Changing our Minds; Torah Style

by Sara Schwartz-Gluck

“Ezra, would you lend Elisha one of your extra pencils for today?” The teacher looks expectantly at her fourth grade student. Ezra frowns. He doesn’t feel like loaning his pencil to anyone, especially not to Elisha, and especially not after Elisha did not include him in the basketball game last recess. Why should he do a favor for Elisha, when all Elisha has done today is made him feel excluded? Ezra shrugs. He feels his hand tighten around the extra, freshly sharpened pencils on his desk. There is no way that Elisha will get anything from him, he decides. Even if it means that he won’t get to play with the popular kids at all. 

How do we teach our children to break the cycle of hurtful behavior? How do we show them that by perpetuating acts of intolerance, they are damaging their peer relationships? At South Shore Cognitive Therapy. we place an emphasis on evidence-based treatments and methods that are supported by research, we tend to look towards scientific sources in order to learn about psychological theory. However, the truth is, that as observant Jews, our Torah knowledge plays a large role in helping us understand how people work. Torah knowledge actually predates the modern day theorists, philosophers, and scientists. For instance, the fundamental concept at the core of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, that our thoughts and beliefs impact our decisions and behavior, is clearly stated in several primary Jewish texts.

Both Torah and science seem to agree on several key components of change:

  1. Our thoughts impact our feelings, which in turn, impact our actions, as part of a cyclical process.
  2. It is possible to change ourselves by changing our thoughts or actions (our feelings will then follow)
  3. When we use cognitive change to alter our thoughts and actions, we are able to stop our self-defeating patterns and get closer to reaching our goals.

How would all this help Ezra, in the example above?

The Torah commands us to refrain from bearing grudges or from taking revenge ‘Lo Tikom’ (Vayikra, 19:18) The Sefer Hachinuch, which provides insight into the reasoning behind the 613 commandments, recognizes how difficult it can be to forgive people who have hurt us. Why would we just move on? And how can we forget the hurtful things that people have said or done? The Sefer Hachinuch (Commandments 241 and 242) recommends that one engage in a specific set of thoughts when they are wronged: Imagine that everything that happens is purposeful. The person who wronged us- he was merely the conduit for the hurt that we were meant to experience. Of course, the person who excluded us or stole or gossiped was wrong, and they failed a personal spiritual challenge of their own. However, our thought process, the Sefer Hachinuch seems to argue, should be focused on what we can control (our own actions) rather than on what we can’t control (the actions of others). The Torah seems to be clearly stating that we can change how we feel and how we act, and that it all starts with altering our thoughts.

Cognitive Therapists would tend to support the constructs within the Sefer Hachinuch. Aaron Beck, the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, identified several thinking patterns (called Cognitive Distortions) that are categorically damaging to people. Some examples of distorted thinking include blaming and all or nothing thinking. Blaming involves focusing on who is to blame for a problem, rather than on how to solve the problem. When we blame something or someone, we usually have a skewed perception of how much they are responsible for what happened- we forget to notice the other factors that may have contributed to the problem. All or Nothing Thinking involves seeing situations or people in terms of black or white (good or bad) without seeing the entire picture, one that may include some good and some bad.

How Thoughts Create Change

Ezra may be using some unhealthy thinking patterns, such as blaming Elisha for all of his problems during recess. If he stops to think about it, Ezra may realize that he is very shy, and he didn’t actually ask to be part of the game. Elisha happened not to invite him to play, but maybe he just didn’t realize that Ezra wanted to. That hurts a lot. But maybe Ezra should’ve spoken up instead of just standing there. Ezra looks up at his teacher and nods. “I have a pencil for Elisha.” His voice shakes. But he hands Elisha that pencil, knowing that Elisha wasn’t entirely at fault.

When Ezra learns to use cognitive therapy in order to change his tendency to hold a grudge, he increases his chances at social success. Instead of starting a fight with his peers, and then mindlessly staying in a cycle of resentment and anger, Ezra may learn to think clearly and communicate effectively. Next recess time, he may have an increased chance of being invited to play basketball- since he has shown his peers that despite his past behavior, he is capable of being friendly.

How Actions Create Change

After a long morning of serious hard work, the recess bell finally rings. Meira is so excited to get some fresh air that she runs to be first on line. She barely notices stepping on backpacks and shoving the other girls out of the way. All she can think about is finding the jump rope and being the leader of the next game.

Children are often unaware of how their actions affect those around them. They may not have bad intentions; rather, they may overlook the needs of their peers accidentally. They may be simply focused on how they feel. How can we teach our children to feel empathy? According to the Cognitive Model in psychology, we can break a bad cycle of behavior by changing either our thoughts or actions. And according to Judaic philosophy, changing one’s actions can be an effective first step in changing one’s self. For instance, the Sefer Hachinuch (Commandment 16), in describing the instructions for eating the korban Pesach mentions that it is forbidden to break any of the animal bones. The reason for this, the Sefer Hachinuch states, is that “a person will become like his actions, and his heart and thoughts will reflect the things that he does.” While children may not intuitively feel empathic and sensitive toward one another, they CAN be taught to pay attention to the needs and feelings of others.

 Meira can learn to make sure that she doesn’t physically hurt her classmates or damage their stuff. She can be encouraged to step around those knapsacks on the floor, and to respect her classmates’ personal space. Just like eating animal sacrifices in a dignified manner can have an effect on our personal dignity, acting with empathy can teach us to feel and think more kindly. Through being more careful with her actions, Meira will end up thinking about how to consider the needs of others when making decisions.

Torah sources and cognitive behavioral theory each elaborate on practical strategies for increasing skills such as communication, empathy, and frustration tolerance. While people often see individual or group therapy as solutions to interpersonal problems, therapists may also be helpful in preventing those problems from arising in the first place. Psychotherapy may be a great way to supplement academic education with social and emotional education for both children and adults.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *