The Chinuch explained that just at the beginning of the nation’s emergence as the “treasured choice of all nations: A holy Kingdom of Kohanim,” it was not fitting to perform deeds that went against the great spiritual heights they had attained. The Chinuch added: “Through the action and the symbol we perform, we set this matter in our souls permanently…for after one’s acts is the heart drawn.” What I believe the Chinuch was communicating is that by repeatedly performing mitzvot, the power of one’s deeds will arouse the emotions of one’s heart. Thus, for example, intrinsic greediness or insensitivity can be combated by routine and repeated acts of generosity and kindness. Eventually, the good feelings that emerge will call to our hearts, and we will find ourselves intrinsically motivated to perform positive actions and let go of negative ones. The hardest part, of course, is making the choice to leave our comfort zone.

The lessons of the Chinuch demonstrate the transformative nature of mitzvot, and how they can make us into better people and better Jews. These ideas are also evidenced in current psychological thought and practice. The orientation of Positive Psychology, for example, advances the idea that positive actions eventually lead to well-being, positive feelings and even positive character change. Pesach is a perfect time to begin this journey. While we prepare for Pesach, typically a time of stress, let us try to focus on the positive messages of the Hagaddah and Sefer Vayikrah, which are those of optimism. Instead of obsessing on the stressors of cleaning, food preparation and shopping, let us rejoice in the upcoming experiences of family unity, celebration and the fulfillment of the promises we will read of in our Torah and Hagaddah. Finally, let us internalize the inspirations of role models such as Rachelle Fraenkel; and even if we don’t “yet” feel the part, let us get out of our comfort zones, commit to putting on a happy face, and reach out to others; surely the heart will follow.

Renee Nussbaum, is a practicing psychoanalyst, with special training in Imago Relational Therapy. She can be reached at:
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By Renee Nussbaum Ph.D, PsyA

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