Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Family Systems Thinking, True Sacrifice and Aspects of Self Bava Kama 39-41


Cow-ardly Diagnoses 

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the case of an ox owned by a minor or a mentally incompetent person. It can also be established as a muchzak to be aggressive and gore people via three incidents, but since the owner is incompetent, an agent or guardian must be established.  The guardian serves in place of the owner and is warned by three incidents, in the same way that owner would have been if he was competent.  

What is most fascinating is that if the minor reaches the age of adulthood, or the mentally incompetent person recovers, the clock is reset, and the ox is treated as a regular, placid ox.  The newly adult or mentally recovered owner now can treat his ox like any other, and if it does gore he goes through the process of three warnings as if the original gorings never happened.

The Gemara later on daf 40a explains that this is based on the idea that custody changes the status of the ox.  What is the reason for this? Nimukei Yosef says, on a practical level, the owner could claim, “If I was competent and available when the ox was originally starting up, I would have known how to manage it, therefore it is only fair to treat it as a docile ox, now that I am able to take care of this animal.”  Meiri gives a psychological explanation: When the ownership changes, the animal’s nature and mazal change as well.

We saw earlier in Psychology of the Daf Bava Kama 37, that according to Gemara Shabbos 151a, an animal does not attack a human unless the human diminishes himself and behaves as a beast. Likewise, we may say that the spiritual standing of the owner affects the behavior of the animal.   The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 28 and Rashi Bereishis 6:11) tells us that not only were the humans promiscuous in the generation of the flood, but the animals followed suit, mating indiscriminately, across species.

In the 70’s there were schools of thought that arose which challenged the individual-based pathology that was dominant prior. The original psychology that began with Freud’s work came from a western medical model, focusing on the symptoms, disorder and pathology. There was one person who was unwell, and needed treatment.  This way of thinking persists to this day in both psychology and medicine.  However, new ways of working with so-called mental illness were simultaneously developed by psychological pioneers, mavericks and risk takers including the famous Salvador Minuchin, Murray Bowen, Carl Whitaker and Virginia Satir.  They began to notice that though one person may be identified by the family or system as the patient, he or she may be carrying distress and emotional burdens for an entire family, sometimes spanning generations.  The so-called pathology of this individual is more of an unconscious but systemic collaborative effort to stabilize and manage familial conflict and distress. This is known as homeostasis.  I will soon give examples and their clinical implications, however first I would like to explain the value of system thinking even in medical matters.

For example, let us assume we have identified a particular disease or virus, and even a treatment protocol.  If plony has this disease and takes this medicine, he should get better. That much is science. Yet this does not explain WHY plony got sick in the first place. Was it poor nutrition, stress, depression, or not washing hands?  Those system concerns can be as valuable, or even more valuable than the technical cure.  It is still a mystery to me (or not) why our very truthful and accurate media spent two years publishing daily COVID death statistics, but never stressed, educated or discussed the single most important risk factor for COVID mortality, which was being more than 40lbs overweight.  The media foisted a relentless narrative of doom and fear mongering that developmentally delayed a generation of children, and hardly encouraged exercise and weight loss, a simple available but potent prophylactic, amongst others.  This was the authentic “safe and highly effective” intervention. (Even the CDC agrees to this: .)

Returning to psychology and systems thinking, when one member of a family manifests symptoms, it is often in service of maintaining homeostasis for the entire family. Shimon spends all day in his room depressed and refuses to go to school, but he can also be understood as expressing unvoiced cynical attitudes toward life on behalf of his parents. The angrier his father gets, the more it distracts father from his own issues. Or an acting out child who cannot sit still, and has so-called ADHD, may have learned that doing outrageous stuff like writing on the walls, pulls his mother out of her shell and activates her. A depressed mom is much more frightening to a child than an angry mom.

Systems operate in classrooms as well. Consider this anecdote:

Imagine a well-intentioned rebbe who nevertheless drones on and on, and runs his class in such a way that he assumes his students should be automatically interested in his material. 

