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The Chassidic Definition of Trauma

When My Reptilian Brain Goes Wild, I Need to Help It See its Owner

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • February 23, 2017
  • |
  • 27 Sh'vat 5777
  • Comment

Class Summary:

The Fear of Setting Yourself Free - How to Deal with Addiction

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein in honor of Sholom Yosef Gavriel ben Maya Tifcha, Gavriel Nash.

Dedicated by Dina Dornbusch thanking Hashem for the birth of her newest granddaughter Michal Sara bas Zina Rivka

Rage Therapy

A man walks into a bar. He calmly orders a drink and proceeds to abruptly pick up his glass and hurl it at the shocked bartender.

After a moment of uncomfortable silence, he begins apologizing profusely, pleading for forgiveness: “I am mortified; I suffer from uncontrollable rage, I am deeply ashamed of it, I don’t know what came over me, please forgive me for my embarrassing behavior.” The bartender graciously forgives him. However this happens nightly for a week straight, each outburst followed by sincere regret. Finally, the bartender makes an ultimatum: “Either you undergo intense anger-management therapy or do not ever enter this bar again.” The man consented.

A year later, he returns to the bar, a rehabilitated man. But lo and behold, he immediately takes his glass and heaves it at the bartender. “What are you doing?” the bartender thundered, “I thought you went to therapy!”

“I did,” the man replied, “and now I am not embarrassed anymore.”

Animal Laws

This week's Torah portion (Mishpatim) deals with the laws of damages caused by one’s animals [1].  Say, for example, your domesticated bull suddenly and uncharacteristically gores and kills another bull. Perhaps your domesticated usually well-behaved dog goes berserk and suddenly attacks and bites another dog, or an innocent stranger. The Torah tells us, that for the first three altercations the owner of the bull pays for only half the damage. Since it is unusual for a bull to suddenly gore, the owner was not expected to take all precautionary measures to prevent this. He is not deemed completely responsible, and he splits the losses with the owner of the wounded animal. (Such an animal is called a "tam").

After three incidents, it is established that this bull is aggressive and is prone to attack regularly, and the owner is held fully responsible to guard his animal (such an animal is called a "muad.") He, therefore, pays for all the damage occurring as a result of his failure to guard his beast [2].

Is "Repentance" Possible?

How about re-orientation? Meaning, can a bull or any other animal resume their original status of innocence after damaging three times?

Yes, says the Talmud [3]. And this can be achieved in two ways: Either the owner rigorously disciplines his animal until its disposition is transformed, and it learns to behave. Or he can sell the animal or give it as a gift to someone else. With a new owner and new patterns and schedules, the Halacha (Jewish law) assumes the animal will return to its natural inborn domestic nature and is considered nonviolent until proven otherwise [4].

The Psychological Dimension

Every law of the Torah has a psychological and spiritual rendition, in addition to the concrete and physical interpretation. One of the primary functions of the Jewish mystical tradition -- Kabbalah and Chassidism – is to explain the metaphysical meaning behind each law and Mitzvah of the Torah and the Talmud.

How can we apply the above-mentioned set of laws to our own personal and spiritual lives?

The Mystical Animal

Each of us possesses an animal within; an earthy, mundane consciousness that seeks self-preservation and self-enhancement. Survival and comfort are its sole consideration. In today's neuroscientific vocabulary we would define it as the reptilian and mammalian brain, responsible for our survival and emotions seeking to keep us safe and secure. 

The “human-animal” is not inherently bad or destructive; it simply will do anything to survive and feel comfort, often cultivating patterns of aggression or isolation which in its mind are vital for survival. In contrast to other traditions which claim man is inherently sinful, and therefore in need of salvation, Judaism does not see any part of our consciousness as evil at its core.

When one is born, the animal within is innocent and even adorable. Its primary goal is to preserve its existence, and enjoy a safe and comfortable life. However, if our animal consciousness, if our amygdala does not get the safety it needs, and is not educated, cultivated, and refined, this cute innocent animal can grow to become a frightened, self-centered, or isolated beast. The beast can turn into a monster, prone to destroy itself and others around it in its quest for survival. Sometimes our animal can become addicted to various things (food, drugs, nicotine, alcohol, sexuality, etc.) to desperately fill a void it is experiencing or run from a wounded self-image. Many of our inner animals become, at one point or another, damaging forces, causing pain to themselves and to others.

