by Rabbi Dovid Hochberg, LGSW
Are your thoughts truly a reflection of who you are? What about the thoughts and feelings that you can't control -- your jealous fantasies, your deepest and darkest secret thoughts? Do those powerful emotions and desires that seem to surface without any conscious effort on your part truly reflect the real you?
"I think therefore I am." But what happens if you don't like what you are thinking? Are you held responsible for dark thoughts, distracting ideas and provocative feelings that you can't control?
Imagine you are seated at your desk when you overhear a conversation. It seems, according to the latest office gossip, that your coworker and good friend, Chaim, will be receiving a promotion next week. Although Chaim is a close friend, you can't help feeling jealous over his success. Not only that, but deep down, part of you believes that YOU should receive that promotion. You're the one who really deserves it. To be fair, Chaim is a hard worker. You're annoyed with yourself for being envious of your close friend. Aren't you bigger than that? Yet the feeling keeps gnawing at you...
Or perhaps you are at work and remember that your wife asked you to pick up some pens for the kids on the way home. You glance down at your desk and happen to notice a package of pens poking out from under a small pile of papers. A package of pens that belongs to the large company you work for. A package of pens that you could probably get permission to keep for personal use, and certainly would never be noticed if you decided to take them home. After all, it will save you a shopping trip. And besides, it's not as though the company made its millions in revenue through its generosity to its employees and customers. You probably deserve those pens. But they don't belong to you. Should you take them anyway? The thoughts start flying through your mind. What are you going to do?
You didn't ask to have those feelings and thoughts in the above examples. They surfaced without any conscious effort on your part. Did you do something wrong?
In the last paragraph of the Shema prayer, we are commanded "Do not stray after your hearts and after your eyes" (Numbers, 15:39). Exercise control, we are told, and don't follow after the desires of your heart. Don't allow yourself to become jealous, angry, lustful, greedy, or have any other undesirable emotions and thoughts that are part of the human condition. Control yourself.
On the other hand, the Talmud makes a seemingly paradoxical statement: "No person is saved from thoughts of sin" (Bava Basrah 164b). No one, no matter how righteous he or she is, can escape provocative thoughts. It is part of what makes us human and no person is spared.
So how can God command us in the Shema not to stray after our hearts? Experiencing those dark thoughts and feelings is part of our human existence that He Himself created!
The answer lies in understanding the difference between having a thought and responding to the thought.
God created people with powerful desires, feelings, and thoughts, and they are just as much a part of Creation as anything else. It is normal to experience provocative and distracting thoughts and emotions. In fact, as the Talmud stated, it is part of the human experience. However, it is our response to the thoughts and feelings that we are challenged to control. That is the essence of the commandment of not straying after our hearts and eyes. While the choice to experience the desire or thought may not be within our control, it is our responsibility not to act on it. We are expected to exercise self-control in our response.
Welcome to the world of free choice -- of actions, not thoughts.
God doesn't expect you not to have any jealous thoughts whatsoever toward your friend and his success. He doesn't expect you to find it impossible to think about taking home the pens. However, once you are consciously aware of what you are doing, once you are back in control, He pays close attention to what you will do next. Will you take the pens? Will you attitude toward Chaim turn noticeably icy? Or will you allow the thoughts and feelings to pass through your mind, perhaps even acknowledging them as they move along, and continue working? How will you respond when you experience envy? What will you do when you have a desire to take something that doesn't belong to you?
Our challenge lies in our response, not in the experience. The initial thought or feeling may not necessarily be in our control but our response and subsequent actions are certainly our responsibility.
In fact, the aforementioned verse from the Shema, "Don't stray after your hearts and after your eyes," subtly points this concept out. When those dark and provocative thoughts enter your mind uninvited, don't concentrate and obsess over them. Allow them to leave. Don't stray AFTER them, as they are passing through your mind. Let them go. It is only when we stray after them and respond the wrong way that we are taken to task.
How do we allow negative thoughts to leave our mind?
One of the great Jewish leaders in Israel, Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky, provided an answer in a letter to one of his students.
He wrote, "There is only one solution to this issue: distract yourself. The more you focus on preventing those thoughts, the more frequently they will invade your mind...it is a well known fact that a person can only concentrate on one thought at a time. Therefore, distract yourself with another thought and the dark, provocative thought will disappear..."
A simple solution and a highly effective one. Don't focus on the thought or feeling. Distract yourself. Allow the thought to leave your mind and move on.
Let's go back to the promotion example and apply this idea. The conversation in your mind may go like this:
"I can't believe Chaim is getting that promotion...I am glad for him...No, I am not! I should be the one receiving that promotion!...Come on, Chaim is a good friend. Be happy for him...It hurts, though. I am jealous of his success. Do you think he would be happy for me if I were the one in line for the promotion? I don't think so...well, probably he would...I have to stop thinking about this...Let's see...(looking down at report on desk)...The numbers for the fiscal year are..."
Of course, this is not to say that one shouldn't strive to achieve great goals in managing one's emotions and thoughts. Keep in mind, however, that experiencing these thoughts and feelings is normal and part of the human condition that God created in His infinite Wisdom.
Rabbi Dovid Hochberg, LGSW, is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice and can be reached at 443.677.8561 for consultation. Visit his new website, www.jewish-parenting.org, for parenting guidance and his brand-new ebook, "Dear Rabbi: Questions and Answers for Today's Teenagers."