After the first 25 minutes or so, as the rebbe monotonously plods through the shiur, Shloime, the so-called “disciplinary problem”, starts to get restless. He makes funny noises, is told to quiet down. Of course he can’t fully control himself because he does have some anxiety and focus issues. Of course, there is disciplinary back-and-forth between Shloimie and Rebbe. As it escalates, all of this is entertaining to the other relatively well-behaved classmates. They have more self-control and they themselves won’t yet act out. This is especially true because they have come to unconsciously rely on Shloimie is providing much needed distraction and comic relief for the rest of the class. 

The Rebbe imagines that if only he could throw Shloimie out of the class, everything would go so much better, because after all, Shloimie is the one causing all the trouble. But here is the reality: Shloimie is simply the weakest link in the chain, so he’s the one who snaps first. If he was not in the class, the next weakest child would start to act out. If it takes 25 minutes for Shloimie to become bored and act out, it takes 30 minutes for Yaakov to do so. Looking at it this way, the problem is not the child, he is simply reacting to the problem. The problem is the Rebbe (and system) which does not understand the developmental needs of his students and wishes he was a Rosh Yeshiva giving a pilpul shiur. Even if the other children were respectful and well behaved, the problem doesn’t go away, it just stays submerged. Students may still be suffering, not learning as much as they should, developing hatred and revulsion toward Torah studies, and suffering in silence.  In this way, Shloime is not dysfunctional. In fact he is unconsciously martyring himself to allow for a dysfunctional educational system to operate.  

Just as we can see how the ox’s behavior can change based on ownership status, and what feelings are being projected by its possessor, we are all susceptible to the dynamics of our systems, be they family, work, shul or country. Thinking this way allows for broader, more humane, and quicker solutions because it allows for solutions that not only affect the disease but even the causes that operate on a mass level.  Although individual therapy is often a needed part of treatment, a good family session is worth many individual sessions because it goes past individual fears, and addresses deeper assigned roles and resistances stemming from the system.


True Sacrifice

Our Gemara on Amud Beis quotes a verse from Vayikra (1:2):

Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any amongst you presents an offering from cattle to Hashem, You shall choose your offering from the herd or from the flock.

Our Gemara derives various exclusions from the qualifiers in this verse (“from the…”, and “amongst”) to render certain animals as unfit for sacrifice, such as those used for immoral and indecent acts. 

You shall bring your offering from the cattle, even from the herd or from the flock” (Leviticus 1:2). The phrase “from the cattle” is mentioned to exclude an animal that engaged in bestiality and an animal that was the object of bestiality from eligibility to be brought as an offering. The phrase “from the herd” is mentioned to exclude an animal that had been worshiped as a god. “From the flock” is mentioned to exclude an animal that had been set aside for idol worship. The additional conjunction “or,” in the phrase “or from the flock” is mentioned to exclude an animal that gores a person, killing him.

There are many levels of interpretation in the Torah, and aside from this halakhic midrash, Mei Hashiloach, offers a deeper meaning. The exclusions and forms of unfitness are referring to states of devotion and readiness of the person, who is really the entity that is the sacrifice to God. When the verse uses the phrase “from amongst you”, it hints that it is the “you”, that must be cultivated into the sacrifice. In a deeper dimension, the excluded types of animals are also a representation of forms of animalistic distortions within human nature. So if one wants to become a living sacrifice, that is living devoted to God, forms of self worship, homicidal rage, and carnality must be confronted and expunged within oneself.  

Mei Shiloach notes that the first successful sacrifice brought in history was that of Hevel, and the verse has a redundancy that hints at this idea (Bereishis 4:4): “Hevel, also he, brought from the firstborn of his flock.”  The “also he” indicates that the main point is that Hevel was offering of himself.  

It has been said that it is easier to die sanctifying God’s name than to live by sanctifying God’s name. It is admirable to make a grand sacrifice at a moment in time, and surely there will be reward for that, yet to live in an ongoing manner of devotion and service is the essential sacrifice that furthers life and connection.


