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Jewish Therapy

Therapy is funny. I don’t mean “hah, hah” kind of funny, but instead a cocked-head quizzically peculiar kind of funny.

After all, therapy deals only with what is in the mind. It does not address anything that could claim to be objective reality; it is, instead, purely about the things inside a person’s head that limit the way they think or grow going forward. Therapy is, at least partially, about helping people become more mainstream, to find common ground with others in order to overcome one’s own challenges (think of twelve-step programs, or Weightwatchers). There is no doubt that much of it works – indeed, AA and Weightwatchers are among the most successful behavioral modification programs in human history.

The danger, of course, is when therapy goes off the deep end and become a form of naval-gazing, when one indefinitely treads water in one’s own mental muck. Therapists often help prolong the agony, of course: I remember an Onion headline from decades ago: “Psychologist Heals Someone.”

So there is the trick: how do we find ways to sort out what we feel, act in a manner that allows us to move beyond that thing, and then grow into the future? Therapists will make all manners of suggestions. But I’d like to make a more radical and yet deeply traditional suggestion: the Torah provides a healthy and constructive mechanism for therapy, and it happens through what we commonly translate as sacrifices.

Sacrifices are not, as we know from the prophets, something that G-d needs. They are what we need – in order to get our minds straight. Just like normal therapy, sacrifices are not there to change any external reality; they are all about finding a pathway to fulfillment and meaning.

The word the Torah uses that is usually translated as a “sacrifice” actually comes from the root meaning “come closer.” The first times it is found in the Torah are for geographical nearness (Gen. 12:11), then referring to Sarah laughing inside (Gen. 18:12): the word is all about proximity and even intimacy (Gen 20:3, when Abimelech had not “come near” Sarah).

The purposes of sacrifices are to find ways to get closer to G-d, and each of the “personal” sacrifices offered are there for therapeutic purposes. They each are there for reasons that we nowadays might use as part of marriage counseling:

  • Olah – an elevation offering. Expressing the desire to come nearer.
  • Shelamim – named after the word for “whole”, expressing gratitude.
  • Chatas – a sin offering, recognizing error and resolving to do better.
  • Asham – I might have done something wrong, and if I did, I am sorry!
  • Food/Drink – dedicating part of our labor and creativity to G-d.

This approach might help explain why an offered animal could not have a recognizable blemish: therapy ultimately seeks for people to see themselves not as uniquely troubled or blessed, but instead sharing our troubles or blessings with other people. Nobody had a special offering: when we offer gratitude or express our yearning or apologize for our sins, we see it as a way to find common ground with others, to see ourselves as individuals within a larger whole. It is a way of avoiding the mental muck of endless narcissistic naval gazing.

Indeed, Torah therapy is quite unlike tow worst modern therapies because the Torah requires a person to be involved within society; a sacrifice was a communal offering. In this way, sacrifices actually have more in common with marriage counseling, Weightwatchers and Alcoholics Anonymous: when we connect with others in our therapeutic process, then we are better able to get our minds straight, grow, and get one with our lives!

Comments are welcome!