In a previous article, we began to look at ways in which the central prayer of the Jewish service, the Shmoneh Esrei, reflects basic emotional themes with which we all deal. We made reference to the basic structure of the Shmoneh Esrei as it addresses God with blessings of praise, request and gratitude via 19 blessings. There we discussed the importance of infusing our judgments of our self and other with compassion.
Let's look at another one of the requests blessings, Ingathering of the Exiles. In the section of requests in the Shmoneh Esrei it states:
Sound a great shofar for our freedom, and raise a banner to gather our exiles, and gather us together from the four corners of the earth. Blessed are You, God, Who gathers in the dispersed of His people Israel.
In this blessing we ask God to sound a great shofar and gather the scattered exiles to the Land of Israel. The focus here is on the future when the shofar of freedom will sound and Jews from all over the world will come home together. At that point in history we will no longer be dependent on hostile or foreign powers for our safety. At the same time, there will be a heightened awareness of God among people throughout the world.
On a personal, psychological level this blessing can refer to gathering “exiled” ideas and feelings into the mainstream of our personality. When we deny or split off these aspects of ourselves we indeed limit our freedom to act in accordance with our true nature. When we can become aware of the different aspects of our personality, particularly what presently may feel to be our “darker side,” we then become freer to recognize options when faced with a challenge. Our actions become more self-directed and less reactive or defensive.
This issue was very apparent with one of my patients, Ricky (not his real name). He was a 12-year-old boy who was making everyone’s life very difficult. He picked on his older sister continually, he was disruptive in his seventh grade classroom, he stole from his father’s house (his parents were divorced when he was seven and father remarried a year later), and he continually whined to his mother.
His father told me “he needs to grow up, accept more responsibility and not be such a mama’s boy.” His mother said he needed to be understood and have more confidence to stand up to his demanding father. When I saw him, all he could talk about were his “stupid” teachers and his latest conquest on his video game. He claimed his life was “fine.” Forget about the fact he had no friends, ate excessively, chewed his fingernails to the quick and it took him over an hour to fall asleep each night.
Whenever I would get close to identifying his feelings of anger about the divorce, his confusion over the mixed messages from his parents, his jealousy toward his sister, or his own sense of weakness, Ricky became quite irritated and rolled his eyes. He insisted everything would be “fine” if people would just leave him alone, including me. He was trying to keep me at a distance the way he kept away others in his life. However, the essential distancing was from his own feelings of anger, sadness and jealousy. If he could create enough drama between himself and others, then he could effectively avoid how he really experienced his life.
Ricky injected a good deal of drama into our sessions. He would refuse to come into the office on a number of occasions; he had no problem sticking out his tongue at me and on occasion would simply ignore me. At times he would dramatically fall on the floor to demonstrate the “ridiculousness” of any statement I made that even approximated how he was feeling.
Ricky slowly “gathered in” his exiled sadness, jealousy and anger.
Yet I was persistent in focusing on Ricky’s fear of saying what was in his heart. I remained “curious” about his apparent need to keep me, and everyone else, at such a distance. I wondered aloud how he dealt with his loneliness. At first he thought this notion was “absolutely wacky.” That didn’t last too long. His tears betrayed him.
Coming to see me as an ally, and not an agent of either parent, was crucial in earning his trust. This was very hard, as his parents were so persistent in trying to recruit me to do battle against their former spouse. Yet as I consistently demonstrated my concern for Ricky, while pointing out his over reaction to my concern, he started to tentatively open up. Slowly Ricky “gathered in” his exiled sadness, jealousy and anger. He was eventually able to bring those feelings into the session and more important, into his own awareness outside our sessions. His unstated anticipation of becoming overwhelmed by discussing his feelings did not materialize and he gained more control and choice over his behavior. He felt less like an isolated person wandering in exile.
Making it Real
In everyday life we often lose sight of our more genuine feelings due to the smokescreens we put up within ourselves. Maybe I had a rough day at the office. My boss gave me a hard time because I was late on an assignment, or maybe he was just being too picky about the quality of my work. In any case, I felt angry and unappreciated. I was also worried that my job might be in jeopardy. Driving home I was particularly irritated by the traffic.
My entry at home was greeted by the announcement of my teenager that she had gotten into a fender bender. “Dad, it was not my fault.” I blow. I let her have it for being so irresponsible with the car. I push away my wife’s attempts to help as “intrusive.” “What’s eating you?!” my wife shot back. I’m fried. My stomach is in a knot and my neck is killing me. I tell them I need to go for a walk. They are thrilled with my suggestion.
Connecting with the feelings of fear and vulnerability that I had denied gave me a sense of being more grounded.
I try to a get a sense of all that is going on. I take some deep breaths. Okay, there is much more to this than the car or the traffic. I go back to the events earlier at the office and give myself some space to look at that. Yeah, I was pretty scared. I felt kind of small when the boss gave me a hard time. I knew that was a really old feeling for me. As I thought about it some more, I knew my job really was secure. My stomach and neck were beginning to return to normal.
I got in touch with what was eating me. Connecting with the feelings of fear and vulnerability that I had denied gave me a sense of being more grounded. I no longer had to divert myself from these feelings by zapping others. It was very helpful giving myself the space and time to look at what was really going on with me. It was also helpful to listen to my wife’s challenge to see what was eating me. Open-minded introspection and really listening to those close to us can be very helpful in situations like this.
I went back home, apologized and asked my wife for a hug. It’s not easy pushing away the smokescreen, but it is well worth it.
This is one example of using the Shmoneh Esrei for personal growth. Those interested in a fuller discussion of this may download my eBook, Psychotherapy and Prayer, Insights into Personal Growth thought the Shmoneh Esrei, at www.drjlast.com.