Two Types of Animals

There are two distinct types of “damaging human animals.” There is one whose moments of aggression are seen as unusual deviations; and one for whom these destructive patterns have become common behavior.

In the first instance, the Torah tells us to be more understanding of the "owner" of the animal. Nobody is ever entitled to “gore” or “bite” another human being. But we need to remember that even the gentlest husband can lose himself and raise his voice in anger, and even the most loving woman may, in a moment of stress, make a denigrating comment. It is painful and amends must be made, but it’s not the end of the world.

We have our weak moments, when our inner lizard, rat, or Chimpanzee, take over our bodies and behaviors; we say or do hurtful words or deeds, to ourselves or others. Our rational, visionary, and Divine consciousness go "offline" for those moments, as our inner animal takes a stab at a spouse, child, co-worker, or stranger. It is hurtful, but we can make amends.  

As long as the offender acknowledges his or her wrongdoing and accepts accountability, understanding and forgiveness may follow. To be human is to err. Our goal is not perfection, but accountability. Life will sometimes throw you a curveball, and in the shock that follows you may lose yourself and begin to “gore.” As long as you are accountable for your actions and words, as long as you can look on with compassion and identify what happened, your negative behavior is considered an anomaly, an aberration from your authentic, Divine self. Every mistake teaches us a lesson from which we can grow. 

But when I find that anxiety, fear, or dissociation take over my system, my behaviors, and my relationships – I am living in anger, shame, resentment, or just detached from my emotions -- my body is responding to an inner wound it carries, I must realize I may be living in active trauma, my animal has shut down, or has gone wild, to protect me.

If the incidents of abuse and destruction persist -- if a husband continuously shouts at his wife or children; if a person in a position of leadership shatters the lives of the people he is responsible for; if a wife only derides and ridicules her husband; if one cannot control their food, alcohol, drug, or sexual addiction -- their behavior cannot be condoned. We are dealing with an animal whose selfish, destructive, and unhealthy inclinations have become the norm.

Making mistakes is part of life. But if these mistakes are repeated continuously and become regular habits without being controlled and stopped, they are dangerous. They have become a lifestyle, a routine, sometimes an addiction. The owner of this “animal” cannot excuse himself or herself by saying, “I did not realize, I did not know.” He or she must “seize the bull by its horns” (pun intended), and accept full accountability.

But how does such an animal return to its original, innocent status? How can one rehabilitate oneself? How does one regain the trust of the people he/she has hurt so badly?

Two Paths to Recovery

There are two roads available: The first is the rigorous process of self-refinement, in which your animal learns to confront and challenge its deepest fears and urges, and it painstakingly de-beasts its abusive character.

Yet, even before you manage to work through all of the dark chambers of your wild animal, the teachings of Judaism present another alternative: Change the jurisdiction of the animal.

Take your animal and submit it to the higher power, to the property of its Divine Creator. Even before you work through every dark chamber, surrender to the higher reality. Take your rage, your addictions, your depression, your fear, your shame, and submit them to G-d. The universe is created anew at every single moment. You, I, and all of existence, are being re-created right here and right now. My present breath is the miracle of re-birth. In a balanced and centered consciousness, life happens in the here and now. Transferring to His ownership means that at this moment you can put your past demons to rest and start anew. You are as fresh as a newborn.

Talk to your animal and meditate together on the following truth: Yes, I know that we have a complicated past and I can feel so much compassion for what you felt you needed to become in order to survive. I am so sorry. I know you believe that you are prone and addicted to all types of behaviors. I know you feel like you have to go into fight, flight, fawn, or freeze. But right now, my dear animal, let us live in the present. You and I were just created anew, with a clean slate. So let us finally begin to live. For real.

It is sometimes scary to throw away the baggage of our past; familiar misery seems more comfortable than unfamiliar change. But we need to take full responsibility for our future. We must muster our courage and view ourselves from the G-d’s perspective, from His ownership. In His world, everything is recreated each moment. We can liberate ourselves from our past and defy ominous predictions of our future, and we can do it now. The work of healing internally will continue, but in a very real way, I can gain dignified control over my inner reptilian and mammalian brain. 

