Teshuva and Wounded Narcissism        

Rabbi Reuven Mann

There are many people who believe that the Torah is exclusively concerned with the arena of human action. According to this view man must act according to a certain ethical and moral code but what he feels inside is not subject to the discipline of Torah.

To a certain extent that would seem to be true. We should bear in mind that a person may not be able to control all of his feelings and, in fact, some negative one’s may even seem justified. For example Kibbud Av Vaeim (Honoring one’s father and mother) which is one of the Aseret Hadibrot is one of the most important commandments in Judaism.

This Mitzvah requires that one display the greatest respect for one’s parents. He must stand up when they enter the room, address them with extreme deference, never express anger against them and so forth. 

It is very relevant to review this injunction at the present moment. We are now in the month of Ellul, the precursor to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. As everyone knows these are times of Teshuva in which one seeks forgiveness for his many trespasses. The dominant imperative is to mend the breeches in our relationships with Hashem and with fellow man.

In many areas societal attitudes seem to have deviated from the prescriptions of Torah. This can be clearly seen in how children relate to parents. The posture of deference and soft speech demanded by Torah are on the whole not to be seen. In many cases children say the harshest and most disrespectful things to their parents or simply dismiss them with utter disdain. If people need guidance regarding which facets of their behavior are in need of improvement this certainly might be one of them.

But someone might ask, what does the Torah require of me regarding my parents, action or attitude? Suppose they are genuinely annoying, boorish people whom it is very difficult to like? And suppose I honestly don’t like or respect them because they are very unworthy of that, am I then in violation of this vital Mitzvah?

I would say that you are not in violation if  your actions are proper and appropriate. The Mitzvah of Kibbud Av is concerned with how you treat your parents not how you feel about them. Of course your true feelings must not be expressed as this would cause them great pain, but if your behavior accords with the Torah’s definition of respect, you have fulfilled the commandment.

(It is necessary in this regard to mention that the Torah is not in sync with the popular outlook that parents have to “earn their respect”. Not all parents are truly worthy of reverence but the Torah bestows a special status on them because they are regarded as “partners” with Hashem in the creation of the child and therefore honoring them is indirectly regarded as revering the Creator.)

Thus it seems to me that the Torah doesn’t require that you actually like your parents and understands that they may be very unlikable people. All it demands is that you keep you feelings out of it and treat them in a respectful fashion. But is it true to say that there are no cases in which Judaism is concerned with a persons inner emotions?

This week’s Parsha, Ki Tetze, warns that one may not diminish the special rights of his bechor (first born son) from his “hated wife” in favor of his offspring from the woman he loves. But how can there be such a phenomenon in Israel when the Torah clearly warns, “You should not hate your brother in your heart” (Vayikra 19:17)?

In this case the Torah is regulating the private emotion of a person and is prohibiting us from harboring feelings of animosity against any fellow Jew (the term “brother” in the verse means sibling a reference to any member of Israel, male or female).

But what if someone has treated me terribly or gravely insulted me and my natural response (which seems reasonable) is to despise him, what then? The Torah does not only enjoin unjustified or baseless hatred. Even if there are very good reasons for your animosity, it is prohibited. Even if there is no chance that you will act on your feelings, they are proscribed.

But you may say, “What can I do, that is how I feel?” The Torah maintains that one must not be a slave to his feelings but can exercise control and overcome them. Ideally he should confront the one who offended him and in a calm and intelligent manner express his grievance. If the guilty party acknowledges his wrongdoing and apologizes he should be forgiven and all residual anger should disappear.

However, even if confronting the offender is not possible of feasible one must still remove the hatred from his heart. He must strive to cultivate humbleness and be able to tolerate a certain amount of wounded narcissism. He must not accord too much power to the insults of others and remember that ultimately it is only what Hashem thinks of us that matters. And the Torah does not require that he actually like the person who insulted him, he is only enjoined from hating him.

As we review our actions and behaviors in preparation for the season of Judgement let us remember that we must also consider whether we harbor unseemly emotions that we must dispose of (just as we dispose of chametz before Pesach). When it comes to the difficult chore of forgiving an offender it might help to ask how often we ourselves might have treated others in an insulting or insensitive manner. The awareness that we are not perfect in this area might make it somewhat easier to be tolerant of others.

But the essential feature of Teshuva, the desire to return to Hashem and be in His Presence, is the most compelling factor which enables us to mend our ways and our attitudes. May we merit to achieve it.

Shabbat Shalom.