Also Known As

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the use of the Hebrew word “es”, which has no English translation, but signals an association between a significant object, and other less significant objects that are subsumed within the context. Thus, Rabbi Akiva famously derives from “Es Hashem Elokecha Tira” “Es Hashem your God you must fear” (Devarim 6:13), to include fear for Torah sages under the directive to fear God. That is, a less-significant related item, included within the object of focus.  Or in a more profane example, “es besaro – es its flesh” (Shemos 21:28) teaches that one cannot benefit even from the skin of the stoned ox.  That is, the skin is a secondary, less significant object included in the directive forbidding the stoned animal’s flesh.

Sefer Daf al Daf quotes the Hagahos of Rav Katzenellebogen (Berachos 13a) who uses this same idea about the word “es” to explain the difference between the changing of Avaraham’s name and Yitschok’s name.

By Avraham, it states (Bereishis 17:5): 

No longer shall your name be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for the father of a multitude of nations I have appointed you

By Yaakov, there are two separate verses, one where the angel renames Yaakov, and followed by God’s confirmation.

(Bereishis 32:39) states:

He [the angel] said, No longer will your name be spoken of as Yaakov, but as Yisrael, for you have contended with God[ly beings] and with men, and you have won.

And (ibid, 35:10):

[Hashem says,] Your name is Jacob, You shall be called Jacob no more, But Israel shall be your name.” Thus he was named Israel.

Gemara Berachos (13a) notes a distinction between Avraham and Yaakov:

תָּנֵי בַּר קַפָּרָא: כָּל הַקּוֹרֵא לְאַבְרָהָם ״אַבְרָם״ — עוֹבֵר בַּעֲשֵׂה. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְהָיָה שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָהָם״. רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר: עוֹבֵר בְּלָאו, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְלֹא יִקָּרֵא עוֹד [אֶת] שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָם״.

Also, with regard to Abraham’s name, bar Kappara taught: Anyone who calls Abraham Avram transgresses a positive commandment, as it is stated: “And your name will be Abraham” (Genesis 17:5). This is a positive mitzvah to refer to him as Abraham. Rabbi Eliezer says: One who calls Abraham Abram transgresses a positive commandment, as it is stated: “And your name shall no longer be called Abram, and your name will be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5).

אֶלָּא מֵעַתָּה הַקּוֹרֵא לְיַעֲקֹב ״יַעֲקֹב״ הָכִי נָמֵי?!

The Gemara asks: But if that is so, one who calls Jacob Jacob, about whom it is written: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel” (Genesis 32:29), also transgresses? (Yet we know this not to be the case!)

שָׁאנֵי הָתָם דַּהֲדַר אַהְדְּרֵיהּ קְרָא, דִּכְתִיב: ״וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמַרְאוֹת הַלַּיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב יַעֲקֹב״.

The Gemara answers: It is different there, as the verse reverts back, and God Himself refers to Jacob as Jacob, as it is written before his descent to Egypt: “And God said to Israel in the visions of the night, and said, Jacob, Jacob, and he said, ‘Here I am’” (Genesis 46:2).

Rav  Katzenellenbogen says this is why by Avraham the verse above uses “es” in regard to the name of Avram, to connote that even as a secondary name Avram will no longer be used, unlike with Yaakov.

This explains the what, but not the why. Why is Avraham’s name change permanent, but Yaakov’s name variable? Reflecting on the context, Avraham was the first Jew in a sense of devoting himself to the lost practices of monotheism, and being assured that his children were part of a special covenant. He was, effectively, a Ger. As our sages taught, “A Convert is like a newborn child” (Yevamos 62a). The implication is that a convert goes through a process of fully breaking from the past. This is what Avraham did. On the other hand, Yaakov’s name change represented an additional dimension to his life, effectively beginning the peoplehood of Israel. As such, he can alternate between personal and public destiny.

These two different paradigms of change and destiny are important to consider. Sometimes we reach a new level which necessitates a clean break from the past. Other times, we reach a new level that has application in one dimension of self, but integrates or alternates with other valid aspects.

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
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