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Changing and Leaving (adapted from 2015)

Updated: Apr 26

If anything, Abraham seems to have been a compulsive figure. Suddenly picking up and leaving everything like that. Neurotic, Freud would say. Freud held that compulsive neurosis was a private religious system, each neurotic person with their rituals, myths, and beliefs. Religion, for Freud, was therefore mass neurosis. Abraham discovered a new religion, and felt compelled to leave his family, his birthplace, the land he grew up in. Freud might say that Abraham suffered from castration anxiety and he had to get away from his father Terach.

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 are sometimes struck in life with a powerful sense of unarticulated meaninglessness at the same time. Jung would not reduce spiritual malaise to a purely psychodynamic problem.

A person who experiences meaninglessness is actually experiencing that the old meanings that used to sustain us have worn out. People can feel lost, without direction because they have not only lost the map, they are no longer in the same territory. Or better yet: the territory that you are inhabiting is damaging your soul. You have to get out, change something.

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 father's house are perceptions, not geography. These words imply a claim on us. Your mother or father may have told you things that you believed - you could say that you are still living in their house. Your land and birthplace might constitute a belief system that has operated within you forever. Then one day you realize - these beliefs are not true, or at least, no longer true for you. I remember one person who objected to family counseling saying, "You don't hang your dirty laundry in pubic." I said, "Well, what if your laundry was the only way of telling the outside world that you are being held hostage?" Old truths lose meaning, because you are on the journey to new meaning.

Here is one thing I often see: people who believe that they can and must fix others, and must placate, as well. This need to help and placate can be so deeply ingrained that a person cannot actually imagine a different way of being. Perhaps this way of being is rooted in personality and then made firm by how the person was raised. Perhaps there was some kind of trauma when they were a young child, and the child figured out in some nonverbal way that the only way to control their world was to not offend anyone. Perhaps in their life since they were a young child, they figured out, consciously or not, that the way of asserting boundaries was too difficult and it was better to work to be liked.

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 the command of language (until this very moment), and our history of decision making, conscious or unconscious. Four things, but no one knows in what proportion. But some day, after years of therapy or not, sooner or later, you have to decide: You ought not 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.)

One day, for example, the Helper/Accommodating One's suffering is insufferable. Others don't reciprocate or take advantage. You learn that the Aggressive Ones take timidity as an invitation to press harder. The accommodator discovers that despite their best efforts, things don't get better for long. They feel tired and strung out, demoralized and depressed.

A new belief system might emerge: You can't fix people who don't want to change, and even then, we might not be the one to help or might not know how to help them. Feeling you are being helpful is far from actually helping a person grow and change. We usually rely on trying to persuade, or criticize and complain - probably the least efficient ways of helping a person.

You might realize that your need to help, fix, accommodate is less a moral virtue and more a compulsion to placate the non-existent lion at the gate. It could very well be that an angry, punitive parent is dressing up as that lion, somewhere down inside the dream and image factory in a hidden chamber of the soul.

Perhaps you come to believe that it is not actually your duty to be the helper on call or placate in order to avoid. Perhaps you are missing some of your real duties in life because you are so busy trying to fix things that you can't, or are addressing things that are none of your business, or trying to manage the emotions of others instead of your own.

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 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.

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