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Jewish World Review
Emotion v. intellect
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
A world-renowned psychiatrist answers: How can we know factual reality when our emotions distort our perception?
We were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes.
This verse was the origin of all my writings and emphasis on self-esteem. In
this unique syntax, the Torah (Bible) teaches us a psychological principle of the
greatest importance: The way you feel about yourself is how you think
others perceive you.
The foremost commentator, Rashi, expands upon this concept. The spies said, ''We heard the
Canaanites say, 'Look! There are ants crawling in our vineyards.' '' The Torah says
that the spies felt as small as grasshoppers, which are still much larger than ants.
Furthermore, how could the spies know what the Canaanites were saying? How
could they understand their language?
Rashi is teaching us that low self-esteem is progressive and self-reinforcing. If
you have a distorted, negative self-concept, it is apt to further deteriorate. You may
begin by feeling as small as grasshoppers, but your self-image will shrink and you
will eventually think even less of yourself. In addition, you will assume that others
are making negative comments about you, even if you are not privy to what they
are saying. A distorted, negative self-concept can lead to paranoia.
The Midrash on this verse expounds another important psychological principle.
''G-d said, 'I forgive you for saying, ''We were like grasshoppers in our eyes.''
But why did you say, ''and so we were in their eyes?'' How do you know that I did
not make you appear to them as mighty angels? For that I do not forgive you' ''
Why was the second statement a more grievous sin than the first?
Rabbi Henoch Lebovitz explains that a distorted negative self-image is an emotion. I
have noted in my books that there is a strange phenomenon. People who are most
gifted may have the most profound low self-esteem. Their undeniable, factual
achievements seem to make no impact on their self-concept. Whatever the source
of low self-esteem, it is an emotion that is not altered by factual reality.
The concept that G-d is omnipotent is an intellectual belief. The Midrash says
that when G-d told Moses that the Israelites should go into the sea, Nachshon went
into the water up to his neck and then the waters divided. It was Nachshon's faith
that enabled him to overcome the emotional fear of drowning, and it was this faith
that warranted the miracle.
Rebbe Shneur Zalman (Baal HaTanya) says that it is innate within the human being
that intellect can triumph over emotion. When we allow our emotions to outweigh
our intellect, it is a laxity and dereliction on our part.
The Midrash says that G-d forgave the spies for having a poor self-concept. That
is an emotion which is not easily overcome. Their sin was in failing to exercise
their ability to act according to their intellect. Having witnessed the many miracles
of the Exodus, they knew intellectually that G-d could make them appear to the
Canaanites as mighty angels. It was not even a lack of faith that was their sin. It
was their failure of surrendering to their emotions when they should have followed
their intellect (Chidushei HaLev, Bamidbar p. 86).
This is a teaching which we should apply regularly in our lives. As far as our
distorted self-concept which depresses our self-esteem is concerned, this is something
which we should seek to change by finding ways to elevate our self-esteem.
But until we achieve that goal, we should not allow this emotion to determine our
behavior. We should be able to act on factual reality.
But how can we know factual reality when our emotions distort our perception?
By getting an opinion of ourselves from a reliable objective observer. If we are told
that we are good, worthy and competent, we should act accordingly even if we do
not feel that way.
Nachshon brought about a miracle by following his intellect rather than his
emotion. You can accomplish virtually miraculous things by acting according to
intellect rather than emotion.
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Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. is a psychiatrist and ordained rabbi. He is the founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, a leading center for addiction treatment. An Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he is a prolific author, with some 30 books to his credit, including, "Twerski on Chumash" (Bible), from which this was excerpted (Sales of this book help fund JWR).
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