If you are serious and compassionate, your animal will listen -- and respond.

What is trauma? My difficulty in experiencing the miracle of the here and the now. To be fully present to the breath of life flowing through me at this moment. We heal trauma as we can be fully present to the creative divine energy flowing through us right now.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

A story:

In the 16th century, an innocent Jew was thrown in prison by a feudal baron who gave him a life sentence. For some reason, this tyrannical baron decided to show the man a bit of mercy. He told him, “Look Jew, you’re my prisoner for life, there’s nothing that will change that. But this I will do for you: I will grant you one day of freedom a year during which you can return to your family. Do whatever you want. I don’t care which day you choose. But remember, you have only one day a year.”

The man was conflicted. Which day should he choose? Should he choose Rosh Hashanah, to hear the sounding of the shofar? Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year? Passover, to celebrate a seder? His wedding anniversary?

This prisoner, not being able to make up his mind, wrote a letter to one of the rabbinic leaders of that generation, Rabbi David ben Zimra, known as the Radbaz (1479-1573), the spiritual leader of the Jewish community in Egypt, and then in Sefad. The prisoner asked for his advice.

The Radbaz said the prisoner should choose the first available day. Whatever it is, grab it now, don’t wait — be it a holiday, a Shabbat, a Monday, or a Wednesday.[5]

A Flood of Positive Energy

This was a marvelous reply. More importantly, it is true for us as well.

Healing begins when I can truly live in the now. When I can show up to the gift of the moment. When I can take my animal, and its wounds, and submit it to G-d who recreates it each moment anew. Let your animal submerge itself in goodness, love, and holiness. Fill your days and nights with meaningful behavior: with authentic connection and attachment, with kindness, with the study of Torah, the celebration of Mitzvos, acts of grace, a life of authenticity and meaning. Your animal will get it. Now that’s a holy cow.[6]


[1] Exodus 21:35-36 and Rashi ibid. From Talmud, tractate Bava Kama.
[2] Such an animal is called in the Talmud a Muad, in contrast to a Tam, which is the title granted to a domesticated animal before it has attacked three times. There is an interesting argument among Talmudic commentators, if an animal that gores three times is deemed by Jewish law as having become of a destructive nature, or that the aggressive pattern of its behavior demonstrates that it has always been of such a disposition, we were merely unaware of it (Acharonim to Bava kama 2b.) This debate has some interesting implications, particularly when we review this law from a spiritual and psychological perspective, discussed below.
[3] See Bava Kama 14a; pp. 39-40. Rambam Hilchos Nizkei Mamon 6:6-7.
[4] Though this option is disputed in the Talmud (Bava Kama 40b), Maimonides (ibid.) sees the view mentioned above as the final law.
[5] See Teshuvhos Chacham Zvi Siman 106 for a lengthy discussion on the matter.
[6] This essay is based on a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented on the 4th night of Sukkos, 17 Tishrei, 5747, October 10, 1987. Part of this talk was published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 36 pp. 102-108.

Please leave your comment below!

  • HR

    Hillel Rappoport -5 months ago

    Thank you for a most balanced and reasoned essay on a subject that has troubled the world from time immemorial. People have led conflicted lives often resulting in tragedy.  If we all have the collective consciousness to appreciate and understand our lives are renewed every second of each day in the light of G' D's beneficence we would learn that the solution is in our hands and that there is hope. 

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  • T

    Terry -6 years ago

    Two paths to recovery

    Wonderful thought about the world being created anew every moment...thank yoi.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • RYJ

    Rabbi YY Jacobson -7 years ago

    The story about which day to pick is a longstanding machlokes between the Radvaz and the Chacham Tzvi siman 106.

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  • MS

    Mordichai Shuchat -7 years ago

    very nice will check out sicha too thanks

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Parshas Mishpatim

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • February 23, 2017
  • |
  • 27 Sh'vat 5777
  • |
  • Comment

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein in honor of Sholom Yosef Gavriel ben Maya Tifcha, Gavriel Nash.

Dedicated by Dina Dornbusch thanking Hashem for the birth of her newest granddaughter Michal Sara bas Zina Rivka

Class Summary:

The Fear of Setting Yourself Free - How to Deal with Addiction

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