Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav once told of a prince who suffered from delusions and thought he was a turkey. A wise man cured him by emulating his behavior: Crawling under the table, pecking at his food and behaving just like a turkey. Gradually, he began to ask the prince — “Can’t a turkey wear a shirt?” And, “Can’t a turkey eat with utensils?” In that way the wise man gradually brought the prince back to acknowledging his humanity.
As with all of Rabbi Nahman’s renowned tales, this has been interpreted in many ways, both theological and existential. But we should not overlook the tremendous psychological insight it offers. The noted humanist psychologist R.D. Laing once behaved very much like the wise man in Rabbi Nahman’s story. When faced with a naked schizophrenic woman rocking silently to and fro in a padded cell, Laing took off his own clothes and sat next to her, rocking to the same rhythm until she spoke for the first time in months.
Everyone needs another willing to enter her world. When we mirror each other, we acknowledge that reality takes many forms, and we reassure the sufferer that he is not alone.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe. His latest book, “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press), has recently been published.