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Dealing With Negative Emotions

Friday, 1 February, 2019 - 3:38 pm


(adapted from Rabbi Y. Y. Jacobson)
Here’s an interesting sentence from this week’s Torah portion: “If you see the donkey of someone you hate lying under its burden, and you might refrain from helping him - you shall surely help him.” (Exodus 23:5)

Let us analyze this sentence for a moment. Why does the Torah see it important to discuss the possible thought that you may not wish to help your enemy? Why doesn’t the Torah state the law succinctly: “If you see the donkey of someone you hate lying under its burden, you shall surely help him!”?

The answer is both simple and profound. The Bible is making a point of acknowledging the instinct to refrain from helping one’s enemy’s donkey as legitimate and human. It is perfectly normal to feel that you care not to assist the person you loathe, even if his animal is suffering.

Yet notwithstanding this natural emotion, the Torah is calling on us to challenge our instinct and assist our enemy’s donkey regardless. This perfectly human instinct need not dictate our actions.

There are two significant lessons here, pertinent particularly for generation; an age dedicated to the dissecting of one’s emotional persona.

1) The fact that our emotions are not always in sync with our ideals and values does not reduce us to moral failures. The fact that we don’t want to do the right thing doesn’t make us bad people. To be human is go through inner struggle and turmoil.

2) On the other hand, the Bible is informing us that not every emotion is holy. When somebody’s animal is suffering you must extend your hand, notwithstanding your negative emotions toward the owner of the donkey

One of the problems unique to our age is that for many of us emotions have become the sole barometers that determine right from wrong. We have turned our emotions into deities, worshiping them as though they embodied absolute, timeless truth, a new god. Hence, to suggest to somebody that they might overlook an emotion, subdue a feeling, disregard a mood is thud a form of idolatry. Our emotions have become gods and we must obey them at all costs, even if this may be detrimental for our relationships, our marriages, our children, and our long term visions

In the Biblical ethos, there is a critical distinction that must be made between acknowledging your emotions vs. allowing them to dictate your behavior.

So the next time you come to a fork in the road where you must choose between “what I want to do” and “what the right thing to do is”, remember: 1) It’s only human nature to want to do that which is most convenient and that which requires the least amount of effort. 2) Acting as a Jew means transcending and overcoming those mortal emotions and doing the right thing.

May we take the strength from this week’s Torah portion to challenge our instincts and rise above them. Though the struggle is a difficult one, the liberation we experience once our shackles of selflessness are lifted is tremendous.

Let’s do one more mitzvah today!

Shabbat Shalom 


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