February 24, 2020

Changing and Leaving – Thoughts on Parshat Lekh Lekha

If anything, Abraham seems to have been a compulsive figure. Suddenly picking up and leaving everything like that. Let’s compare what Freud and Jung might have said about that.

Neurotic, Freud would say. Freud held that compulsive neurosis was a private religious system; each neurotic person with their own rituals, myths, and beliefs. (Religion, for Freud, was therefore mass neurosis.) Abraham’s neurosis developed into a new religion built on guilt and fear. He felt compelled to leave his family, his birthplace, the land he grew up in. This physical move would not address the neurosis within, which would always haunt him. Freud might say that Abraham suffered from castration anxiety and he had to get away from his father Terach. Of course, Abraham ends up trying to sacrifice (castrate) his own son Isaac.

Jung had a different approach. Jung teaches that people are sometimes struck with a sense of the numinous, an overwhelming experience of the Holy. Jung would also teach that many people who find themselves stuck in life with a sense of unarticulated meaninglessness and despair are, at the same time, being struck with a sense of the holy; in fact, they often come together. One opens up to the other. In short: Jung would not reduce spiritual malaise to a purely psychodynamic problem.

A person who experiences meaninglessness is actually experiencing something deeper: the old meanings that used to sustain us have worn out. Meaninglessness can be a kind of opening. People can feel lost, without direction because they have not only lost the map, they are no longer in the same territory. Something inside might be birthing, and to birth, it must displace the old words and worlds. Perhaps because the territory that you are inhabiting now is damaging your soul, you have to get out, change something. You have to get out now.

I prefer the Jungian approach. In this approach, Abraham is the archetype of the person who had to make a move, and in the Torah the metaphor is an actual physical move – from his land, birthplace, and his father’s house. Let’s think for a moment that the voice that spoke to him came from deep within his soul, a divine voice, perhaps, but nevertheless one that found its way to him from his own mysterious depths.

One’s land, birthplace and parent’s house are perceptions, not geography. You can leave a place but take it with you, and you can leave, even though physically you’ve made no change. These words – land, birthplace, parent’s house – are metaphors for a world of ideas that have a claim on us. We live inside of belief systems, some of which we can barely see, but some of which we wield like a hammer.

Then one day you might realize something that can tear the fabric of your world – some of these beliefs are not true. We discover that some of our beliefs about ourselves or others or the way things are, are simply not factually true, or can’t stand up to scrutiny. I remember years ago trying to help a family in dispute. An old falling out was now reaching into the second generation. One group of cousins was trying to heal, but not getting very far. After hearing the story, I offered my thought: “That other group does not seem interested in healing.” The person I was helping had a hard time believing that. “But Rabbi, why wouldn’t anyone want to reconcile? Especially family. Wouldn’t they want to find a way to reconcile?”

This fellow learned the hard way that life did not reflect his belief system. Some people like to be punitive (sometimes especially to family), and some people will “reconcile” only on their own terms. Some people are actually too hurt to reconcile unless deep apologies are made. “Let’s just drop the past” works sometimes. Sometimes it doesn’t. The world is not that simple. Maybe it should be, but it is not. This certain fellow’s problem was rooted in the fact that he could not conceive of a world that did not line up with his beliefs, because, he thought, his beliefs are better than everyone else’s. Isn’t just ‘forget about the past’ the best way?

Well, maybe. Unless someone cares about justice, accountability or repair. Those are also good things. “Why are (other) people like that?” I am inevitably asked by a person who discovers that other people really are so different that explaining something to them makes no difference. (The “myth of explaining” has to do with the false idea that others who think differently just need to be re-educated.)

Who knows for sure why we are the way we are? I often say that we are all a mix of our genetics, our early childhood before we can consciously interpret our world, everything since we achieved command of language (until this very moment), and our history of decision making, conscious or unconscious. Four elements, but no one knows what each element actually is or what proportion each one plays. Regardless of how you got this way, one day, you have to decide: You ought not to go on like this. (The reason I don’t write “you can’t go on like this” is that people who say, “I can’t go on like this” often do exactly that.)

Maybe a revelation comes from the deep parts of the soul: Get out of this way of thinking, feeling and being. Go to a new land.

Here is where deep spiritual work comes in: dislodging yourself from the old land, stepping into the unknown, and building a home in the new land. At some deep level, the divine within you is urging you to toward authenticity. Maybe that is what is keeping you up at night. 

For our studies this Shabbat, I would like to look at Abraham as a philosophical-psychological archetype for transformation.